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Targeting Student Gambling

As gambling rates rise on campus, schools are taking a harder look at the consequences and searching for solutions.
University Business, Jan 2008

TWO YEARS AGO A JUNIOR FROM THE UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA TOOK home $41,000 in scholarship funds, the top prize from the second annual College Poker Championship. That December, a sophomore at Lehigh University (Pa.) -who happened also to be the class president and the son of a minister- robbed a bank in the nearby town of Allentown to get money for a $5,000 gambling debt.

The two students could well serve as poster boys for the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat in the current gambling surge on campuses around the country. Fueled by prime time TV coverage of professional poker tournaments and the omnipresent lure of gambling over the internet, student gambling rates have increased sharply over the past decade. And, say experts in the field, odds are that those rates are on the rise at your institution-as are gambling-related problems.

"Gambling has become a lot more accepted over the past 20 years, with the increase in casinos and lotteries and the advent of television coverage and online gaming," explains Dan Romer at The Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. Romer, director of the annual Annenberg Survey, isn't even counting the betting explosion surrounding the annual NCAA basketball tournament every March.

The 2005 Annenberg Risk Survey of Youth attracted national attention when it revealed this: almost half of the male and a quarter of the female students questioned said that they had bet on card games at least once a month, and 5 percent admitted to being in debt as a consequence.

The problems didn't stop there. Fifteen percent of the men added that they had gambled at cards at least once a week, and half of that group admitted to social consequences, such as becoming more isolated or having problems with relationships, of the gambling habit. Weekly betting on the internet, meanwhile, had quintupled between 2002 and 2005.

"Several years ago I would have had no clue that gambling was a wellness issue," admits Kim Dude, director of the Wellness Center at the University of Missouri-Columbia, which now includes gambling on its watch list for addictive behaviors and has launched a comprehensive gambling education and counseling initiative.

"It's one of the earliest risk behaviors," says Romer. "Kids play games of chance even before drinking or smoking."

Depending on which experts you consult, an estimated 4 to 8 percent of college students are at a high risk for problem gambling. "Although card games are not inherently bad, they need to be balanced with an understanding of the addiction risks," notes Elizabeth George, the CEO of the North American Training Institute, an organization based in Duluth, Minn., that produces curricula and training materials on gambling problems and prevention.

And while the percentage of problem gamblers in college may not match those of students with drug or alcohol problems, the number of problem gamblers is beginning to multiply, and some schools are taking serious notice. "At a school like Missouri with 28,000 students, even if 2 percent say they're gambling three or more times a week, that adds up to 500, and that's pretty significant," says Kristy Wanner, the university's gambling prevention coordinator.

"There's a real need to call attention on the part of higher education and student affairs people," says George McClellan, the vice chancellor for student affairs at Indiana University- Purdue University Fort Wayne. "There's a real disconnect between how much is going on with students and those of us who need to be knowing."

"The gaming industry will tell you that one of their biggest target groups is college students," says McClellan, who edited Gambling on Campus (Jossey-Bass, 2006), a collection of scholarly articles ranging from "Implications of the Poker Craze" to "Sports Wagering." He continues: "Look at how they advertise."

Sure enough, a Google search on the keywords "poker" and "college" almost instantly produces a site where an attractive young woman waves a fistful of hundred dollar bills, alongside the announcement "Pay Your College Tuition!" Other sites offer testimonials from students who have gotten rich quick or who provide guides to legal and illegal gambling in various college towns.

It's not surprising that colleges are fertile ground for gambling, in person or online. "For the first time, young people are out on their own," George explains. "They have freedom to spend in ways that they haven't before. They see the excitement, appeal, and intrigue of such things as Texas hold 'em poker, and they have the wherewithal to participate."

And while the traditional student poker game dates back as far as anyone can remember, McClellan notes that gambling has taken on unprecedented dimensions. "Besides a greater percentage of students gambling, there's been an increase in the intensity, the size of bets, and the duration of the sessions. And while it used to be that how cool you were depended on your fraternity or who you hung out with, now what poker game you are in and how big your bets are have become part of the social pecking order."

