Big Data

Why do students drop out? Civitas Learning gets $8.75M to bring “big data” to colleges

online education for the masses

The White House has called for “better data systems” to provide insights into student progress, and technology startups are stepping up.

One such startup, Austin, Tx.-based Civitas Learning, is bringing big data analytics to schools. Just one year after launching, it has pulled in $8.75 million in venture capital, a large sum for an ed-tech company.

Civitas focuses on colleges and universities, which are sitting on mountains of underused data. With the right tools, Civitas believes these educational institutions could pinpoint the courses with the lowest and highest attrition rates and the demographic of students most likely to drop out.

Better yet, schools could take steps to identify students at risk of failing, graduating late, or not graduating at all.

Another interesting use case: If a student opts to take too many advanced classes back-to-back, the system will flag administrators, especially if this has proven problematic for previous students.

Civitas Learning has come along at the right time. Colleges are desperate to improve student dropout rates and are increasingly turning to technology as a (typically short-term) solution. According to a report from Jan. 2013, 46 percent of those who enter a U.S. college fail to graduate within six years.

The company might not be able to provide an immediate fix to the crisis in higher ed, but it claims it can give universities the data they need to make positive changes.

“We joined Civitas Learning because we believe that sharing data-informed insights on student success can transform student outcomes,” explained Dr. Javier Miyares, president of University of Maryland University College, in a statement.

Civitas Learning cofounder Dr. Mark Milliron

Above: Civitas Learning cofounder Dr. Mark Milliron

Civitas Learning boasts an impressive team that has worked for years to apply data to improve student outcomes. CEO Charles Thornburgh is a former exec at education publishing giant Kaplan, and cofounder Dr. Mark Milliron served as a deputy director for Postsecondary Success at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

With the funding, the company will aggressively build out its team and is specifically looking to hire education experts, engineers, and data scientists.

Thornburgh said the primary impediment to growth is customers’ current data system, which tend to be out of date and inconsistently implemented.

However, the company may face push-back from parents concerned with privacy and potential hacks into student records. When a nonprofit, InBloom Inc., announced it would attempt to build a library of student data, the news prompted a visceral reaction. The whole episode suggests that some parents and educators may not be ready for student data to be “mined” for insights.

Civitas Learning says it’s very aware of the InBloom controversy, and is treading carefully. “We understand and acknowledge that big data concerns are real and important, and that’s the reason we are working closely with each of the institutions,” a spokesperson said.

Silicon Valley-based firm Emergence Capital led the funding round with participation from Austin Ventures, First Round Capital, Floodgate, Felicis Ventures*, and New Markets Venture Partners.

Top image via Shutterstock

* Editor’s note: Aydin Senkut of Felicis is also an investor in VentureBeat. See our ethics statement.


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