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Better grades through cash

Ideas: New programs offer incentives to motivates students to study.

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On college campuses across the country, legions of students spend their weekends compulsively refreshing their e-mail inboxes, noshing on snacks, and maybe doing a month’s worth of laundry.

Shouldn’t they be studying? Well, sure. They just don’t want to.

That might be interpreted as a lack of self-control, or poorly ordered priorities. Leave it to two young people – Jeremy Gelbart, a senior at Queens College in New York, and Steven Wolf, a recent graduate – to declare such sloth a shortcoming of the education system.

“Grades are supposed to motivate students, but I would say more than half of people aren’t motivated by grades,” says Mr. Gelbart. The grading system is where some students “are trying to get approval.... But a lot of students aren’t looking for that.”

A better motivator, they say, is a little extra spending cash. Last month, the pair launched a website that Gelbart calls a “guilt-free pleasure.” Ultrinsic Motivator organizes competitions around courses at seven universities in the Northeast. Students each pay $22 to participate, $20 of which goes toward a pool of prize money. At the end of the course, all the players who earn an “A” receive an equal share of the pot. (Students who already have high GPAs may not enter.)

Programs that pay students for improved academic performance are sprouting across the country. Unlike Ultrinsic, most aim to bridge the so-called achievement gap that separates poor and minority students from their peers. The controversial initiatives have attracted hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants and donations, with the money dangled as a reward for getting better grades, attending afterschool tutoring, or scoring higher on standardized tests.

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