All In

Gambling grows as a "silent" addiction for college students

George McClellan still remembers the exact moment he realized gambling might be a problem with the students at his college.

“It was the early 1990s, and I was using one of those Internet Bulletin Boards to look up something about how to play Blackjack better,” says McClellan, vice chancellor for Student Affairs at Indiana University-Purdue University in Fort Wayne, Ind. “I came across an e-mail from someone on a discussion board asking about high stakes Texas hold ’em strategy, and the person was using our school’s e-mail address. Lo and behold, it was a student living in the dorms. That’s when it dawned on me. Until then, it never occurred to me that students might gamble.”

Today, with the expansion of tribal and land-based casinos across the United States, networks like ESPN televising wildly popular national poker tournaments, the advent of online gambling and a culture where wagering money has never been more commonplace or acceptable, college students are gambling in record numbers.

“I think that with the Internet, gambling is way more accessible to kids. I know kids that started gambling on the Internet at the age of 15,” said St. Thomas junior Alex Koch, a business marketing major who gambles once or twice a month. “There is a certain high you get when you win a big hand. I can see how it can become addicting, especially to kids my age.”

Studies indicate almost 25 percent of 18-to-22-year-olds in America are involved in some form of gambling on a weekly basis, and anywhere from 5 to 9 percent of college-aged men and 1 to 2 percent of women consider themselves problem gamblers or addicts.

“College students today are among the first generation of youth to grow up in a culture of widespread, legalized gambling,” said Kristy Wanner, gambling prevention coordinator at the University of Missouri’s Wellness Resource Center. “The advancement of Internet and television gambling, changes in gambling laws, greater accessibility to money and culture influences are creating not only financial problems for students, but also difficulties with academics, friends and family.”

Koch, who says he first started playing Texas hold ’em with friends as a high school freshman, is planning a trip to Las Vegas to celebrate his 21st birthday and visits poker rooms at places like Canterbury Park in Shakopee about once a month. He says it isn’t unusual to see fellow students at St. Thomas gambling online or putting together hold ’em tournaments.

“When I lived in Brady Hall there was usually a poker game going on in the downstairs lounge,” he said. “Not always for money, but sometimes there were cash tournaments. I do know of some kids who play online a lot. Some even win enough to pay for their tuition.”

To that end, one national poker Web site ( created a “Win Your Tuition” tournament back in 2005 for college students all over the world. Each fall and spring, college students can log on to and participate in a free online Texas hold ’em tournament with the winner earning a year’s worth of tuition for his or her school.

Colleges caught unaware
Despite university students gambling in such large numbers, very few schools – including just one in Minnesota, Bemidji State University – have any type of gambling addiction or prevention programs in place. One Harvard University study showed that 22 percent of surveyed colleges had gambling policies, while according to an April 2007 story in the Duluth News Tribune, 100 percent of American colleges had alcohol policies.

“We in student affairs and higher education are not as tuned into the gambling issue as we need to be,” said McClellan, lead editor of the book Gambling On Campus and a frequent lecturer on the subject. “We have a group of students now who have grown up in a time when gambling is so pervasive, so ubiquitous that it has become like breathing. And we have a group of students who have been told that gambling is a right of passage and a point of social stratification. How cool you are at college used to be about which parties you were invited to or which fraternity you belonged to. I am convinced now that another common point of social stratification among college students is which poker games you play in, which casinos you go to, how much you bet and whether or not you’re a big player.”

Colleges haven’t played a big role in addressing the issue of gambling on campus for many reasons, according to experts.

“For one, there’s the belief that card playing isn’t dangerous. It’s just fun. Colleges have casino nights all the time to break the ice,” said Dan Romer, director of the Adolescent Risk Communication Institute, which is housed at the University of Pennsylvania. “And people don’t understand gambling addiction, what brings it about, what type of people get it and just how harmful it can be.”

Romer has been at the forefront of gambling studies conducted by Penn’s National Annenberg Survey of Youth. Since 2002, the survey has tracked gambling habits among teenagers and college-aged students. Among males 18 to 22 years old, the number who gambled weekly on the Internet doubled between 2005 and 2006, from 2.3 percent to 5.8 percent. In 2006, more than 55 percent of men ages 18 to 22 reported gambling of any type at least once a month. Among women 18 to 22, 35.6 percent reported gambling of any type at least once a month. The typical student loses about $100 a year gambling, Romer says, though that amount can vary greatly depending on the individual. A March 2006 ABC News report profiled a college student in Delaware who got hooked on Internet gambling and lost more than $10,000.

Koch says he’s seen some of his friends get into trouble at the poker rooms.

“I have never known anybody who has hit rock bottom because of gambling, but I do know people who really do not know how to stop when they are gambling,” he said. “I went to Canterbury with a friend who ended up staying for 14 hours. He was up and down the whole night but ended up losing $400. I can see where a night like that can turn really ugly.”

The “silent” addiction
Another reason colleges have been caught unaware is that gambling is often called the “silent” addiction, according to McClellan.

“If you’re addicted to alcohol or drugs, you run down quick. People can see it,” he said. “In the case of alcohol, you can even smell it. There’s physical evidence with both. In the case of gambling, you can’t see it. It’s hidden.”

Dr. Jeri Rockett, director of St. Thomas’ Personal Counseling Department, agrees.

“I think (gambling) starts before students even begin college,” Rockett said. “The big thing when a kid turns 18 is to drive out to the casino. By the time it gets on the radar with parents, kids aren’t usually coming to us. Things are usually so bad that by the time someone finds out, kids end up being sent to treatment centers rather than a place like this. Usually, when we see people with alcohol issues, they don’t come in on their own. They’re mandated to come in because they got in trouble. With gambling, it’s not like people are acting out in the residence halls. They may be on the Internet day and night, but they’re not bothering other people.”

