Case Study | College Forward Revolutionizes Student Data with CoPilot

August 3, 2020
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College Forward Creates CoPilot, Your Database Answer

Since its founding as a college access program in 2003, College Forward has worked tirelessly to improve the life outcomes of first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented students with coaching services that support them in their journey toward postsecondary attainment and for their careers ahead. By 2005, College Forward became one of the first college access organizations in the nation to add college completion services. Today, through the development of CoPilot and their innovative, student-centered, and high-tech, high touch program models, College Forward has served over 16,000 students.

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Students' Success

  • 16,000+ Students Served
  • 90% of students move directly from high school to college, compared to 69% of students of all income levels.
  • 82%  of students persist to their second year, compared to 73% of students of all income levels.
  • College Forward students are 2.5 times more likely to
    graduate with a postsecondary degree than their unsupported peers.

From Admission Control to College Forward

In the early days of College Forward (originally Admission Control), the organization served just 30 students at a single high school in central Texas. As the organization grew in both size and scope of services, so did its need for more sophisticated methods of tracking student data. What they were once able to track with legal pads, spreadsheets, and software designed for entire school districts to use to track their college counselling services simply wouldn’t cut it anymore. Reporting out and even understanding a students journey, let alone extracting that data for the entire organization became cumbersome and all-consuming.

"Our model is rooted in near-peer relationships. We have a team of amazing AmeriCorps members who come to work with a group of students every year, and their only job is to make sure they have the resources, belief, and the support they need to get them through the finish line."

Austin Buchan, CEO

Outgrowing the Original System

“If my boss said, we need to see an average GPA for this institution, or we want to look at our fall to spring persistence rates, I remember putting my head down in dismay, knowing it was going to take me two or three days to pull that together,” remarks Austin. Having to cull through various spreadsheets and analyze across different platforms where different parts of a student’s s stories were stored was a nearly impossible feat that inevitably took so much time away from what the program staff should have been doing.

Furthermore, because the organization did, and still does, rely heavily on AmeriCorps members to provide their direct services, it was also challenging to maintain a single source of truth. “Our coaches, who are the frontline supporters, were often having to dig through various paths to find what was going on with the student most recently,” recalls Scott Del Rossi; Managing Director, Student Services.

New Opportunities Require New Solutions

College Forward knew that if they were having this level of data management issues with just a few hundred students, they needed to find a real solution if they were going to achieve their goal at the time of serving thousands of students across Texas. Knowing that a comprehensive data solution would require a significant investment, College Forward sought out and were fortunate enough to receive grant support to help them find their database answer. “While most philanthropy supports frontline support for students, often these back-office, administrative, or technology-driven products are really the foundational pieces that allow organizations to do their work,” says Austin.

Finding the Right Solution

College Forward spent three months working with consultants to find a student information system that would meet all of their requirements. In addition to having all of their student information in one place, they knew they needed a nimble, easy to use and report on, and with impeccable security. 

They evaluated eight different platforms, and we scored them against a really rigorous matrix, and Salesforce.com came out ahead every single time. When asked why College Forward ultimately chose Salesforce, Austin recalls, “across all fronts, Salesforce checked every box. It was important to us that it was one of the leading CRM solutions in the world. We knew that they would continue to build out new innovations, new user experiences, and new products that weren’t existing at the time.”

Customizing Salesforce.com for College Access & Success

With a solid foundation in the Salesforce.com platform, College Forward was then able to customize the database to meet their exact needs. “Salesforce, as the name implies, is really more of a customer relationship management system to help manage customers, leads, sales. But we loved the backend of the platform because it was so easy to customize,” said Scott.

Migrating from one system to the next, was a substantial six-month undertaking. College Forward needed to clean-up and analyze ten years’ worth of student information, and every piece of data was crucial. Austin remembers, “we started at the very beginning with the mindset that, ‘we have a ton of information across disparate systems, but we cannot lose any of it as we’re making this jump into a new platform.’

Ready to Go Live

Once through the customization phase, it was time to put the solution to the test. As an educational organization, the academic year sets the pace for College Forward. They spent the summer doing end-user testing and had gathering feedback from roles in the organization from frontline staff to senior leadership.

Overnight, early August of 2012, College Forward flipped the switch. They stopped using all their old systems, and migrated fully into what would soon become CoPilot. Scott described the Go Live as an intensive process. Not only did they have to train all of their new AmeriCorps members, but they also needed to retrain other staff members who were used to working in their legacy systems to make sure they would be comfortable working with the new technology. College Forward put a great deal of emphasis on this training phase of the project. “Technology can do anything we want it to do, but at the end of the day, it’s the people behind it that will make or break the success of a project like this.”

Unleashing the Power of CoPilot

By developing a custom solution, College Forward was able to finally have a database that directly correlates with their programming. “We have things that we call milestones, different benchmarks that our students need to reach,” describes Erika Montoya, College Access Program Manager. “One of the milestones for our senior students is to apply to at least one post-secondary institution. If for some reason we had a student who didn’t complete it, CoPilot will prompt us to do more individualized one-on-one work with them. It allows us to take that extra step to figure out the root of the problem by looking at the larger data that we input into CoPilot.”

Using Social Entrepreneurship to Improve College Access

As a member of the Austin College Access Network (ACAN), College Forward, regularly meets with similar organizations across central Texas to connect with and support their college persistence services in the region. Impressed by the dashboards and reporting College Forward was able to provide to talk about their programming, ACAN Member organizations began to ask if they could get their hands on this new student information system as well. 

Through that organic process, and talking with colleagues who were struggling with the same data management issues that College Forward had just a few years prior, College Forward knew they needed to find a way to make CoPilot available to other organizations. Through the Salesforce AppExcahnge, College Forward package up all the customizations they made to their Salesforce instance and created their own Salesforce App, CoPiot—Powered by College Forward.

The college access and success nonprofit space is doing some of the hardest and most important work in the country. In an ever-increasing expensive environment where higher education is more expensive than it's ever been working with students who are often struggling to make ends meet both in the classroom and out of the classroom. It's really daunting work.

Austin Buchan

CoPilot—Powered by College Forward

By offering CoPilot as an app on the Salesforce.com AppExchange, College Forward provides a vital intervention tool to similar organizations, at a fraction of the cost. Through CoPilot, College Forward now indirectly impacts over 400,000 students around the country. 

But technology, alone cannot support a mission. If the people using the technology are not championing usage and creating a data-informed culture, CoPilot will not take an organization to new heights. That’s why College Forward created the Services team to help organizations implement CoPilot and to support them throughout their CoPilot Partner tenure.

With over 50 implementations to lean on, implementing CoPilot has never been easier for new partners. Partner Experience Managers will map out your project from a technical perspective, while also addressing any of the social or cultural components of migrating from one system to the next. And as your programming evolves, over time, so does CoPilot.

The Future of CoPilot

“We now have partners who’ve been using CoPilot for five years, and thinking about how this product and this data system lives and breathes with them as their program models evolve and change and become more sophisticated over time,” says Austin.

CoPilot today is already revolutionizing the impact for College Forward and CoPilot Partners, but having the data is only the beginning. With the power of Salesforce Einstein, artificial intelligence is just over the horizon. Einstein’s ability to create early alert systems for us and our CoPilot Partners is yet another step toward ensuring no student falls through the cracks on their path to a college degree. Austin notes, “This latest predictive analytics solution will not only benefit the students currently served by College Forward but will also provide sophisticated solutions for the hundreds of thousands of students currently being served by our CoPilot Partners across the country.”