Calvin College's Center for Social Research Turns Students into App Builders with Quickbase

Calvin College needed a better way to track and manage important research projects in its Center for Social Research. Quickbase gives administrators a flexible, easy-to-use system for building customized research management applications without relying on IT resources or complicated programming.


  • Traditional tools limited the team's ability to build new apps
  • Time-consuming customizations curtailed flexibility to quickly make app changes/updates
  • Spreadsheets slowed research and capped the number of projects undertaken


  • Quickbase as a platform for building apps without requiring IT developer resources
  • Fast training to turn students into no-code app builders
  • Easy integrations with other cloud-based systems to expand application capabilities


  • Better study participation rates and faster time-to-value
  • Fast app iterations and on-the-fly updates deliver immediate results
  • Increased profitability and more opportunity for expansion

Moving Beyond Spreadsheets

The Center for Social Research (CSR) is a business unit of Calvin College, a private, Christian liberal arts school in Grand Rapids, MI with an enrollment of 3,800. CSR employs both undergraduate and graduate students and offers technology-intensive social-scientific research and development services to community, business, and government clients.

Prior to Quickbase, most projects were supported by paper, spreadsheets, and desktop databases. Larger initiatives were underpinned by custom coded/scripted database apps such as PHP and Ruby on Rails. The disparity of approaches made it difficult to integrate data among projects and limited the team's capacity.

We were looking for an alternative to 'spreadsheet hell' and an intuitive online entry point for students to learn about relational databases. Quickbase has become the main blade in our 'Swiss Army knife' of tools, enabling us to drive more innovation, agility, and expansion.

Neil Carlson
PhD, Director of CSR at Calvin College

An Integrated Solution

Quickbase offers researchers an easy way to build their own custom apps without requiring constant support from the College's IT team. The cloud-based platform also enables CSR to maximize inter-organizational collaboration through seamless sharing of data anywhere, at any time, with anyone on- or off-campus.

Quickbase is, to this day, the only web application environment where we don't have to wait on some other office or partner to administer the full feature set.

Neil Carlson
PhD, Director of CSR at Calvin College

The team extends native Quickbase functionality even further through automated links to survey and financial software, as well as through SQL connectivity. Integration allows for creative solutions that help researchers gather data faster, often from hard-to-reach populations. New Quickbase-derived reports can be created during client meetings to provide deep insight on short notice.

Developer on computer in bright office

One of the biggest Quickbase advantages is that it can be easily taught to student hires. With more of its researchers able to build apps, CSR can meet the needs of larger and more complex projects and do more of them. Undergraduate and recent graduate staff also benefit by gaining a valuable, in-demand skillset.

Quickbase is intuitive and simple to learn. You don't have to have some arcane knowledge to build apps or use them. And features like the new syntax assistant for formula fields help with quality control, helping students write formulas correctly.

Neil Carlson
PhD, Director of CSR at Calvin College

Quickbase as a Platform for Growth

Ten years ago, CSR was engaged to handle the Kent County Congregations Study (KCCS), a large urban sociological study which required a traditionally built LAMP PHP app. Last summer, a successor project, the Greater Grand Rapids Survey of Congregations (GGRSC) was supported by a Quickbase App developed by staff and customized as needed by a team of students and recent grads. The ability to easily build and customize the app to study requirements, along with its ease-of-use in collecting and tracking data, led to a better, faster outcome.

"We got 350 interviews — a 75% response rate — in just three months of effort," says Carlson. "That's pretty much unheard of in urban sociology of religion."

Neil Carlson
PhD, Director of CSR at Calvin College

Quickbase also recently showed the value of on-the-fly updates during a client meeting for the "Green House Project", an initiative that's transforming assisted living for seniors. The client wanted to drill down deeper and see a metric shown in a specific way on a report.

I was able to instantly customize the report exactly the way she wanted to see it. It's just as easy to sit with a client and mock up an app for them. I can't put a value on that capability or what it means to our clients, because it's priceless.

Neil Carlson
PhD, Director of CSR at Calvin College

Despite that, there was a time when CSR's Quickbase subscription drew inquiries from college administrators looking to cut costs.

I point out that our Quickbase costs us less than a low-wage employee. It never makes mistakes; it works 24/7; and it can take your 'call' from anywhere on the planet. It has also helped us grow from a $180,000 a year operation in 2004 to $750,000 this year.

Neil Carlson
PhD, Director of CSR at Calvin College