How to Engage Generation Z in Higher Education with Digital Tools

August 27, 2020

by Angela Sanchez, Program Officer, College Success

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, approximately 30% of all first-year college  students do not continue to their second year. In California alone, over 80% of current college students have either changed some aspect of their plans for the Fall 2020 semester or are still uncertain of their plans. The sudden disruption due to the COVID-19 pandemic forced higher education into an unprecedented, rapid shift to remote learning. But having access to online instruction isn’t the same as having access to the supports necessary to persist. The question remains, how can students be effectively coached and supported from a distance?

College coaching apps have quickly become a common tool to support student success, but evaluations of effective virtual coaching practices, especially in relation to current college students’ persistence, have not been widely conducted.

Since 2014, the University of Southern California’s Pullias Center for Higher Education has partnered with the Get Schooled to gamify college access, or in other words, make the process more competitive, fun, and incentivized. Using Get Schooled’s digital platform and technological resources, they encouraged more students to apply to college and complete their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). While their initial efforts focused on high schools across California, the work more recently expanded into the postsecondary space.

In 2017, ECMC Foundation supported the Pullias-Get Schooled partnership to launch its first postsecondary-focused pilot program at California State University Dominguez Hills (CSUDH), using the new digital tools and strategies developed to increase first-year student success. Goals for supporting students focused on areas such as bolstering a sense of belonging on campus, building financial literacy, promoting self-care, and cultivating study skills. Lessons learned from the pilot offer evidence-based recommendations for how to engage first-time, entering postsecondary students and, ultimately, improve the success of all first-year college students.

The final report issued by the Pullias Center, Bolstering First-Year Success through Digital Tools, delves into the challenges of fostering a sense of belonging and ultimately improving academic success among first year college students. For this study, CSUDH’s newly launched Toros Charge On! program was developed to educate students about campus resources and skills (financial literacy, self-care, study skills)  conducive to college persistence and success through an online platform, a personalized textline, and a gamified structure. Through its texting nudges, the program was designed to amplify counseling and guidance services already implemented by on-the-ground practitioners. With curated online content and incentives (students could be entered into drawings for gift cards and small scholarships), Toros Charge On! aimed to increase first-year persistence through an engaging, scalable, and cost-effective digital ecosystem.

Results of the nearly 700 students who participated in the pilot found that:

  • Students were about 10% more likely to enroll in a second year
  • Students showed higher first-year GPAs (0.23 more points)
  • Students completed at average of 0.68 more first-year units

The report outlined the importance of securing strong campus buy-in, providing comprehensive onboarding for advising staff, offering micro-incentives for student participation, and engaging students through hybrid approaches (e.g. emails, text messages, and the online platform itself) to mitigate digital overload.

With the pandemic demanding that institutions invest in their digital engagement and remote learning resources, the early results from USC’s Pullias Center signal that improving success with digital tools is possible and relies on a supportive ecosystem to flourish.


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