Spotlight on Innovation: Game-Based Strategies for Improving Access for First-Generation Students at USC

Students using their phone


The US Department of Education has awarded multi-million dollar “First in the World” grants to 24 colleges and universities that are innovating to solve critical challenges with access, recruitment, retention, and student success. At AI, we have interviewed each of the recipients to learn more about the projects these institutions are pursuing, how their approaches are unique, and what other colleges and universities can learn from these new efforts.

For low-income and first-generation students, navigating the college and financial aid application process can be challenging. Without a mentor or experienced family member to guide students through the process, steps like requesting letters of recommendation and applying for scholarships can seem overwhelming. To exacerbate this problem, many first-generation students attend high schools without counselors or with overburdened college counselors.

Researchers at the University of Southern California set out to ease the process through online games that students can play to simulate the experience of applying to college.

USC’s first such prototype, Mission: Admission, was launched in 2011 through a partnership between the Pullias Center for Higher Education and the USC Game Innovation Lab. Their work has been recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, which recently awarded them a $3.2 million First in the World grant to expand the game to a wider audience.

We reached out to Zoë Corwin, associate research professor for the Pullias Center for Higher Education, to learn more.

Addressing College Access through Game-based Tactics

The project started six years ago when Pullias Center co-director William Tierney and director of research Zoë Corwin wanted to pursue strategies to increase college access for low-income and minority students. The Pullias Center offered effective outreach programs but could only serve a limited number of students due to limited resources. Their mentoring program, for example, could only serve about 200 students a year. Developing online tools provided a cost-effective solution by allowing them to scale some of the effective strategies through online games.

They partnered with USC’s Game Innovation Lab, headed by Tracy Fullerton, a professor who is a leading designer of serious games — a genre designed to train or educate users. The Pullias Center received initial grant funding for the project in 2009 from USC’s provost’s office and other sources to make the game a reality.

“The first thing we wanted to address was that moment when students slip through the cracks,” Corwin explains, noting cracks tend to appear around the college application process. “Ideally, students would have really robust support on their high school campuses with college counselors, but that unfortunately is not the reality. In Los Angeles, we’ve seen a lot of college counseling positions cut, so that’s what we decided to focus on.”

To identify specific issues students struggle with when applying to college, the Game Innovation Lab reached out to players in their target audience of low-income and first-generation students to offer junior game design camps. Students from Foshay Learning Center and Manual Arts High School created their own games about applying to college that highlighted common college application struggles. The design process also allowed the game design team to identify the kind of look and feel students preferred and consequently increase the likelihood that students would find the game appealing.

“Mission: Admission”

Mission: Admission was established as an online and open-access Facebook-based game in 2011. The next step was to test efficacy. To do so, USC formed partnerships with local high schools, many with which the center had already been running other outreach programs. They worked with teachers who were willing to invite them into their classrooms and have their students play the game regularly for a period of time.

They used pre-tests and post-tests, observations of game play and interviews to collect data between 2011 and 2014. They discovered that:

  • Students’ college knowledge – understanding of key college terms and concepts – improved as a result of game play;
  • College-going efficacy increased significantly if students played the game two or more times; and
  • Students learned college and financial aid application strategies by playing the game.

“One of the greatest strengths of the project is that when students are playing they’re laughing, they’re collaborating, they’re helping each other, they’re asking adults in the room questions about college, so it really stimulates a different type of dialogue than traditional approaches,” Corwin notes.

Not all findings were positive. Researchers also found that most students would only play Mission: Admission when teachers gave them the opportunity to play in class. Most would not play at home due to other competing entertainment sources.

The FITW grant will allow them to expand access to the game and continue tracking the game’s efficacy. As part of the FITW grant, game designers will create a downloadable version that is no longer reliant on Facebook. To ensure successful implementation, the Pullias Center will collaborate with the California Student Aid Commission and Get Schooled as partner organizations.

The team will conduct a randomized control trial with high school juniors at 25 schools participating in a month-long game challenge, while juniors at another 25 schools will serve as a control group. Students in the treatment group will play the game again when they are seniors, and researchers will track the impact of the game on the student’s college application process later that fall. All schools will have access to study materials in the third year of the study.

Keys to Success

Solid, thoughtful collaboration between the research and design teams was essential to the project’s success, Corwin notes. Not only did each member of the team stay open to learning from each other, but they also tried to reach out to a variety of stakeholder groups such as practitioners, policymakers, game designers and entrepreneurs. “When we got involved in this project,” Corwin shared, “we realized that key groups were not communicating with each other about challenges they faced or best practices. We have been very intentional about sharing what we’ve learned.”

How Corwin and her colleagues discussed the project was also critical to its success. One of the initial challenges was to develop a vocabulary for talking about the project, translating the work so that diverse audiences could understand why the initiative is so important.

What’s Next

“The neat thing about games is that they provide a safe place to fail, to try new strategies, to practice those strategies and then gain mastery of those skills, and that’s what we’re really seeing happen with Mission: Admission. When students play two, three four times, their college-going efficacy increases for every time they play.”
Zoe Corwin, USC

Based on the success of Mission:Admission and its no-tech partner card game, Application Crunch, the USC team has created two additional games:

  • FutureBound targets middle school students and teaches them about high school, college and career pathways.
  • Graduate Strikeforce is designed for high school students and focuses on choosing the right college, understanding financial and budgeting strategically while in school.

It’s going to be exciting to watch the findings from ongoing tests of these game-based strategies for improving college access.