Visit Modern Campus

Boosting Student Engagement through Mobile Technology

The EvoLLLution | Boosting Student Engagement through Mobile Technology
With today’s students—both traditional and non-traditional—so comfortable with mobile devices, institutions can and should begin pivoting to develop a mobile strategy that improves engagement with students across their lifecycle.

The mobile-first generation is here. According to Pew Research, 85 percent of students own smartphones and they’re spending eight to 10 hours on those devices every day. Incoming traditional-age students don’t know a world without the internet, tablets, smartphones and other mobile devices, and like their non-traditional counterparts, they have high expectations.

Today, mobile technology is inextricably linked to student engagement, but the path to accommodating the needs of this demanding population of mobile-savvy users can be elusive. As students have integrated mobile devices so wholly into their daily lives, any absence on the university’s part is seen as a liability. Those schools that are able to speak to students where they’re most comfortable—on their mobile devices—will stand out, gaining a competitive edge to attract more prospective students, turn them into applicants and retain them throughout the entire student lifecycle.

The hard work (or at least some of it) is already done

Chances are you know you need—or you’re already pursuing—a mobile strategy on campus. But in the face of waning budgets and diminishing staff, how do you prioritize how to implement that mobile vision without breaking the bank? Create a two-way communication channel through mobile apps.

But here’s the reality: most universities simply don’t have the resources to handle lengthy ramp-up periods and costly development cycles for custom app development. Instead, many schools are turning to app building platforms, which make it easy and affordable to quickly create and distribute a mobile app without involving a developer.

With this new delivery system, much of the heavy lifting is already done for you. Instead of putting more demands on the already tapped IT department, you can jump straight to customizing the branding and content.

Mobile-first engagement across the lifecycle

Today’s mobile consumers—whether we’re talking about those who are college-age or not—have a distinct set of expectations for mobile apps: They want immediate gratification, they want personalized content and they want it to be interactive. In fact, consumers’ average time spent in apps versus on websites increased by 130 percent year-over-year, according to a new report from app intelligence firm Sensor Tower. With this in mind, simply creating a mobile-friendly website does not a mobile strategy make. It’s important to complement (not copy) content that is engaging and dynamic. Since your mobile apps can link to any web page, there’s no need to replicate content in the mobile app.

Once you’re in the mindset of creating native mobile apps, then you can evaluate how to use those apps to engage students throughout the lifecycle. Here are a few examples.


The beginning of the student lifecycle could also very well be the beginning of a student’s relationship with your mobile app. Schools like Colorado State University, for example, have created apps with recruitment content tailored to several audiences, such as high school juniors, admitted seniors or everyday campus visitors.

Pro tip: get personal. These prospective students are hungry for information, and they want it delivered via the smartphone. By targeting each individual audience with an appropriate message through their communication channel of choice, you’ll get their attention, and keep their attention.


One of the most popular mobile apps for higher education is the self-guided campus tour. Point-to-point directions leverage the device’s native GPS to direct visitors on a designated route, while student ambassador narratives provide an authentic look into campus life. For the University of Oregon and Santa Clara University, self-guided campus tours extend the reach of admissions, helping to keep costs down while serving more students.

Pro tip: take advantage of native mobile capabilities to boost engagement. In addition to built-in GPS, use the built-in camera to encourage social networking, as well as time-based notifications via SMS, MMS and push messaging to increase survey response rates.


A student’s first weeks on campus are critical to success and many schools are now using apps as a way to engage and strengthen communication during that time. A “Welcome Week” app, for example, offers a central place for students to consume a wealth of new information about campus life, academic programing and university services.

Pro tip: provide the right content. Help students be more connected to resources by linking to different offices and opportunities like clubs and athletics information, so students can start looking ahead. 


Just as apps can facilitate communication before a student ever steps foot on campus, they can also extend your reach after they have left. Mobile apps—and tools like push notification—augment email campaigns and call downs to capture the attention of this hard-to-reach group of new graduates. At North Carolina State, the Alumni Association Student Ambassador Program organizes over 40 homecoming events over five days. Smooth programming relies on the ability to share information quickly, make changes on the fly and engage students and alumni—all of which they accomplish through a mobile app. Outside of homecoming season, they also use push notifications in the app to share important updates with alumni.

Pro tip: incentivize students and alumni to download the app. In addition to including download instructions in emails, posting them at event sites and sharing on social media, you can also get creative. Only those alumni who downloaded the app—and could prove it by showing their phone—received a free t-shirt at the NC State homecoming kickoff event.

Start small and expand

When embarking on a mobile strategy and introducing new apps into existing processes, it’s important to start small. You can prove the value of the technology by starting with a single, focused project, such as a campus event, tour or any of the examples above, then easily build out the app to more departments, more students, and more touch points throughout the lifecycle.

As you get comfortable with putting mobile apps into practice, you can also use the apps to gain additional insight into student needs. App metrics like menu item launches can tell you a lot about how people are navigating content. In addition, you can start collecting more nuanced feedback, including student happiness and engagement, with mobile surveys. This allows you to not only improve your app, but gain one more opportunity to hear from your students and improve whatever program or outreach your app is supporting.

Just like an institution aims to nurture all aspects of the student lifecycle, so should its mobile strategy. Whether it’s a potential student researching a university as their future academic home or a current student looking for resources, exploration starts on the mobile device. And interactions learned early on only enhance the student experience over time, as students become accustomed to staying informed and engaged via mobile apps throughout their four years and beyond.

Author Perspective: