Our Quest to Improve College Student Success and Retention

Nearly a million people have played SuperBetter so far to build resilience, improve mental health and achieve goals that matter. It’s among the very small percent of mental health & wellbeing apps validated in studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

Today, we’re excited to share a secret sneak peek at our new project to create a version of SuperBetter for college students. The SuperBetter On Campus (SBOC) project is designed for social impact and will help  increase success and graduation rates among the approximately 20 million students currently enrolled in colleges & universities in the U.S., and over time, the 207 million students enrolled in higher-ed institutions globally.

The Problem: Too Many Students Are Not Graduating

Lack of student success & retention is a major problem for society, and one that keeps university presidents up at night. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, fewer than 60% of American college students graduate within 6 years, a figure low enough to cause significant concern. When looking at a 4-year timeframe the rate is even lower at 41%. At community colleges—which serve a disproportionately large percentage of disadvantaged students—an alarmingly low 22% of students graduate within three years.

The problem is not so much that students are taking longer than four, five, or six years to graduate; the problem is that many of them are dropping out of school entirely, so much so that The New York Times, in a 2019 opinion article, is calling this the College Dropout Crisis

Student retention is core to the university business model and impacts revenue recruitment, college rankings, and in a majority of states performance based funding. 

Why Many Students Struggle

Something changed about 7 years ago. Beginning in 2012 longitudinal studies that track behaviors and perceptions of adolescents and young adults started to show significant declines in measures associated with emotional, mental and social well being. Similarly, university leaders tell us that many of today’s students have low resilience, and struggle to stay strong, motivated and optimistic in the face of change and difficult challenges.

Research tells us there are numerous reasons for the low graduation and high dropout rates, with stress and mental health issues being among the significant factors (Eicher et al., 2014; Hjorth et al., 2016; Pritchard & Wilson, 2003). And according to a study by Public Agenda (2009), a national non-profit organization, many students have to work while going to college and the number one reason they drop out is the stress of juggling school and work.

On top of this kind of everyday stress of balancing school and work is the rise in mental health challenges among today’s youth. Depression and anxiety have become big problems for college students in the U.S. This is supported by a significant body of data including surveys of students (American College Health Association, 2008; Blanco et al., 2008; Drum et al., 2009), surveys of college campus counseling centers (Gallagher, 2008), and campus mental health client records (Center for the Study of Collegiate Mental Health, 2009). It is not just that students are more open to vocalizing their mental health struggles thanks to evolving cultural attitudes about mental health. According to researchers there is an actual, objective increase in mental health-related symptoms among young people today (Fairyington, 2018; Henriques, 2014; Twenge, 2011). And just as with stress, these mental health challenges also negatively affect academic performance (Bruffaerts et al., 2018; and can influence students’ decisions to drop out of school (Hjorth et al., 2016).

Whether it’s everyday stress or mental health challenges such as depression and anxiety, something else that the research seems to suggest is that many college students nowadays are lacking in the character trait known as resilience (Eisenberg et al., 2016). In an interview with Thrive Global, Gregg Henriques, PhD, professor of psychology at James Madison University, says, “Talk to any college counseling directors and staff psychologists and they’ll say the emotional resilience [of college students today] is not high.” 

Low Graduation Rates Negatively Impact Society

On a societal level, why is this so important? Low graduation/high dropout rates are highly detrimental both individually to the students who drop out as well as collectively to society at large (Belfield & Levin, 2007). For example, students who have taken out loans to attend college but do not graduate are much more likely to default—up to three times as much, depending on the amount borrowed—earn lower incomes, and have higher rates of unemployment (Council of Economic Advisers, 2016). The weight that states bear due to dropouts is also enormous. In their report, Finishing the First Lap: The Cost of First Year Student Attrition in America’s Four Year Colleges and Universities, the American Institutes for Research report that first-year college students who dropout account for $6.2 billion in state appropriations for colleges and universities. It also accounts for more than $1.4 billion in state student grants and $1.5 billion in federal student grants (American Institutes for Research, 2010).

Conversely, there are many benefits to society when students graduate from college. College graduates have a significantly higher labor force participation rate (73.3%) compared to high school graduates (57.7%) or those who go to college but do not graduate (63.4%). And not only are they more likely to be in the labor force, they are also more likely to be employed. Additionally, there are positive spillover effects from having more people be employed. Since college graduates also earn higher than non-college graduates, their higher incomes produce an increase in tax revenue.

It is for all these reasons, and more, that the matter of college student resilience and retention are of the utmost importance. In recent years colleges and universities across the nation have been trying to tackle the retention problem, and at SuperBetter we intend to help in a big way.

Calling All Allies

SuperBetter On Campus will be a new version of SuperBetter geared specifically for the unique needs of college students to help them become stronger, healthier, happier, more successful and, ultimately, graduate and be prepared for success post graduation.  It will utilize the same core principles and philosophy of the methodology that made the original SuperBetter app so effective and become one of the few empirically backed resilience boosting apps available. 

In the NY Times best seller, SuperBetter, The Power of Living Gamefully, Jane McGonigal writes “You Are Surrounded by Potential Allies”.  If you are part of a higher-ed institution or an organization with a shared mission of improving college student success & retention, we welcome a conversation.

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