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How an App Helps Low-Income Students by Turning College Life Into a Game

Screen Shot 2015-08-21 at 3.19.38 PMStudying in the library, getting help from a tutor, even cheering at a college football game — all of those activities carry a little extra reward for low-income students at Ball State University.

The university is in its second year of offering a mobile application called “Ball State Achievements,” designed for students who come to Ball State on federal Pell Grants. The app essentially gamifies their college experience; they earn points for engaging in specific aspects of campus life, which can then be cashed in to purchase items in the university’s bookstore or on-campus Starbucks. There is also a leaderboard within the app where the students can compete to earn the most points.

Colleges are constantly experimenting with ways to secure better outcomes for low-income students, who are increasingly being admitted and enrolling but have far lower graduation rates than other students. About one-third of Ball State’s incoming students qualify for Pell Grants, says Jonathan Blake Huer, director of emerging technologies and media development.

Mr. Huer points to research showing that students who participate actively in campus life are more likely to achieve academic success. The app’s goals, he says, are to make sure low-income students — many of whom are the first in their families to go to college — are aware of the dozens of opportunities on campus, and to whittle them down into digestible bites. The game-like structure rewards students’ engagement throughout the academic year.

“There’s so many parts of the academic vernacular that take so long for everyone to learn,” he says. “We can mediate that massive flow of information.”

The app is supposed to be fun, says Scott Reinke, coordinator of the BSU Achievements Program. But it is tackling a serious problem. For instance, he says, “I would bet good money that a lot of students who made the dean’s list last year don’t really understand what that means.” Students on the dean’s list have attained at least a 3.5 GPA, and the app ensures that they receive a concrete reward as well as a message saying, “Good job!”

Assigning values to specific activities is Mr. Reinke’s job; seeing a campus movie screening is 200 points, while making all As and Bs in a semester is 2,000 points. The values have been a point of contention in Ball State’s student-affairs office, Mr. Huer says, although there is no question that “tutoring is more important than the rock wall.”

Last year, the average student won less than $100 worth of coffee and bookstore items, and the top earner nearly $200.

When the app officially debuted last fall after a pilot run in 2013, getting students to buy in wasn’t a problem, Mr. Huer says. About half of the Pell Grant population at Ball State eventually downloaded it. In fact, some students were too enthusiastic for the app’s original design. “There were a few students last year who went through every achievement in the first week,” Mr. Huer says.

This fall, the app will feature a few new activities, and students will also be able to repeat achievements; they will earn points every time they swipe into the library, for instance. Possible future rewards include dinners with the Ball State president and vouchers to cover parking fines.

The app can validate the authenticity of many activities, such as when students swipe their Ball State identification cards at the campus gym. Others, like sitting in the front row during a lecture, are logged into the app on an honor system, which is one potential limitation.

Still, preliminary data indicate that the app is having an impact on student success. Mr. Huer says that Pell Grant students who used it last year had higher grade-point averages, were 33 percent more likely to be engaged in Ball State activities, and were significantly more likely to have campus jobs than students who didn’t use the app. After this year, Mr. Huer says, he and his team will be able to make more-robust comparisons over time.

One long-term goal is curating the experience more personally for each student, he says. For example, when students’ grades start slipping, they could receive messages from the app encouraging them to go to the library or to spend an hour with a tutor. Bonus points would be awarded for doing so.

Right now, the app is supported by a three-year grant that runs through the 2016-17 academic year. Other colleges have talked to Ball State administrators about the app, Mr. Huer says, and a hotel association and a church have expressed interest in using the technology, although there aren’t plans to market it beyond the university yet.

“The hard part is the student-affairs part; the technology is pretty simple,” Mr. Huer says. The feedback so far is a positive, though: “Students want more, more, more. The students using the app can’t get enough of it.”

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