The Game of College Life

Dr. William Tierney, Wilbur-Kieffer Professor of Higher Education and Director of Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis

Dr. William Tierney

The Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis (CHEPA) under the direction of Dr. William G. Tierney, took on the issue of college access nearly a decade ago. Its established mentoring and college-preparation programs for Los Angeles area urban high school students, Increasing Access via Mentoring (I AM) and SummerTIME, have resulted in thousands of high-need students gaining access to college and succeeding there. A recent report released by the Educational Testing Service found the two CHEPA programs provided the greatest impact for the resources and costs, compared to other mentoring programs in the region.

The I AM mentoring program provides one-on-one mentoring for low-income, high-achieving high school students, many of whom are the first in their families to apply for college. They attend “college knowledge” workshops, meet with advisors and learn how to navigate the college application and financial aid processes. Ninety-eight percent of the program’s 2009-2010 participants went on to attend college in the fall of 2010.

SummerTIME was launched in 2002, and targets local high school graduates who have been admitted into a selective four-year university the summer before their freshman year. These students learn skills, such as time management and study habits, to help them succeed in college. They also receive intensive writing instruction in anticipation of the many papers assigned at a university.

In 2009, Tierney chaired a U.S. Department of Education Access to Higher Education panel. The panel released its findings on emerging research on higher education access to all students in a practice guide, Helping Students Navigate the Path to College: What High Schools Can Do.

CHEPA’s current initiative is yet another approach to helping underserved students get into college. It teamed up with the USC Game Innovation Lab (GIL) to create a prototype for an online, multiplayer game called Pathfinder that gets students to start thinking about the college application process and hones their strategies for getting into college. According to Tierney, while the recommended high school counselor to student ration is 250:1, California has one counselor for about every 800 high school students and the ratio is 400:1 nationally. Recent cutbacks to school budgets threaten the ability of college counselors to effectively assist students.

The Pathfinder game helps students learn about setting personal goals, the implications of attending public vs. private universities, how to make strategic choices about extracurricular activities, how to accumulate necessary resources, including high grades and references, and how to meet deadlines.

The game has been piloted with more than 200 Los Angeles-area high school students during 2010. USC’s Game Innovation Lab is looking to secure $1 million in grants and funding to take the program online and implement a Facebook application. Currently, the game is in a card game format. Preliminary results show a positive impact.

Observational and survey data show that the game promoted qualities conducive to preparing for college, including awareness about the college admission and financial aid processes; increased knowledge of college jargon; development of collaboration among students; and ability to apply role-playing to real life applications.

CHEPA is about to embark on a large-scale mixed methods study to measure students’ knowledge and attitudes toward the college application process before and after playing the game.


This article was featured in the October, 2010 Issue of Rossier Reach