Next week, the U.S. Federal Student Aid program (FAFSA) will launch a new Oct. 1 start date and form schedule for students seeking financial help getting into college. In previous years, the FAFSA start-date was in March. The change is designed to give students more time to prepare for college, and to bring the aid program into the same timeline as college applications.
Research shows that those kids whose parents went to college are far more likely to apply for college than those whose parents did not go to college, regardless of grades.
For activists and professionals operating in higher education, this is a matter of concern. Applying for college and applying for aid is not a simple matter. Most kids need help. But with schools still reeling from budgetary cuts, there simply aren't enough in-school councillors to go around.
Mission: Admission shows students how to enroll in the appropriate college
One project that's gaining traction is a videogame that teaches kids how to go through the process of applying for college. Played in realtime over the course of a week, Mission: Admission shows students how to meet scholarship deadlines, apply for aid, work on personal statements, request letters of recommendation and take extra curricular activities as well as apply to and enroll in the appropriate college.
The current game has been available in California since 2014, and was previously available as both a card game and a Facebook game. This year, the Department of Education is spending $3.2 million on a study into the game's effectiveness, with a view to a nationwide roll-out.
Mission: Admission was created by the Pullias Center for Higher Education which states in its mission a commitment to "successful college outreach programs, financial aid and access for low- to moderate-income students of color and use of technology to supplement college counseling services." The game was made in collaboration with USC’s Game Innovation Lab, which is best known for releases like Flow, Darfur is Dying and Chambara, as well as alumni like Jenova Chen and Kellee Santiago, creators of Journey.
The game makers say they have much work to do to make sure that students are aware of the game, and that they make use of its lessons. The problems they face include persuading schools to allow them to take up students' time and access to computers at school, which are often tightly controlled or hopelessly outdated.
Even so, the Pullias Center provided some anecdotal quotes from students who had played the game, and found it to be useful.
"I learned not to get scared in the future for college," said a student attending a school near San Francisco. "I learned what to expect in college, what the requirements for each college would be."
"The people that are in my classes, they didn’t really talk about college that much," said a student at a high school in Southern California. "For me, I’m big on college. Now I'm getting into discussions with my friends about college. It's just so much more refreshing because they understand the stress and the struggle now [they've played the game]."
"The college application process, especially for first-generation students, is very scary and complex," says Dr. Zoe Corwin from the Pullias Center, and co-author of the report, "Improving Access to College Through Games." "If you don’t have someone in your family that’s gone through it, there are lots of things you don’t understand. The game is giving students a way to learn those concepts, but also it facilitates dialogue among students and among teachers.
"We’re working in the lowest performing schools, so unfortunately our students can go through the whole day and never really connect with an adult, or they’ll have adults who are so focused on a subject area that they won’t talk to them about college. What the game does is provide a way to create that kind of dialogue."
According to a promotional video (below) released by the Pullias Center, students are being disadvantaged by a lack of school councillors, who have traditionally been on hand to help with college applications. The national recommended ratio of councillors to students is 250-to-one, but in California the ratio is 800-to-one.
The Pullias Center staff go into schools and explain the benefits of the game. But this is only the beginning of the challenge.
"We’re seeing a lot of digital equity issues," says Amanda Ochsner, a postdoctoral research associate working on the project. "We’ll go into high schools and find half the computers aren't working. A specific student needs a specific computer and they don’t know what computer they need or they don’t know the login. It’s chaotic."
Students see the benefits of playing the game, but they are still teenagers with many distractions. "When we introduced the game in class, kids were like, 'Yes, I’m going to play at home!'" says Corwin "And then we’d come back and they’d say, "No, I didn’t. I wanted to, but I had soccer, I forgot, whatever.'
"We learned that the best place to introduce it and support it was in the school. We needed somehow to be able to incentivize gameplay, because we couldn’t ask teachers to give up class time."
They partnered with Get Schooled, a non-profit with a lot of experience working with teachers and students. One of its strategies is to offer prizes for participation. In effect, they are gamifying playing the game.
Another significant problem the game highlights is that a lack of direction leaves some students with unrealistically high expectations or with a diminished view of their own levels of achievement.
"Most of the kids we work with know they want to go to college," says Corwin. "They’ve met the requirements and they are doing okay in school. I'll ask a student with a 1.8 GPA, 'Where are you thinking of going?' 'Um, Stanford.' Or another student, with a 4.5 is thinking of going to community college. They’re under-matching or over-matching. Playing the game helps them to understand all the pieces."
"Mission: Admission is an attempt to do something different"
The game also highlights financial aid options. "There’s so much financial aid out there that goes un-asked-for, that kids don’t know how to access. We're showing the kids that they can afford college. Just apply."
If the study shows a link between kids playing the game and making successful applications to college, the use of this game will be expanded to new platforms like mobile and to other states, adds Corwin.
"The best strategy is one-on-one, individualized support, mentoring." she adds. "But that’s too expensive and it's difficult to scale. Just putting the information online as a slab of text doesn't work. It's too passive.
"Billions of dollars are spent on college access every year. We’re not doing something right. We can’t do more of what we’ve been doing for so many years. Mission: Admission is an attempt to do something different."