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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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And I'm Renee Montagne.

This is the time of year when students are wondering if they'll be accepted to the college of their choice. Many colleges and universities are asking themselves another question: How can we hold onto students once they're enrolled? Some schools see half their freshman class leave.

NPR's Larry Abramson reports that some schools are trying to keep students coming back with a new twist on a familiar tool: social networking.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

LARRY ABRAMSON: Last fall, these students were psyched to be starting school at Coppin State University in Baltimore. But if history is any guide, 40 percent of them will disappear before next year, victims of this school's low retention rate. To address this problem, some schools build physical spaces: new dorms, with themes and clubs to make sure new students get involved.

Those strategies can help. But the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been looking for new approaches. Today, the foundation is announcing it will invest $2 million in a company that's trying to build virtual college communities. Michael Staton is president of Inigral, which builds school-based Facebook sites.

Mr. MICHAEL STATON (President, Inigral): What we do is make sure that when students arrive, they either already have assembled or very quickly assemble that kind of peer support.

ABRAMSON: Peer support means a ready network of friends. Only students can gain entry to these sites, and they're invited in the moment they're accepted to a school. The feel is supposed to be small and intimate, unlike school's fan sites on Facebook, which are open to everyone and don't inspire much networking.

Columbia College, an arts and media school in Chicago, has been experimenting with the site. Samantha Saiyazonsa, a sophomore in journalism there, says it helps her merge her social and academic lives.

Ms. SAMANTHA SAIYAZONSA (Student, Columbia College): Actually check to see what - who's in my class and what their schedules kind of look like. That's really my favorite thing to do.

ABRAMSON: School clubs can use this technology to recruit and discuss campus issues. The sites are there for students, not for administrators. Schools pay what they say is a nominal fee for Inigral to build a site. The hope is that they will get paid back through greater student engagement and higher retention rates. That saves them money in the long run, because they don't have to replace all those dropouts.

Kari Barlow has been in charge of Arizona State's experiment with the school's app.

Ms. KARI BARLOW (Arizona State): Yeah, 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.

ABRAMSON: It will be tough to show whether these efforts played any direct role in students' decision to stay or go. That's a subject for future research. And, of course, many students are out of reach of this and other approaches. Alexis Thompson, a sophomore who uses Columbia College's site, says it only works if kids work with it.

Ms. ALEXIS THOMPSON (Columbia College): That's something that they have to be proactive about. So the Facebook app can be there, but unless you're being proactive and you want to go out and look for things like that, it's really on the student.

ABRAMSON: The Gates Foundation investment seems to show that the organization is casting a wide net to find new ideas that will improve outcomes in higher education. This is the first time that the non-profit foundation has bought an actual equity stake in a for-profit company.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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