- Associated Press - Sunday, March 6, 2016

MUNCIE, Ind. (AP) - A mobile app supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation during 2014-15 increased the number of Ball State University freshmen who returned to the school for their sophomore year.

“I was shy and had a tendency to want to stay in my dorm room,” says psychology major Kandice Grimme, now a sophomore. “Knowing what was going on on campus helped me get out and make friends. It made me more want to stay here at Ball State.”

“Achievements” is the name of the mobile app Ball State fully launched in the fall of 2014 that allows students to complete achievements and receive rewards from the campus bookstore simply by participating in the college experience. The cost of the project is $150,000.

The long list of achievements includes visiting the bronze statue of the “naked lady” in Bracken Library, making the dean’s list, completing 15 credit hours in a semester, improving your GPA, attending an etiquette dinner, meeting with a career coach, visiting the chef at the Tally Food Court, climbing a rock wall, attending Friday Night Filmworks, taking a yoga class, and attending all home basketball/volleyball games.

For each achievement, students are rewarded “Bennies” (‘Benny’ is the nickname of BSU’s iconic ‘Beneficence’ statue) they can spend on merchandise in the bookstore.

The app can only be used by students who receive federal Pell Grants, which, unlike loans, do not have to be repaid. Most Pell Grant funding goes to low-income students. As word of the app spread, several hundred students who are not eligible for Pell Grants joined a waiting list hoping the project expands to the entire student body. A third of BSU freshmen are Pell Grant students.

“It’s been amazing for me,” Grimme said. “Once they open it up to everybody it will probably help those students, too. More and more people keep getting added to the list.”

The app got Grimme involved in Student Voluntary Services as a freshman. As a sophomore, she’s now a program coordinator, a leadership position, at the organization. “I am program coordinator for MOMs (Motivate Our Minds) and ARF (Animal Rescue Fund),” she said. “It’s super fun and looks good on your resume.”

Grimme, from Huntington, has spent her Bennies on a Ball State teddy bear wearing a hoodie, Skullcandy headphones, a sweater, a Ball State hat and other merchandise. “I always wanted a Ball State hat, but they’re kind of expensive,” she said. “I got my dad a hat as well. He’s also into Ball State stuff.”

“It’s nice to be in the loop,” BSU Pell Grant recipient Kelly Eby says of the app, which led her to a meeting with a department chair that influenced her decision on a major.

Ball State research indicates the app has been “relatively effective,” dean of students and vice president for student affairs Kay Bales told the university’s board of trustees recently.

She reported that 79.2 percent of Pell Grant freshmen who used the app in 2014-15 returned to school for their sophomore year. The retention rate for Pell Grant freshmen who didn’t use the app was 75.2 percent. In addition, 35.2 percent of app users earned 30 credit hours during their freshman year while only 32 percent of non-users earned that many hours. And 61 percent of app users improved their GPA compared to 58 percent of non-users.

While students can drop out of school for health, family and financial reasons. “the tragic situation” is when they leave because “there is just not a connection,” said Rick Hall, chairman of the board. “This increases that level of connection.”

More than 1,200 BSU students are using the app.

When Hall asked Bales why Achievements couldn’t be offered to all students, she said more research must take place “before we can be absolutely certain it’s having an impact.”

The $150,000 project is the result of a “Next Generation Learning Challenges” initiative led by EDUCAUSE to expand promising technology tools and apps. A grant from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation funded the initiative. So far, BSU students have earned $32,962 in Bennies.

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Source: The (Muncie) Star Press, http://tspne.ws/21Dzb3w

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Information from: The Star Press, http://www.thestarpress.com

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