If you thought higher-ed institutions aren’t jazzed about “Big Data,” think again. Austin Community College’s president and chief executive, Richard Rhodes, has literally sang praises—or more accurately, a sultry slow jam—about an app that helps students plan their coursework.
The developer, Civitas Learning, has plenty of reasons to sing as well—especially after raising up to $60 million in a Series D round led by Warburg Pincus, a top-flight, New York private equity firm.
Based in Austin, TX, the company builds tools that analyze different buckets of data collected at colleges and universities to help administrators, faculty and students make better-informed decisions to boost course completion and, by extension, on-time graduation rates.
“We will try to ingest any data that’s captured digitally by an institution that might be relevant for students,” says Charles Thornburgh, chief executive and co-founder of Civitas Learning. Data sources can range from student information systems and learning management systems to financial aid, enrollment management and “swipe card” data (how often a student accesses the library or computer lab, for instance).
Predictive analytics is the education technology industry’s latest hot commodity. The prospect of mining data to create early warning systems that flag at-risk students have attracted both entrepreneurs and investors, including Mark Cuban, who in July put money into another Texas-based company focused on student retention.
Civitas Learning was founded in 2011, when it enlisted six community colleges, traditional universities and for-profit colleges to help design its predictive analytics tools. One of the partners was Austin Community College (ACC), where “disparate sources of student information were never brought together,” recalls Rhodes. In addition to commonly used tools like Blackboard, ACC had built its own data tools “that are not relational to other data systems.”
In addition to building the technology infrastructure to pull data from different sources, Civitas has developed five analytics apps. One of them is Degree Map, which helps students plan what courses to take and what to do if they decide to change their major. It’s the tool that inspired Rhodes’ music video.
“We always assumed that students knew where they were in their pathway,” says Rhodes. “But when we rolled it out we realized quickly that there were students who took courses that didn’t apply to their degrees, or changed majors without realizing what that would cost them.”
Another tool, Illume, can help administrators and faculty better understand how to provide student support. The system can show, for instance, whether a standardized test score or high school class percentile is a better predictor of student persistence; this in turn can inform how the school provides financial aid and scholarships. The tool can also see whether there is a GPA “tipping point” below which students are much more likely to drop out.
Today, the company is working with 800 campuses across 80 institutions in North America, reaching an estimated 2.7 million students. Thornburgh claims his tools have delivered “anywhere from one to 11 percent improvement in metrics like course completion and term-over-term persistence.”
Thornburgh says the company has reserved rights to $60 million in this deal, “but we currently don’t have the need for all of it.” He declined to disclose the specific amount it has taken, only sharing that “the majority of the capital has already been invested.” Some of the funds may be used for acquisitions, Thornburgh adds. Already, Civitas Learning has acquired two companies—Blikbook, a classroom response engagement tool, and Hoot.me, a student collaboration app.
The company plans to make APIs available to other developers to build apps on top of its data infrastructure, says Thornburgh. And it will continue to work with universities to build new tools that leverage additional data sources. “There is a lot of interest from our higher-ed partners to understand how students did in K-12,” says Thornburgh. There are also plans to connect the systems to jobs data “to ensure that students are graduating into meaningful careers.”
The company has previously raised $29 million. Existing investors, including Emergence Capital Partners, Austin Ventures, Rethink Education, SJF Ventures and Gera Venture Capital, returned for this round.
Warburg Pincus doesn’t do small deals in education, and two of its edtech investments—Skillsoft and iParadigms—have seen big-dollar exits. “Education is a transformative experience for individuals,” says Ian Chiu, a Principal at Warburg Pincus who focuses on technology and education. “We’re big believers in the power of data and analytics, and there is a huge opportunity here for Civitas to support what institutions are trying to accomplish—to deliver demonstrable impact for student outcomes and success.”
As a market, higher education has also seen “an increasing comfort level among institutions in partnering with third-party solutions, like Civitas, to help not only organize and make sense of the disparate data that is being generated but also translate that data into action,” Chiu notes. Still, he urges the need for patience. “This shift will not happen overnight, but more and more we are seeing forward-thinking institutions embrace the opportunity to commit the time and resources to these efforts.”