“Einstein Prediction Builder helps us evaluate our work, and better understand what we’re doing well and where we need improvement.” - Austin Buchan, CEO College Forward

Driving graduation rates higher with Artificial Intelligence

Texas-based College Forward is a small nonprofit with a big mission — helping economically disadvantaged students enter college and complete their degrees. “The cards are stacked against so many of our students on their path to higher education,” said Austin Buchan, CEO of College Forward. “One-on-one life coaching that connects them with resources is really a way for us to level the playing field.” Each year, College Forward reaches more than 12,000 students from low-income homes around Austin and Houston, and its 85 percent college graduation rate is far above the national rate for students from more affluent backgrounds.

Nonprofit Cloud, driving the mission forward…

College Forward began its work in 2003, with 30 students in their program. Working across over 27 Excel spreadsheets to manage data on their students’ progress, they knew they needed an innovative platform to truly scale their mission. In 2012, College Forward received a special grant for a systems upgrade. “Selecting Salesforce was a no-brainer,” Buchan said. “It was customizable in the cloud, and we have 100 young people working for us who are just out of college themselves. The usability had to be there.”

Nonprofit Cloud was selected as the infrastructure that drives everything within the organization. “Sales Cloud is literally the backbone of the entire organization, tracking every milestone a student has throughout their time in our program, which can be up to 1,000 data points per student’s life cycle,” says Buchan.

The Nonprofit Success Pack is aiding College Forward to manage the many grants that help fund its operations. From relationship and opportunity management with foundations to tasks and activities, the Nonprofit Success Pack is managing all grant-related activities. Once a grant is awarded, “Reports and dashboards makes sense of all the data, the visualization through dashboards, the automation through reporting…”, says Buchan, allowing College Forward to meet critical deadlines and share outcomes with stakeholders. Reports that used to take a week, for example- the average GPA of students at a particular school of interest, now happen automatically through dashboard workflows.

Einstein Prediction Builder reveals students in need of support.

Salesforce Einstein has played a key role in College Forward’s success by surfacing dropout risk factors in the College Forward database and then flagging at-risk students within each life coach’s personal Salesforce workflow. Said Buchan, “Einstein’s predictive power ensures that we get the right help to the right students when they need it most.”

College Forward entered the pilot program for Einstein Prediction Builder in the summer of 2017. After a simple four-step process — using clicks, not code — Einstein sifted through the non-profit’s rich six-year trove of student data and generated a valuable new datapoint for College Forward counselors: a risk score assessing each student’s likelihood of dropping out of college. “For the first time ever,” said Buchan, “our counselors could rapidly identify on a day-to-day basis which students were in most need of their support.”

Natural language processing adds a layer of sophistication.

Einstein derived the dropout-risk score by detecting patterns in College Forward’s structured metadata — student record field entries for missed days, days late, changes in GPA and other factors. However, those student records also contain written counselor notes about each student, which often refer to common non-academic problem areas such as an unstable housing situation. Einstein’s natural language processing extracts such useful information from the counselor’s notes, factoring the information into the dropout risk score.

“Now we’ve built a workflow with Salesforce process builder that flags a student’s record for these kinds of severe risk factors,” said Buchan. “A case might be automatically opened for a meeting with the student’s guardians, or perhaps a housing case might be forwarded to a specialist who can help with that situation. Our predictive dashboard helps us evaluate our work, and better understand what we’re doing well and where we need improvement.”

Scaling its mission through the AppExchange

Since 2013, College Forward has used the AppExchange to share a version of its customized platform with other nonprofits that have a similar mission.

“We realize, as we’ve grown to 12,000 students, that’s still just a fraction of the need that’s out there,” said Buchan. “So we took all these incredible customizations we’ve made on the platform and packaged them into this incredible tool.” Called CoPilot, the app is now being used by forty organizations serving a total of 240,000 students in 20 states and the African nation of Rwanda.

In addition to CoPilot, College Forward is maximizing it’s efficiencies by taking advantage of time-saving apps on the App Exchange such as Form Assembly, Gridbuddy, Mogli SMS, amongst others. “These apps have enabled us to save thousands of data entry hours at some of our peak times throughout the year,” says Buchan.

CoPilot app contributes to Salesforce’s global vision.

Avalon Baldwin is a counselor with California-based 10,000 Degrees, one of the nonprofits now using CoPilot. “We started working with CoPilot and Salesforce about a year and a half ago,” she said, “and it drastically increased our efficiency, our data integrity and our security, so we can improve the work we do with students.” She recalls how she herself was at risk of being homeless when she was in college, and can attest to the value of these college access organizations. “If our counselors can use these tools to direct our finite resources to the right student at the right time, we can do so much for these students and their communities.”

Buchan said, “We’re really building off the Salesforce vision, of democratizing access to these sorts of tools. What we build at College Forward to support our staff and students doesn’t stay with us. We can take that incredible work we’ve done on the Salesforce platform and with just a few clicks, share it with the world and help lift all boats.”

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