We're used to thinking of Facebook as, at best, a distractor for college kids and at worst, a resume-destroyer. But the Gates Foundation , in its first-ever venture investment of $2 million in a little-known Facebook app platform called Inigral , is betting that it can actually make a measurable improvement in the rate of students who complete college, which hovers at a dismal 56%  nationwide.
After economic factors, the key driver of persistence in college is student engagement--a tough-to-measure factor of how much students are immersed in intellectual and social life at the school. Inigral's Schools App connects prospective students, students, and alumni with each other over common interests in a Twitter or Yammer-like format.
"Some call it kin to a virtual student union," says CEO Michael Staton, who talked with Gates for a year prior to the investment. "Students use it to share information, express themselves, find friends, start projects, and find opportunities to get involved." At one of their schools, the University of Texas at Tyler, prospective frosh who signed up for the app were five times more likely to attend the school.
The Gates investment will fund introductions of the Schools App at colleges that serve lots of lower-income Pell Grant recipients. Inigral is not the only company trying to leverage social media to improve outcomes for students. Red Rover  is a similar, web-based tool, while ConnectEdu  functions as a virtual college counselor as well as providing a recruitment and retention platform for colleges.