That phenomenon has become evident even at the University of Nevada, Reno, which has long operated in a community where gambling is a way of life and the dominant industry. Garry Rubinstein, the coordinator of the school's Substance Abuse Program and a counselor at the school for almost 30 years, has seen gambling abuse increase recently.

"It probably wasn't until Texas hold 'em became a fixture on television," he says. "I know more people have acknowledged pathological compulsive gambling than ever before. I have a lot of students tell me they owe a lot of money because of internet gambling." Last year, Rubinstein says, he referred more than 50 students for treatment to a certified gambling counselor.

Those involved in gambling education say that signs of a problem may be hard to spot. "Typically people with drinking problems get found out more quickly, through their involvement in a fight or a DUI conviction. Gambling is more of a silent addiction," observes Wanner of Missouri, who points to personal experience.

"My ex-boyfriend started playing poker, and it reached 40 hours a week," she says. "I knew it was not good, but I didn't put two and two together. It's amazing how complacent you can be."

The naivete can extend to institutional levels as well, Wanner warns. "A student may say, 'I need an emergency loan,' but the financial aid officer isn't asking 'What are your gambling habits?' "

Colleges themselves may be sending an unintended message when they sanction seemingly harmless casino nights or license their logos for use on poker tables and chips. Noting that the NCAA basketball tournament is the single biggest gambling event of the year, McClellan says that the responsible adults on campus need to minister to themselves first.

"Before any of us throws our name into a pool, we need to think about what we are doing," he suggests. "Are we including friendly wagers for football games this weekend?" adds Rubinstein.

Spurred by the Wellness Center at Missouri-Columbia's own survey results-which showed that 60 percent of the student body gambled and that almost 13 percent reported a significant loss of time and 12 percent a significant loss of money-administrators put together a campus gambling task force that included those responsible for Greek and residence life, student activities, athletics, financial aid, and information technology.

Director Kim Dude notes that all were stakeholders in the growing gambling problems on campus and that they could be part of the solution-from rethinking the card tournaments and casino nights that had become routine social activities, to becoming more alert to unusual student withdrawals from financial aid accounts, to reminding student athletes of the seriousness of gambling under NCAA rules, even to considering whether to block online gambling sites from the campus computer network.

A year ago, Wanner-a PhD candidate in health education and promotion-came on as the school's first gambling prevention coordinator and began organizing training workshops for most counseling, financial aid, and student affairs officers as well as resident assistants and many faculty.

Keeping the Score, a comprehensive new website, offers Gambling 101, a primer in various gambling activities, as well as the differences between healthy and unhealthy gambling behaviors. The site also provides tips for safer gambling, resources for help, and information for parents and educators in spotting and responding to problem gambling.

Wanner also has approached students through a series of presentations early in the school year at residence halls, fraternities, and sororities, as well as holding gambling awareness events around campus.

Last year her office distributed pens with the new website's address and decks of cards and poker chips embossed with messages such as "Keep your shirt" and "Don't go all in."

"To educate college students, you have to get their attention," Wanner insists. She adds that it's helped to share resources with Missouri's other state colleges and universities through the consortium Partners in Prevention, which originally focused on alcohol and drug abuse but has expanded to problem gambling.

A number of other schools around the country are mobilizing as well. The University of Alabama at Birmingham has established its own gambling action team, website, and annual symposia, with a special emphasis on college sports betting. One brochure distributed to student athletes warns, "You bet, you lose." The school's 2006 symposium was entitled, "A Punt, a Dunk and a Bet: An Inside Look at College Sports Gambling."

Since 2006, Oregon State University has partnered with the Oregon Department of Human Services to provide education and counseling services. The University of Texas at Austin includes on its gambling website a 20-question self-test that covers areas from compulsive tendencies and financial losses to effects on mood and relationships.

And the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling is working with 17 colleges and universities on creating programs of their own. For the past three years the group has offered training, guidance on developing policies, and a menu of approaches-from public awareness campaigns to RA training.

Still, say experts such as Annenberg Survey director Dan Romer and Indiana/Purdue's McClellan, effective awareness and treatment programs are few and far between. And Jim Wuelfing, the prevention director for the Massachusetts council, admits that he is only reaching a small fraction of the 120 higher education facilities that his organization has targeted.

