On College Success: Four Questions with Charles Thornburgh, Civitas Learning

When considering barriers along the journey to college success, course registration may not be the first that comes to mind. But in fact, the scheduling process alongside the challenges of already complex lives can have a major impact on low-income students’ ability to persist to graduation day.

In 2005, Civitas Learning launched College Scheduler to help students optimize class scheduling options while balancing academic requirements and life demands, such as employment, child care, or family responsibilities. With a decade-long track record, the company proved that this low-cost intervention could significantly increase college persistence rates, yet it was struggling to get colleges serving primarily low-income students to adopt its technology. With the support of the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, Civitas Learning will expand the reach of College Scheduler to 25 institutions serving 250,000 low-income students, enabling more students to reach college graduation.

We recently spoke with founder and CEO Charles Thornburgh about the Civitas Learning approach to technology, data, and design to advance higher education outcomes – check out our conversation below and don’t miss the full “On College Success” blog series here.

What drives your passion for education?

While working my way through college, I had the opportunity to help prepare high school students for college entrance exams and fell in love with the experience of teaching.  That first job in teaching led to an opportunity to become an education entrepreneur, and that path has provided me with a career’s worth of evidence of the transformative impact available when we expand access to, and the improve the efficacy of, great educational experiences.

At Civitas, we have access to incredible data on the diversity of student journeys through education, and each of us has become obsessed with the change we can help enable by working with educators to improve student success. This passion is at the core of our mission at Civitas Learning and is the uniting force that sustains our team.

Tell us about your organization, Civitas Learning. How did you get started, and what challenges are you facing today?

We founded Civitas Learning in 2011 with the idea that technology, data, and human-centered design could help address the stagnating outcomes in American education, a problem that costs our society trillions of dollars and immeasurable human capital. We recognized that the only way to address a need that vast was to bring together a diverse, talented group of people to harness technologies from other industries and combine it with education expertise. This goal – creating massive, measurable impact on student success – became our “Million More Mission.”

As our team continues to grow – the colleges and universities we work with now enroll over eight million students – we are increasingly focused on the challenges of scaling the remarkable results we have seen in our early work. Specifically, that means ensuring that we are prepared to provide the supports our customers need throughout the transformation our solutions enable, from evaluation through implementation, change management, and continuous learning.

What’s your vision for education over the next 10 years? What’s your vision for scaling the kind of work you do across the education space?

In the next 10 years, post-secondary education will continue to experience a massive expansion in the diversity of students it’s serving, and students will see a dizzying increase in the number of educational paths available to them.  To respond to this exponential growth in complexity and opportunity, our higher education system must lean into a culture of collaboration and the sharing of rigorously evidence-based practices. This sharing of best practices will allow students around the world to benefit from a single university’s new idea.

Powerful technologies are showing incredible potential to create experiences that are personalized and responsive to student needs. We have a responsibility to ensure that this data gets into the hands of talented and committed educators and student support professionals who are focused on improving outcomes for all. Civitas Learning is hard at work to develop the technology, services and culture that enable us to work with an increasing number of colleges and universities for large-scale student impact.

What’s your message to others working in college completion?

Student success work can be overwhelming. Administrators are struggling to support students, and students are struggling to navigate their journey. Institutions are balancing the need to support new and diverse student populations while performance expectations rise, competition for students grows, and resources remain flat. Most schools don’t have the resources to add more staff, and their teams can’t work any harder, so our only option is to work smarter.

By better connecting tools and intelligence, and by providing faculty and administrators with the insights they need to better serve students, even small improvements can impact the success of millions of students and their families. This is incredibly important work, and while I know it can feel overwhelming in scale, it’s hard to imagine a more important way to spend a career.