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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Borde-nough: Rolling the ’Deis on grades shouldn’t be encouraged

Published: August 27, 2010
Section: Opinions

GRAPHIC BY Ariel Wittenberg/The Hoot

This semester, unless Brandeis or state officials intervene, a new company, Ultrinsic Motivator, Inc., will begin to turn this school (along with a few dozen of its peers) into a demonstration of the basis for laws restricting gambling.

But if the world might benefit from such a demonstration, the reputations of Brandeis and other major universities would be badly harmed. By establishing a link between cash payments and students’ letter grades, Ultrinsic and its competitors threaten to create both real impropriety and an appearance of it that are beneath the dignity of higher education.

Ultrinsic, which markets its services through the website, provides undergraduates with ways to bet money on the grades they’ll receive. A student must first register with the company, providing Ultrinsic with information about his or her academic history and current class schedule. That gives Ultrinsic the data it uses to calculate the odds of a student achieving a particular grade or set of grades.

Students then choose one of two ways in which to risk their money. One possibility is Ultrinsic’s “Rewards” program. Students may bet on either a course grade or a semester grade.

A gambler who makes the grades wins a sum specified at the time of the wager. Ultrinsic makes money when students don’t make the grades they bet on. Wager options available through the “Rewards” program are characterized as “incentives.”

For less motivated, less capable or incredibly foolhardy students, Ultrinsic offers “Grade Insurance.” Purchasers bet that they will get a poor grade or set of grades. Ultrinsic pays a specified sum if the insured’s grades are bad enough; it makes money if the insured scores well.

Ultrinsic began operations last year at New York University and the University of Pennsylvania. This year, it plans to operate at 34 new schools, including Brandeis.

The institutions at which the company will market its services include most of the best schools in the country. That’s by design.

Ultrinsic relies on these schools’ statistically confirmed reputation for maintaining a meaningful distribution of grades. They aren’t schools where everybody gets an A.

Students at Ultrinsic’s target schools are used to competing for high grades and running the risk of failure. This competition, which doesn’t exist at all American colleges, gives Ultrinsic’s bookmakers something to work with.

Legal issues surrounding Ultrinsic’s activities have the potential to seriously limit the scope of its business. With respect to both gambling and the sale of insurance, what’s legal varies from state to state. Ultrinsic will likely be challenged by state attorneys general and gaming or insurance regulators.

But for Brandeis and other schools, what matters is not whether Ultrinsic is legal, but whether it is a desirable thing to have on campus. It isn’t.

The company’s effort to portray itself as a purveyor of “incentives” and “motivation” for undergraduates is self-serving and misleading. If that were Ultrinsic’s aim, it would not offer “grade insurance,” which rewards failure.

Moreover, if financial incentives encourage better student performance, then the massive burden of paying for college, whether borne by a student or imposed on his or her family, would surely count for much more than a bet in the tens or hundreds of dollars of the sort that Ultrinsic contemplates. The same could be said of the weak job market, or the trend toward outsourcing the white-collar jobs that graduates covet to low-wage American contractors and foreigners.

But even if Ultrinsic motivates some students to do better, it is incompatible with the maintenance of high academic standards at schools like Brandeis.

Unlike students’ existing financial inducements to hard work, with Ultrinsic, the specific grade awarded to a student determines whether money changes hands. A school’s whole system for evaluating student work will then be compromised by the appearance of impropriety.

Students at prestigious schools may often disagree with an awarded grade, but they generally have no basis on which to conclude that grades were awarded unfairly. Ultrinsic will change that.

Few professors or teaching assistants will stoop to the level of accepting students’ kickbacks for grades that will ensure a payout from Ultrinsic. But Ultrinsic places more leverage in the hands of bribe-givers, creating a greater opportunity for wrongdoing.

The appearance of impropriety thus created will be compounded immeasurably if even one venal student bettor pays an impecunious grader and receives a mark unfairly.

If just one grade is revealed to have been sold in this way, a school’s whole grading system will be compromised. The ones who get caught will seem to be just that—merely the ones who got caught, the tip of the iceberg. Ultrinsic’s money increases the likelihood of such a scandal.

Brandeis and its peers shouldn’t allow Ultrinsic to jeopardize their reputations. Grade-gambling companies’ books are perhaps the only kind that shouldn’t be welcome at a university.