Aaron Macke ’97, director of Residence Life at St. Thomas, says it’s hard to monitor student gambling because so much of it takes place online or off campus.

“We don’t allow gambling in the residence halls, so we don’t have things going on where we’re busting people playing for money,” he said. “But what we do know is from conversations we overhear, from conversations we have with students about their habits and gambling – whether it’s casinos, sports betting or online betting – is that gambling is huge among college students. But we’re not monitoring their personal computers, and we don’t know if they’re out buying lottery tickets or visiting casinos.”

Mike Barrett, associate director and manager of investigations for UST’s Department of Public Safety, agrees that while gambling is likely occurring on campus, it’s not always visible. He says there have only been a handful of gambling-related incidents reported on campus in recent years.

“Maybe three or four in the past six to seven years,” he said. “One involved online gambling, another was a posting in a residence hall for a football pool and another was a posting for a card party. On campus, there’s almost nothing we see with respect to gambling. That’s not to say it isn’t happening somewhere else, though.”

Mizzou makes a move
While student gambling has stayed under the radar at most universities across the country, Wanner says recent studies and anecdotal evidence is what motivated 12 different colleges in Missouri to form “Keeping the Score,” a coalition designed to promote responsible gambling and warn students, parents and educators about the dangers of the activity. The coalition is funded by a grant from the Port Authority of Kansas City, Mo., along with the participating schools.

“From our perspective, this was something going on at Missouri schools that just wasn’t being addressed,” Wanner said. “We wanted to create a place for students who might be dealing with gambling issues and don’t know where to turn. We want to teach prevention and educate students about what gambling addiction looks like.”

McClellan says the Missouri schools are on the cutting edge of college gambling prevention, and that Oregon is the only other state he knows of where schools and state health agencies are actively working together to create gambling prevention programs aimed at college students. As for individual institutions, he says the University of Florida and the University of Alabama both have put together gambling task forces on campus featuring meetings among students, staff and faculty to monitor what kind of gambling is going on and issues that need to be addressed.

In Minnesota, the University of Minnesota-Duluth, Lake Superior College, the College of St. Scholastica and Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College took part in a 2007 gambling survey conducted by Lake Superior Area Family Services. It was the first higher education collaboration of its kind in Minnesota, according to researchers. The study showed that 87 percent of the students surveyed admitted they had gambled at least once and that 4 percent played Texas hold ’em weekly for money. The study found that, consistent with national averages, about 4.5 percent of those surveyed were considered to have a gambling addiction.

“We don’t see a lot of gambling issues on campus, but we saw it as a way to get good information and be preventative in approaches instead of waiting for gambling to become a bigger problem,” Steve Lyons, vice president for Student Affairs at St. Scholastica, told the Duluth News Tribune last spring.

No more mixed messages
While most colleges are just starting to sit up and take notice about the issue of gambling among their students, McClellan says administrators need to give it the same attention as alcohol use, sexual behavior and other campus concerns.

“The reason we need to be involved is because students are involved,” he said. “If students weren’t so engaged in this, I wouldn’t feel the sense of urgency in getting my colleagues to focus in on this.”

McClellan says schools can start by reducing the mixed messages they send about gambling.

“Many schools authorize their logos to be used on poker chips, tables or playing cards,” he said. “I think universities need to do a better job thinking about values and ethics. Years ago, schools stopped putting their logos on shot glasses because it was sending a mixed message about drinking. But with gambling, we’ll tell students it’s wrong, then host casino nights and Texas hold ’em tournaments on campus as a social activity. Or we’ll allow our teams and clubs to sell raffle tickets or conduct a lottery to raise money for uniforms.”

If a school does host a casino night for students – as St. Thomas did inside Scooter’s earlier this fall – McClellan says it’s important to make sure the focus isn’t on the games. To that end, prizes should be given away at random throughout the night to students for hanging out instead of awarding them to people who win the most bets. Students can be given tickets to bet with and enter those tickets into random drawings for prizes at the end of the night.

“Some schools have also taken the opportunity to have brochures available at the events about problem gambling and how it can become an addiction,” he said.

Hold ’em slowdown?
One piece of encouraging news, Romer says, is the October 2007 results from the National Annenberg Survey. They showed a significant drop in weekly card playing – from 16.3 percent to 4.4 percent – among males aged 18 to 22, and weekly Internet gambling among the same group also declined.

“What this means is that Texas hold ’em has reached its peak among young people and is finally slowing down,” Romer said. “It was somewhat of a fad, and as fads go with young people, they eventually get to be old hat. From what we can tell, college students have not moved into some other type of gambling. At least not yet.”

Romer adds that another positive development in 2006 was Congress passing the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, which restricts banks from transferring funds to Internet gambling sites, all of which operate outside of the United States. Many Web sites closed as a result.

Still, casinos thrive on attracting the thrill seeking set that is 18 to 22 year old college students.

“Watch the poker shows, watch the casino ads that run on television,” McClellan said. “Casino executives will tell you very openly that two of the biggest markets they see for further development in the United States are with women and college students. How many times on a poker show do you hear the announcers talking about how this guy is a grad student, or that this player dropped out of college and turned pro, things like that? Ten years ago, nobody said out loud that he or she wanted to become a professional poker player. It was seen as a hustle. Now students are playing in local tournaments in hopes of turning pro. And that’s a scary thing to me.”

Reach freelance writer, author and radio personality John Nemo online at


Next in St. Thomas Magazine