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

Sarah Brown, Chronicle of Higher Education, August 24, 2015

Studying 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.

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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.

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