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Gates Foundation Bets on Facebook Startup to Keep Kids in School

inigral logoThe Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation wants to encourage college freshmen to stay in school -- and it's counting on social networking to help.

Today, the organization is expected to announce a $2 million investment in a company called Inigral, which sets up school-specific Facebook sites at colleges around the country. Unlike Facebook pages devoted to particular colleges or universities, Inigral's sites are relatively intimate. Membership is restricted to students, all of whom are automatically invited as soon as they're accepted to a university. The idea, according to Inigral CEO Michael Staton, is to provide students with a strong support network, before they even set foot in their first college class. "What we do is make sure that when students arrive they either already have assembled or [can] very quickly assemble that kind of peer support," Staton told NPR.

In exchange for their own Facebook apps, participating schools are required to pay a small fee, which they hope to recover by enhancing student engagement and, theoretically, increasing retention rates. It's still too early to say whether or not the approach has been effective in keeping kids in school, but some universities say they've already seen results. "We have some indication that first-time freshmen who opted to participate in the application were highly more likely to be retained for the next semester," said Kari Barlow, an online administrator at Arizona State University.

Ultimately, however, the success of Inigral's sites may rely upon student engagement. "That's something that they have to be proactive about," said Alexis Thompson, a sophomore at Chicago's Columbia College, which recently launched its own app. "So, the Facebook app can be there. But unless you're being proactive and you want to go out and look for things like that - it's really on the student."

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