Esports: A Key to Student Retention
By: Dr. Charles M. Hueber
Dean of Students, Schreiner University
Co-founder of SLICE
Today, more than ever, we find ourselves in a time of financial instability that is challenging our schools and forcing us to explore ways to increase enrollment. We can accomplish that through recruitment of new students and through an increased retention of current students. We all know that there is no one solution to the problem of enrollment and retention, and we are all looking for answers. Probably most important is the question of why students choose us initially and then leave after only one or two semesters. A focus on research can begin to shed light on the issue.
We know that many factors may affect a student’s decision to leave, and one of the most commonly overlooked by academic institutions is that of social integration (Wilcox, Winn & Fyvie-Gauld, 2005). Students need to feel connected. Another study showed that three themes emerged when students discussed success in the terms of their college experience: grades, social integration and the ability to navigate college (Yazedjian, Toews, Sevin, & Purswell, 2008).
Tinto (2000) also stated that there are several factors that may cause the student turnover or attrition rate to be high. He identified the following factors that may contribute to student attrition: (1) the goals and aims of a particular student, (2) a student’s relations within the institution, (3) a student’s cultural background, (4) the integration process between a student and both academic studies and other students.
According to Jensen (2011), the student integration model by Tinto is based on the argument that student retention is related to the level an individual student is assimilated and integrated into a learning institution. Social interaction between a student and the institution are tantamount to how a student should perform academically.
What we need to point out is that students’ ability to connect to the institution and each other is critical in helping to move the needle in terms of retention. If a student attends classes and does not feel as though they belong, they will leave us. This is where esports can and has started to help colleges. Prior to 2017 almost no focus existed on esports as a recruitment and/or retention tool, but in the past few years we have seen more and more colleges scrambling to launch programs as the demand has skyrocketed.
It is difficult for colleges and universities to ignore the legions of students who participate in esports. The reality is that we have had esports on college campuses in one form or fashion for several decades now, and it has long been an underground club that worked in the shadows of the campus. These students tended to see themselves as outsiders. This is in large part due to the negative attention esports has received over the years.
One study from 1998 stated that the use of video games may lead to a hostile attribution bias (Kirsh, 1998). Another study in 2000 stated that a positive correlation existed between college students who played violent video games and violent crime (Anderson & Dill, 2000). Later studies have debated the connection between video games and violence and have started to shed light on some of the positive attributes of esports (Kutner & Olsen, 2008; Devilly, Callahan, & Armitage 2012; Elson, Breuer, Van Looy, Kneer & Quandt 2015).
With new research offering hope and the overwhelming numbers of students participating in esports, we are seeing a dramatic rise in the number of college esports programs. The National Junior College Athletic Association has officially launched a competitive program for two-year colleges, and organizations like SLICE (Student League of Intercollegiate Esports) are offering leagues focused on colleges and universities, but what makes esports a working retention tool?
David Gehrels, Director of Student Activities at Schreiner University, tells a story of a shy student who he saw come through freshmen orientation. From the beginning, he stood outside of the circles that were forming. David said, “The young man just didn’t fit in and I noticed how he was struggling socially. On the third day of welcome week, I saw the young man on campus and noticed he was wearing a t-shirt with an Atari logo on it. I saw an opportunity to engage the young man.”
They struck up a conversation about the evolution of video games and David discovered that the young man was an avid gamer. David invited him to a meeting where the university was seeking input on the creation of an official esports team. Immediately, this young man stepped up and took a role in leading the discussion. He was elected as an officer in that group’s first action as a new and forming club.
We found out much later that this young man had intended to transfer home at the end of the term; he was lonely and didn’t feel he fit in at the university. It wasn’t until he realized that the university valued something that he valued that he felt he belonged. It is a very important point to note that he created a connection not just to the students, but to the university. Not all students will be able to articulate this in this way, but this is exactly what we are hoping for when we create and invest in programs that are designed to help student retention. This has played out at Schreiner University as these students have, for the past three years, achieved a retention rate that exceeded the university average by 12%.
Esports can impact retention in this way for three reasons:
First, the vast number of students who engaged in esports can no longer be ignored. Some estimate that 500 million people worldwide participate in esports, and college is the primary age group.
Second, like David’s student, many gamers are not yet otherwise engaged on our campuses. Through esports, we can offer a path for them to create a connection to the college.
Lastly, esports offers multiple points of entry, and (if designed well), an esports program should include a very diverse group of students that will expand opportunities and options for students to create meaningful connections with their peers.
If your school is looking to get started in esports, you should start by reaching out to existing programs and learning from their mistakes. It is a complex and daunting task to launch a program and the initial costs can seem overwhelming. If done strategically, however, the investment is well worth it.
Anderson, C. & Dill A. (2000). “Video games and aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behavior in the laboratory and in life”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 78 (4): 772–790.
Kirsh, S. (1998). “Seeing the world through Mortal Kombat-colored glasses: Violent video games and the development of a short-term Hostile Attribution Bias”. Childhood. 5 (2): 177–184.
Kutner L. & Olson C. “Grand theft childhood: the surprising truth about violent video games.” 2008. ISBN 0-7432-9951-5
Elson, M., Breues J., Van Looy, J., Kneer, J., & Quandt, T. (2015). “Comparing apples and oranges? Evidence for pace of action as a confound in research on digital games and aggression”. Psychology of Popular Media Culture. 4 (2): 112–125.
Devilly, Callahan, & Armitage (2012). “The Effect of Violent Videogame Playtime on Anger”. Australian Psychologist. 47 (2): 98–107.
Wilcox, P., Winn, S., & Fyvie-Gauld, M. (2005). It Was Nothing to Do With the University, It Was Just the People: The role of social support in the first-year experience of higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 30(6), 707.
Tinto, V. (2000). Taking student retention seriously: rethinking the first year of college. The Journal of the National Academic Advising Association, 19(2), 5-10.
Yazedjian, Ani & Toews, Michelle & Sevin, Tessara & Purswell, Katherine. (2008). “It’s a Whole New World”: A Qualitative Exploration of College Students’ Definitions of and Strategies for College Success. Journal of College Student Development. 49. 141-154.