Austin educational software maker Civitas Learning raises $4.1 million to fund growth

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An Austin software startup is working to help lower the U.S. college dropout rate by helping students make better decisions in selecting courses and majors.

Civitas Learning, founded last year, has raised $4.1 million from Austin Ventures, First Round Capital and Floodgate to create a digital platform to help guide educational decision-making.

Civitas is working with four-year universities, community colleges and other higher education entities to analyze demographic, behavioral and academic data about their students. Using historical and current data, the company builds models that help predict which students are at risk of dropping out and advises students on degree and course selection, how to best sequence classes and how to use study time.

“Right now, academic decisions are made largely on anecdotes and serendipity,” said Charles Thornburgh, Civitas’ founder and CEO.

“A minor decision like which class to take can have a major bearing on a student’s overall academic success. We can identify classes that have been successful for similar students in the past, and we can warn them about taking class combinations that have been toxic in the past.”

According to the Center for American Progress, only half of U.S. students pursuing bachelor’s degrees finish them, and the completion rate for students pursuing associate degrees is less than 25 percent.

“That’s part of the untold story around the student debt crisis,” Thornburgh said. “Four times as many college dropouts default as those who complete their degrees.”

Before starting Civitas, Thornburgh was a senior executive at test-preparation and tutoring giant Kaplan Inc., where he spent nine years as an in-house entrepreneur and launched several tech businesses. Before that, he founded, an education technology startup that was acquired by Kaplan in 2002.

Austin Ventures was introduced to Thornburgh through Adam Dell, an AV venture partner who met Thornburgh two years ago when he was looking for opportunities in education technology.

“I was very impressed by Charles’s understanding of the value of using big data and analytics to improve academic outcomes,” said Dell, who is the brother of Dell Inc. founder Michael Dell and an adjunct professor at the University of Texas School of Law. “We started talking about the idea of starting a company around the space of improving outcomes. Charles moved to Austin from South Florida with his family, and AV led the investment with Floodgate and First Round Capital.”

Civitas has amassed a data set of more than 1 million student records and 7 million course records, which it says is the largest learning data set in the industry.

It plans to generate revenue by charging subscription fees to member institutions, whose administrators, faculty and students will receive personalized reports and recommendations based on the data.

For Austin Community College, which is working with Civitas and has a number of campus projects aimed at reducing attrition, the data research “can give us insight into the effectiveness of our initiatives, as well as the ability to help faculty and staff apply resources and support more effectively to improve these outcomes,” said Kathleen Christensen, vice president of student support and success systems.

Civitas, which has 10 employees, is hiring data scientists and client services professionals and expects to double its staff by the end of the year.

The company plans to pursue additional funding in the next year, Thornburgh said.

“This is going to be a capital-intensive endeavor,” he said. “The upfront investment that’s required to build a platform like this is something that most schools couldn’t possibly do on their own, which is why until now it didn’t exist.”

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