Colleges concerned about the addictive potential of gambling face an uphill battle against its glamorized image. Think ESPN's all-out coverage of poker tournaments or the parade of movies: Now it's "21," about six students beating the house in Vegas; 10 years ago, the popular film "Rounders" featured Matt Damon as a law student and high-stakes poker player.
Whether it's in dorm rooms or at a "casino night" fundraiser, gambling pervades college campuses. And more schools are starting to take notice of the problems it can spawn.
In Missouri, for example, a coalition of 12 schools is working hard to reach out to students about gambling. They're starting to address betting through orientations and health surveys. They're training financial-aid officers to ask about gambling debts if a student requests an emergency loan. And earlier this month, they promoted an educational website (Keeping the Score) with giveaways during National Problem Gambling Awareness Week.
Silence is still too often the response to the surge of gambling on campus, prevention advocates say, but they see hopeful signs of change in nascent efforts like these around the country.
Teachable moments abound. Colleges and universities should "take on a responsibility to provide information about the law, to challenge students to think about their own ethics and values ... to be sure they understand where they can go if they think they might have a problem," says George McClellan, vice chancellor for student affairs at Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne.
Forty percent of 18- to 22-year-olds gambled monthly in 2007, according to the Annenberg Public Policy Center in Pennsylvania. That percentage actually represents a decline from 2006, thanks in part to a federal law that curtailed Internet gambling. Still, last year, about 5 percent gambled weekly and had problems such as spending more money than they planned.
The numbers could rise again as people find ways around restrictions to gambling online, experts say. Historically, new waves of gambling have met societal pushback, but "the pushback never took [participation] back to where it was prewave," says Mr. McClellan, editor of "Gambling on Campus," a collection of articles.
McClellan has seen the "devastating" consequences firsthand. "I had a student who came to me for protection because others were threatening him around money he owed," he says. Others stole from roommates, student groups, and even academic departments.
Shannon Shorr remembers seeing e-mails about the dangers of gambling as a freshman at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, in 2003, but he wanted in on the poker boom. He started "$5 house games" with friends and quickly moved into Internet poker.
"I lost about $3,500 online, and that's a ton for college kid who didn't have much income," he says. Then he won $200,000 in a tournament and quit school to play full time. He says he wants to finish his degree soon, but he still plans to make a living from poker. Having seen the "brutal lows" of the gambling scene, though, he doesn't recommend it to others: "It's hypocritical for me to say, 'Stay in school – don't quit to play poker,' but I absolutely think you should stay in school," he says.
"They all think they're professional poker players," but the longer they play, the more they'll lose, says Arnie Wexler, a former gambling addict in New Jersey who gives talks and operates a counseling hot line. In the past few years, "one-third of all my calls ... are coming in from students from the age of 12 to 25 or the parents." One mother said her son is eligible for a college scholarship but he wants play poker instead.
There isn't enough help at colleges for the shame, stress, and isolation that problem gamblers can experience, Mr. Wexler and others say. At least one school, however – Texas Tech University in Lubbock – hosts Gamblers Anonymous meetings.
Studies show that the earlier people start risky behaviors such as drinking or gambling, the more likely they are to develop an addiction, says Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling (help line: 800-522-4700).
In a survey of 119 colleges, only 22 percent had a gambling policy, Harvard researchers found in 2005. But more schools are paying heed. When the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling started offering training to college administrators three years ago, four schools participated. Now, it's up to 20. The National Collegiate Athletic Association also stepped up efforts after a 2003 survey that showed rampant gambling among student athletes.
Even at the University of Missouri, Columbia, where some innovations have taken place, it hasn't been easy to make a comprehensive policy. Kristy Wanner, gambling-prevention coordinator for the coalition of 12 Missouri schools, has brought together people from Greek organizations, residential life, the student conduct office, and other groups to discuss the matter. They don't plan a zero-tolerance approach but might regulate things like charity gambling.
They're also considering replacing casino nights – popular alcohol-free entertainment – with multiple-game events. "It's kind of reframing it in a way where it's not just Las Vegas night," Ms. Wanner says.