What return can students expect on the thousands of dollars invested in their college educations? Preparation for a professional path, maybe. Self-enrichment, others say.
A Web site called Ultrinsic tries to make the rewards of studying more immediate. Students can make a small bet on how well they’ll do in a course, with a starting limit of $25 on how much they can earn. The students contribute a chunk of the money, and Ultrinsic puts up the rest. If they make the grade, they win it all. If they don’t, the students lose what they put in. And the higher students set their sights for their own academic performance, the bigger the payoff.
“I know at times it’s tough to study,” said Jeremy Gelbart, Ultrinsic’s president and a December graduate of Queens College of the City University of New York. “You want something now for it, not just a job in the future.”
Questions have been raised about the site’s legality, though, and whether it falls into the category of online gambling. Mr. Gelbart dismissed such concerns. To be considered gambling, an activity must rely on chance, he said, arguing that the bets students make on Ultrinsic depend on skill. “It’s completely within their control what grades they get,” he said. “If you study harder, you’ll do well.”
Mr. Gelbart came up with the idea for Ultrinsic with Steven Wolf, another recent graduate of Queens College, about three years ago. In 2009, they piloted the idea with a different model that put students in the same course in direct competition with each other. Last year, about 600 students from the University of Pennsylvania and New York University, the first two campuses where the company’s most recent iteration became available, made wagers on Ultrinsic.
The company is expanding to 36 more campuses this fall, and it now has a staff of 10 people. Ultrinsic is funded by private investors, Mr. Gelbart said. He declined to disclose how much the company made last year at Penn and NYU.