Melvin Hines Upswing 2014

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NC IDEA announced its Fall 2014 grant winners on December 8, 2014. This piece is part of a series of stories on the five winners.

Tutors across North Carolina are logging into an online service called Upswing and helping community college students pass math, science and English classes. And all the data collected about those students will soon become an important retention tool for colleges and universities.

At least that's the hope of Melvin Hines, who started the company in 2012 after years of interest in reducing high school and college dropout rates, especially in rural and impoverished areas. 7 community colleges around the state with more than 30,000 students subscribe to the service today, and Hines says on average, each university earns $700,000 more a year in tuition as students stay in school. Tutors are free to students of those universities any time of the day.

Hines has raised just north of $300,000 from friends, family, the Charlotte Angel Fund and a Dallas accelerator, and expects to be cash flow positive in the spring of 2015, at which point he may consider a series A. In the mean time, an NC IDEA grant, awarded today, will help the Raleigh startup expand its platform to mobile—many students in rural areas still lack access to wi-fi and computers.

"Our focus has always been on increasing access to students who are struggling and looking for help," Hines says. "We need to create a native mobile app that will allow students, regardless of means, to still connect to get the help they need."

The Duke University law and business school grad first experienced the dropout phenomenon in high school in the small town of Albany, Ga. There weren't tutors, coaches and counselors available to help struggling students. As an undergraduate at the University of Georgia, he started a tutoring and mentorship organization for the local community. And as a law student, he started a law review focused disparities in education around the country.

After earning an MBA, he worked at the Chapel Hill consulting firm Best Practices. He also served as an adjunct professor at North Carolina Central University, where his focus was to increase the number of students that stayed in school from their first to second years.

Upswing became an effort to scale. He and co-founder Alex Pritchett (based in Austin) built a platform for personalized tutoring with a virtual "learning room" that allows tutors and students to use audio, video, chat and to write on a virtual whiteboard that both people can see in real time. Students can also upload documents to the room.

Community colleges became a target because dropout rates were so dramatic—45 percent of first-year students leave before their second year. There also is a big emphasis on online coursework, but just 10 percent of students pass the courses. Colleges are very focused on increasing those rates, Hines says, and students are already comfortable with online learning. He also had an in—the former CFO of the North Carolina Community College System is an advisor.

Hines quit his job to pursue the business full-time in April 2013 and in early 2014, joined the Dallas B2B accelerator Tech Wildcatters (Durham startups Validic and Device Magic are also graduates). There, he merged with another EdTech startup, whose founders Morgan Intrator and Chris Webb built a learning management system called YourSigma, which let users create content for other users (vs. Kahn Academy which delivers content from a few people to many). His goal is to incorporate content creation tools for tutors, so they can provide some common lessons to many students.

Four-year universities are also a target, especially those offering online courses.  And Hines expects to soon expand to Texas colleges—Upswing has an office in Austin dedicated to software development.

Raleigh, meanwhile, will house the sales and marketing teams. Upswing employs six people today.

Community colleges use the service for several purposes—its tutors have access to it during school hours and students can access Upswing's tutors during evenings, weekends and holidays. Upswing also provides the colleges valuable data about at-risk students. The more data collected, the better analytics and recommendations Upswing can make to help universities identify at-risk students and develop plans to retain them.

Today, Upswing is an online tutoring company that collects data. But eventually, Hines hopes to be the opposite—a data company that does tutoring.

"We want to be considered experts in the field when it comes to education retention, he says. "That's where we see the next step in our growth."