Schools trying to cope with gambling on campus have received some good news recently. The latest Annenberg Survey, released in October, showed a decline in the amount of weekly card playing, suggesting that the popularity of poker may have peaked for now. Internet gambling also decreased, thanks-Romer figures-to new federal legislation prohibiting credit card payments to the offshore companies that operate the sites, although he adds that those companies have become adept at circumventing the law. For instance, some gambling sites can process the balances on telephone calling cards.

McClellan, who has chronicled four waves in the history of gambling in the United States-from colonial times to the 21s century-cautions that most of the latest increase in gambling is here to stay. "When a wave comes along it recedes, but never as far as before it started," he observes.

And Missouri's Kristy Wanner is concerned that gambling has not become enough of a priority for overextended counseling centers. "If you're not looking for it, gambling can be easy not to see," she says. "The danger now is that it isn't on the radar."

GAMBLING DOES MORE FOR COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES THAN create problems. It has become a central focus in some programs, such as at the Institute for the Study of Gambling and Financial Gaming at the University of Nevada, Reno, which is part of the college of business administration, and at the International Gaming Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, which belongs to its college of hotel administration.

Located in the only state with virtually no restrictions on gambling, both institutes are considered leaders in business and regulation practices and gambling research, and they work closely with the gambling industry around them. Both also produce related publications, such as Reno's Casino Credit and Collection, Practical Casino Math, and Indian Gaming and the Law, and UNLV's Gaming Research and Review Journal.

While both Reno and UNLV also study problem gambling, that is the full-time mission of The Institute for Gambling Education and Research (TIGER) at The University of Memphis (Tenn.). TIGER is developing assessment instruments and treatments for problem gambling. The University of Denver runs a Problem Gambling Treatment and Research Center that places master's and doctoral students in clinical settings specifically to work with problem gamblers and their families.

The newly founded Global Poker Strategic Thinking Society (GPSTS) takes a less traditional academic approach to gambling. The group was started last year by a Harvard Law School professor to capitalize on the connections between poker and strategic thinking, geopolitical analysis, risk assessment, and money management, and to leverage the appeal of poker playing to today's students.

GPSTS held its first conference, dubbed "Innovative Thinking: The Educational Value of Poker," in November. According to its website, the organization of students and professors is developing chapters at Harvard, UCLA, Brown, Stanford, Carnegie Mellon (Pa.), Cornell, the University of Michigan, and the George Washington University (D.C.).

Your best bet with student gambling, those concerned with the issue say, is to take it seriously and to develop ways to deal with it.

The Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling's Jim Wuelfing teaches that an effective response begins with having a sound policy and that the absence of policies for behaviors such as drug and alcohol abuse and problem gambling is itself a risk factor.

When it comes to developing that policy, Wuelfing and others advise, say what you mean, and mean what you say. "Get your values and ethics consistent with your actions," insists George McClellan of Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. "You have to explicitly say, 'You can't gamble using our facilities or our computer network.'"

"You also need procedures and protocols," adds Wuelfing. "If you say that students cannot gamble illegally in your residence halls, how are you going to deal with it if they do?"

As far as educating the student body and screening for possible gambling problems, even small counseling departments can be effective.

"I think they can do a lot by just warning students, like they warn them about drinking and sex," says the Annenberg Center for Public Policy's Dan Romer. While the first week of a term may be a logical time to share those warnings, some counselors suggest waiting a few weeks so they do not get buried in the information overload of orientation.

Garry Rubinstein of the University of Nevada, Reno, says that the original health questionnaires students receive can be especially valuable if you ask the right questions. "They can be as simple as, 'Do you gamble?' 'Do you play cards form money?' 'How often?' 'How much time a week do you spend?'"

The University of Missouri-Columbia's gambling prevention coordinator, Kristy Wanner, also suggests that colleges send their counselors to specialized workshops on gambling that include training in making referrals. The North American Training Institute's Elizabeth George agrees. "Colleges may not be expected to be the gambling addiction counselor, but they can know where to find one."

Ron Schachter is a Boston-based freelance writer who covers sports for National Public Radio.

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