(The author is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
By Liz Weston
LOS ANGELES, June 23 (Reuters) - For the first-time college hopeful in a family, who may have less help navigating the complex application process, would playing some games offer insights, help with school choices and boost their chances of completing a degree?
Researchers and game developers at the University of Southern California hope so.
They've developed a card game, a Facebook game and an online shoot-em-up action game designed to impart college-application strategies that so-called "first-generation" students may not learn anywhere else.
"They might have parents who don't know much about the college application process and attend schools that don't have college support," said Zoe Corwin, research director for USC's Pullias Center for Higher Education.
Those deficits "have real implication for college graduation rates."
The researchers are trying to tackle a trifecta of issues that disproportionately plagues lower-income students, like:
a) not applying for college when they're capable,
b) not enrolling in college even after being accepted, and
c) "under-matching," or choosing to attend a less-selective school than one their academic credentials qualify them for.
A Pell Institute study found that low-income, first-generation students were seven times more likely to earn bachelor's degrees if they started at four-year institutions, but the vast majority began and ended their academic careers at public two-year and for-profit colleges.
The education center started its outreach by offering mentoring programs for local teens, but quickly realized it didn't have enough funding to reach more than a few hundred students, Corwin said.
So, four years ago, it reached out to the university's Game Innovation Lab.
"We wanted to take what we know and make it scalable," Corwin said. "We had all the content knowledge ... and they knew that it needs to be fun and engaging."
The university held game design camps for low-income high school students who lived near the urban campus. The camps taught design skills while soliciting the students' help in creating the games.
"We wanted to understand the things they know and the things they don't know, the questions they're afraid to ask," said the lab's director, Tracy Fullerton.
Samantha Castillo, 21, had plenty of those.
At the time, Castillo was an 11th grader living in a Latino neighborhood where just getting through high school was something of an accomplishment. Castillo knew she wanted more education, but thought that would mean community college.
"All I knew [about the application process] was that I needed to get my parents' tax information and give it to the government," Castillo said. "And that was scary - that the government was poking at you."
The lab's first effort was a card game, Application Crunch, which required players to take on the role of college applicants juggling academics, extracurricular activities, work and service, while competing for college admission and scholarships.
"The game teaches you things like how to request a recommendation letter early, the importance of staying on top of deadlines, the importance of submitting the best application you can," Corwin said. The game's aim is to both "boost aspirations and teach strategies."
The Facebook game, Mission: Admission, builds on those lessons with some competitive aspects. For example, players who miss the deadline for filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, may get into a school but not be able to pay for it. Or they may vie for a single slot at a selective school, so those who submit an inadequate application lose out.
"It teaches that you can't submit a bare minimum application, and that it's good to have a back-up school," Corwin said. "This is something thatparents who went to college would know."
The online game, Graduation Strike Force, has more nuanced strategies for finding the right college for the player's avatar, one that balances financial, academic and cultural aspects to find the right fit.
In the game, avatars that have found the correct fit will go on to graduate and are happy, making them strong enough to fight off monsters that are trying to destroy the planet, said Corwin, who with Fullerton and two other colleagues co-authored the recently released book, "Postsecondary Play: The Role of Games and Social Media in Higher Education."
So far, the games appear to boost a players' knowledge about the college application process and they learn the importance of filling out the FAFSA, for example, to win, Corwin said, although the center wouldn't start rigorous analysis until summer.
Castillo says the games, and the Game Innovation Lab, changed her life. Instead of going to community college, she was inspired to apply to USC and is about to graduate with a degree in neuroscience. She's now thinking about graduate school.
"The games pushed me to open up and ask questions," said Castillo. "It really helped clarify ... what you can do to change your life." (Editing by Beth Pinsker and Bernadette Baum)