On Campus

American students bet on grades

Website to take wagers on university performance, but is it gambling?

A new website is taking wagers from students at U.S. colleges who want to bet on their own grades. Just as Las Vegas sports books set odds on sporting events, Ultrinsic will pay top dollar for A’s, a little less for the more likely outcome of a B average or better, and so on. Students can also wager they will fail a class by buying what Ultrinsic calls “grade insurance.”

The site is taking wagers from students at 36 colleges nationwide starting this month. CEO Steven Wolf insists this is not online gambling, which is technically illegal in the United States, because wagers with Ultrinsic involve skill. “The students have 100 per cent control over it, over how they do. Other people’s stuff you bet on — your own stuff you invest in,” Wolf says. “Everything’s true about it, I’m just trying to say that the underlying concept is a little bit more than just making a bet — it’s actually an incentive.”

Here’s how Wolf says the website works: A student registers, uploads his or her schedule and gives Ultrinsic access to official school records. The New York-based site then calculates odds based on the student’s college history and any information it can dig up on the difficulty of each class, the topic and other factors. The student decides how much to wager up to a cap that starts at $25 and increases with use.

Alex Winter, a 20-year-old about to start his junior year majoring in economics at the University of Pennsylvania, says he placed wagers through Ultrinsic after getting a flier on campus. “I said, ‘OK, that sounds like an easy way to make money,’ so I signed up,” says Winter, who bet $20 to $50 each on six of the 10 classes he took last year and cleared $150 overall.

Legal definitions of gambling in the U.S. usually list three elements — chance, some sort of fee or wager and a prize, says I. Nelson Rose, a gambling law expert and professor at Whittier Law School in California. Carnival games offer prizes for a fee, but skill is ostensibly required to win. Contests advertised on cereal boxes offer prizes and winners are chosen by chance, but the box always says “no purchase necessary.”

With Ultrinsic, things are less clear. “It’s not entirely within the control of the (player),” Rose says, offering the example of a professor of his who gave everyone A’s after learning he wouldn’t be considered for tenure. Another teacher could be equally capricious in handing out C’s. “But it is mostly within their control.” Still, a common test to determine the role of skill — whether you can purposely lose — seems to apply to Ultrinsic, Rose says. “Certainly, you could have crappy grades.”

Colleges may not be able to limit use of Ultrinsic, just as they face significant obstacles steering students away from other potential dangers outside class, like binge drinking or unsafe sex. A spokesman for Penn declined comment, as did a spokeswoman for the University of California, Berkeley. An NYU spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Wolf hopes to attract about 100 students per school — 3,600 in all — this academic year. Whether they win will be their choice, he says. “There’s definitely a lot of variables, but the biggest variable is how much effort the student wants to put in,” Wolf says. “In general, if anybody would study 10 hours a day consistently for one class, they would get whatever grade they wanted to get.”

The Canadian Press

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