Not How Students’ Brains Work

Inside Higher Ed has a piece on a report (PDF) released yesterday that takes aim at gambling on campus and how to curb it, an important task given that between 3 and 11 percent of college students have serious gambling problems. The report included ten recommendations “aimed at reframing how institutions tackle gambling issues.”

This didn’t make sense to me, though:

George S. McClellan, vice chancellor for student affairs at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, said “all the recommendations are spot on” and in line with the ideas being considered and implemented at institutions across the United States.

For colleges to effect real change in students’ attitudes, he said, they must adopt “an ethical and consistent framework on gambling,” something suggested in the report. “If the college takes lottery money to fund scholarships, if it takes gaming money to support scholarships, if it allows the licensing of its logo on poker table … then there’s a gap between what we say and what we do and students will head through that in an eyeblink.”

While it’s probably not good as a matter of principle for colleges to take funds from these sources, I’m skeptical about any link between these activities and student gambling addiction rates. If a college kid is sitting bleary-eyed at his computer at 5 a.m. on a 16-hour online Texas Hold ‘Em binge, does it make sense that this would have anything to do with whether or not his school takes lottery money or slaps its logo on poker tables? Nope. He’s addicted to poker because at some point someone introduced him to poker, it has a certain effect on his brain due to certain features of said brain, and neurology cruelly took over from there.

That’s not to say that you can’t impact students by making an effort to explicitly and forcefully define what is and isn’t harmful behavior, and to have these definitions perpetuate through the students’ social networks, but this seems pretty far removed from sponsorship and lottery funding arrangements.

Jesse Singal

Jesse Singal is a former opinion writer for The Boston Globe and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. He is currently a master's student at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Policy. Follow him on Twitter at @jessesingal.