Grade Gambling

Ashley Thorne

Elementary and high school students have long expected rewards from their parents for good grades. Urban schools in DC took parenting upon themselves a couple years ago and began paying students for attendance, good behavior, and high grades. Today, college students have the chance to reap their own rewards. Students at 36 colleges and universities can now gamble on their grades—good or bad—through a website called Ultrinsic (an “ULTerior motivation that produces intRINSIC love of knowledge”), reports AP.  

The 36 include Ivy Leagues Harvard and Princeton, as well as the Mormon Brigham Young University and the Historically Black Howard University. These schools seem to have been chosen for their prestige and not because they make A’s and B’s at all elusive. Princeton University has taken steps in recent years to fight grade inflation, but elsewhere, good grades are relatively easy to come by.

Ultrinsic has a monetary stake in raising academic standards; as “the house,” it has a real interest in making sure A’s are earned with difficulty. But the website confines its stated mission to the student side of grades: “The right amount of cash should provide you with the needed motivation to pull all-nighters and stay awake during the lectures of your most boring professors.”

Blogger Joanne Jacobs is skeptical about this business model: “Frankly, I don’t see how Ultrinsic can win, especially in an era of grade inflation. Good students know how much effort is needed to get an A.” She adds, “As for ‘grade insurance,’ a student who thinks he’s going to fail a class would save more money by not taking it in the first place.”

I can see it now—a student who gambles on failing and grumbles when he gets a C- instead. On the flip side, students who bet on A’s and miss the mark are more likely to complain and cajole the professor to change their grades than those who have no bet to lose. Professors at these 36 universities, prepare for some amped-up whining: “But I bet that I’d get an A and you only gave me a B+. Do you know how much money I’m going to lose?” As with all gambling, a desperate loser will take drastic measures. 

The emergence of this new venture could a sign of the times: perhaps it means higher education has become a wager. To win is to game the system. Learning anything is a bonus. 

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