The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has announced that it will invest $2 million in educational technology company Inigral Inc. in order to fund the development and marketing of Schools App - the Company's education-focused social media technology product devised on the lines of Facebook, which is expected to increase college retention rates.

Inigral's Schools App facilitates the creation of virtual college communities that are designed with the objective of enhancing a student's sense of belonging and integration within an institution, thus increasing the chances of enrolment and lowering the chances of drop-out.

It uses the Facebook platform so that the familiar and popular user interface, easy access from Facebook, social game constructs and a trusted environment leads to faster adoption of and integration with the Schools App. According to Greg Ratliff, senior program officer for Education, Postsecondary Success at the Gates Foundation, Leveraging social media to facilitate a student's integration into academic and campus life is a promising approach toward improving college completion rates in the United States.

Inigral charges a nominal fee to build a school-specific site - something which the educational institution can easily hope to recover by way of greater student engagement and higher retention rates. The Schools App helps students engage with clubs and groups on campus, discuss admissions or other campus issues and generally integrate their social and academic lives - a critical factor in engaging the Facebook generation.

From a national perspective, the United States faces a great challenge in terms of boosting college graduation rates. Only about 40 percent of Americans aged 25 to 34 have Associate's degrees or higher, which places the US a disappointing 12th in a study of 36 countries by the College Board. In that context, therefore, any innovative or technological initiative that increases retention among students and leads to improvement in graduation rates would be eagerly welcomed. Speaking to NPR, Kari Barlow, an online administrator who spearheaded Arizona State University's experiment with Inigral's App said, 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. At present, 11 schools including the ASU use the Schools App.

The Gates Foundation has been exploring innovative avenues for charitable giving aimed at improving education. In October 2010, the Foundation committed $30 million through challenge grants to innovators and institutions to expand the use of promising technology and applications that enhance college and career readiness. The current investment represents its strong and continued focus on the area and also marks the first time that it has bought an actual equity stake in a for-profit company.