Forget the games—give students smartphone apps that will benefit them

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Forget the games—give students smartphone apps that will benefit them

How an app helped Robert Morris University retain more first-year students

A version of this article originally appeared on LinkedIn through our #100SuccessStories Campaign.

Every Thursday, I spend an hour reading with Janae, a 4th grader at a local D.C. public school. As with many kids her age, it can be challenging to keep Janae focused on the latest Diary of a Wimpy Kid for a full 60 minutes each week. One day she asked to look at my phone, and in a well-meaning but foolish attempt to keep her entertained, I obliged.

Scrolling through my phone, she quickly became confused. “Where are all your apps?” she asked. I pointed out Lyft, Google Maps, Outlook… but Janae wasn’t satisfied. She wanted to know where my fun apps were. No games? No Snapchat? Why even bother having a smartphone?

I’m not an app enthusiast. I’m an app minimalist. I keep my phone down to the bare necessities—no room for fluff.

But even I’ll admit that apps can be useful—pivotal, even—for navigating day-to-day life. How would I get around an unfamiliar part of town without Google Maps? Or catch a ride to the airport without Lyft?

How an app helps RMU advance student success

Robert Morris University (RMU), a 4,000-student private school in Pittsburgh, had the same realization: a well-made app can become an essential tool. RMU partnered with EAB to better engage the most elusive of creatures—college freshmen. RMU’s president called this partnership “the Netflix-ization of higher education”—using technology to give students more control over their own success.

They launched EAB’s app for students, Navigate, which provides clear checklists, guardrails, and engagement opportunities for students. RMU undertook an aggressive advertising campaign to increase app adoption, with a strong presence at new student orientation and the Activities Fair, posters and advertisements across campus, and opportunities to win prizes like branded swag or gift cards to the bookstore.

Why 94% of RMU students downloaded an advising app

RMU’s most powerful strategy for drumming up app adoption and use, however, was integrating Navigate into their First-Year Seminar. Students were required to complete in-app assignments like taking a Major Explorer quiz, identifying useful resources, and taking quick polls on their expectations and hopes for their time on campus.

The benefits to students of these in-app experiences are clear: students can make sure they are on the right track academically, find ways to get involved socially, and start thinking ahead and planning for their next seven semesters.

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percentage point increase in first-year retention
percentage point increase in first-year retention

RMU staff and leadership derived real value from the Navigate app too. They were able to send targeted outreach to students based on their expressed interests, identify problem areas for direct follow-up, and provide individual departments with lists of students considering that major.

App adoption really took off. By framing Navigate as an essential tool for success, RMU has been able to get almost all of their students on board and has reaped significant benefits in turn—94% of freshmen downloaded Navigate in the first year of the partnership, contributing to a two percentage point increase in first-year retention. This means that dozens of students who otherwise might have dropped out without Navigate’s support and guidance are able to stay on the path to graduation.

Highlight potential benefits to encourage app use

In my role at EAB, I helped RMU’s student success team translate their story into a set of replicable practices that other schools could copy to improve Navigate app adoption on their own campuses. RMU recruited upperclassmen, faculty members, and university leadership to get the word out to freshmen that a tool like Navigate, with its resources, reminders, and checklists, can be a guiding light on their path to graduation. The biggest lesson here is that you must show students how useful and beneficial this app can be—otherwise, at best, it will gather digital dust in their phone. Even more likely, students won’t bother to download it at all, and they’ll lose out on the major value it offers.

As for my weekly conversations with Janae, she has yet to convince me of the long-term utility and value of an app like Snapchat (although I will admit that the dog filter is pretty cute). I hope that when she’s old enough to have her own smartphone, she’ll devote at least some of her digital shelf space to apps like Navigate that can help her reach her goals.

We’re not quite there yet though—she’s only nine years old, after all. But for now, I’m happy to put away the phone and get back to the next exciting chapter in our book.