BACKGROUND: This article reports the first national assessment of patterns of drinking and gambling-related rulemaking on college campuses (e.g., punitive versus recovery oriented). Analyses relating school policies to known school rates of drinking or gambling identified potentially influential policies. These results can inform and encourage the development of guidelines, or "best practices," upon which schools can base future policy. METHODS: The college policy information was collected from handbooks, Web sites and supplemental materials of 119 scientifically selected colleges included in the fourth (2001) Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study (CAS). A coding instrument of 40 items measured the scope and focus of school alcohol and gambling policies. This instrument included items to measure the presence of specific policies and establish whether the policies were punitive or rehabilitative. A total of 11 coders followed a process of information extraction, coding and arbitration used successfully in other published studies to codify policy information. RESULTS: Although all schools had a student alcohol use policy, only 26 schools (22%) had a gambling policy. Punitive and restrictive alcohol policies were most prevalent; recovery-oriented policies were present at fewer than 30% of schools. Certain alcohol and gambling policies had significant relationships with student binge drinking rates. CONCLUSIONS: The relative lack of college recovery-oriented policies suggests that schools might be overlooking the value of rehabilitative measures in reducing addictive behaviors among students. Since there are few college gambling-related policies, schools might be missing an opportunity to inform students about the dangers of excessive gambling.