Rising to the challenge

Pullias Center’s “Mission: Admission” is a game changer

By Matthew C. Stevens

Students at a high school in downtown Los Angeles take a break from chess to play a different type of game, “Mission Admission.”

Students at a high school in downtown Los Angeles take a break from chess to play a different type of game, “Mission Admission.”

USC Rossier’s Pullias Center for Higher Education strives to improve the odds for underserved high school students, not only getting them into college but making sure they persist and graduate.

Developed in partnership with USC’s Game Innovation Lab, the Center’s online game “Mission: Admission” leverages play to help high school juniors and seniors navigate the complicated college application process. In February, researchers brought the game to 27 school districts throughout Southern and Northern California, including Los Angeles, San Diego, Sacramento, Riverside, Coachella, Oakland and Santa Maria.

Thirty Title I high schools took part in the “Mission: Admission Challenge” created in conjunction with Get Schooled, a nonprofit dedicated to using media, technology and popular culture to motivate young people to improve high school graduation rates and empower them to succeed in college.

During the Challenge, juniors played the game, explored the Get Schooled site and filled out surveys to assess growth in knowledge; seniors earned points by completing their FAFSA/California Dream Act applications. Students could earn individual prizes by participating in Challenge activities—or prizes for their school such as “unlock the box” cash awards. The top scoring school won a celebrity principal for a day.

“We know that students who have played ‘Mission: Admission’ are more knowledgeable about applying to college,” said USC Rossier Research Associate Professor of Education Zoë Corwin, co-director of the project. “Previous research showed the game positively affected students’ college-going efficacy and college knowledge. We are now focused on understanding the effects of the game on tangible college outcomes—and examining how an online, play-based intervention can be implemented and effectively maintained at the school level.”

Interim study findings illustrate a wide spectrum in how schools approached implementing the online college access tools largely dependent on a school’s digital infrastructure, administrative support and teacher buy-in. Barriers to students’ engagement with the game tools included lack of access to computers/tablets and Internet. Students responded favorably to the playful nature of the game and social media platform—as well as the school-wide incentive structure.

One Northern California teacher shared, “It’s been a fun game, and we definitely plan on making it a permanent part of our curriculum, even without the contest!”

First in the World Grant

Housed at USC Rossier, the Pullias Center has been at the forefront of college access and completion research for the past two decades. Most recently, researchers have studied the role of game-based learning on college aspirations and college-going efficacy, thus building scalable, engaging ways to support first-generation and underserved students as they learn about college.

In fall 2014, the U.S. Department of Education awarded a $3.2 million grant (RA#P116F140097) to the Center as part of the First in The World Program, which is intended to spur the development of innovations in the education sphere as they pertain to postsecondary outcomes, college affordability and evidence-based practices.

Over the next two years, researchers will be tracking the effects of participating in the “Mission: Admission Challenge” on participants’ FAFSA completion, college application submissions and postsecondary enrollment. Research partners on the randomized-control trial study involving 60 schools include USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, the Get Schooled Foundation, the California Student Aid Commission, UC Merced’s Center for Educational Partnerships and the outside evaluation firm of Augenblick, Palaich and Associates.

Joining Corwin on the project team are William G. Tierney, Wilber-Kieffer Professor of Higher Education and co-director of the Pullias Center; Gale Sinatra, professor of education & psychology and associate dean for research; Tattiya Maruco, project manager; Amanda Ochsner, postdoctoral scholar; research assistants Robert Danielson, Suneal Kolluri and Antar Tichvakunda; Carlos Galan, outreach adviser; Monica Raad and Diane Flores, administrative support.

For more information, visit www.uscrossier.org/pullias/research/projects/college-games/.


This article was featured in the April 2016 issue of “Reach,” USC Rossier’s publication for education research.