Partnering to Achieve Student SuccessRecruiting for a Second National Cohort in Higher Education

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, college enrollment is down nationwide, with the National Student Clearinghouse reporting significant declines in both Fall 2020 and Spring 2021. Community colleges have been hit the hardest, with enrollment dropping 9.5% this spring. Black, Latinx, and Native American students have been hit the hardest, (notably reversing a promising trend of enrollment gains for Latina students), and declines have been particularly steep for adult learners over 24. Postsecondary education remains a critical bridge to opportunity, and students are no less committed or enthusiastic than they were a year ago; rather, the pandemic has exacerbated barriers to getting to and through school, and historically underserved and underrepresented students have suffered the most.

Fortunately, effective services for supporting student success exist, and a growing evidence base supports the value of wraparound services to help students to and through college. For example, InsideTrak, which provides comprehensive student coaching services, showed a 15% increase in retention for Pell Eligible students and a 13% increase in graduation rates.  College Possible, a college access and success program providing near-peer support, has been shown to significantly increase both enrollment and persistence. One Million Degrees, which provides academic support, personal and professional coaching, and financial aid advising services, is showing impressive outcomes in an ongoing randomized control trial, including 47% greater persistence for full-time students after one year in participating in the program.

Innovative foundations like ECMC provided the initial capital to develop and validate effective wraparound services, but philanthropy alone cannot take these models to scale - that will require public funding and integration with public systems of higher education. Historically, state investments in wraparound services have been relatively rare, and many states lack contracting vehicles for these types of partnerships. However, given the scale and urgency of the challenges facing students furthest from opportunity, we believe that states should embrace investments in proven coaching, system navigation, and barrier removal services as part of a broader strategy that also includes financial aid and academic support - not only during the pandemic, but for the long term as well.

Third Sector is currently working with the Ohio Department of Higher Education and the Colorado Department of Higher Education, participants in our first Higher Education Cohort,  to pilot precisely these types of investments. These projects use outcomes-focused contracts, which incorporate specific goals, metrics, data sharing, and performance incentives, to forge partnerships between state higher education systems and effective service providers. These contracts serve a dual purpose - the highly structured, population-based approach focuses evidence-based services where they are needed most, and each project will collect data on outcomes like enrollment, persistence, and degree attainment to demonstrate the value of public contracting for wraparound services and build the case for further investment. These projects represent the first step towards a future where states invest broadly and effectively in student success to reduce barriers facing historically underserved students and achieve greater equity in higher education.

We are now excited to be launching a second Higher Education Cohort, the Partnerships to Achieve Student Success (PASS) Cohort. The goal of the PASS Cohort is to engage 3-5 state higher education systems in a 6-month technical assistance opportunity to build a strong foundation for using outcomes-focused contracting to partner with student service providers who offer evidence-based programs that are proven to increase student access and success.

The PASS Cohort is structured around a population-first approach designed to prioritize racial equity. The equity challenges that are being illuminated by the COVID-19 crisis are not new, and the need for student services tailored to specific populations is clear. According to the National Student Clearinghouse, last year Asian and White students had the highest completion rates at public four-year institutions at 80% and 73% respectively, whereas Hispanic and Black students completed at 59% and 50%. Decreases in enrollment will only serve to increase these gaps at graduation. What has been working well for White and Asian students, has not been working for their Black, Hispanic, and Native American peers. To begin to address these disparities, each state will begin by identifying a priority population and exploring unmet student needs that are contributing to inequitable outcomes, then match those needs against the evidence-based services available to support student success.

Race isn’t the only factor that has been shown to disproportionately impact student outcomes. Priority populations can be narrowed down even further by examining some of the other challenges students face including basic needs, first generation experiences, student parents and more. For example, The Hope Center recently reported that 45% of students are experiencing food insecurity and 56% experience housing insecurity. According to the Higher Education Research Institute, first generation students make up about half of all college students, but only 27% will complete their bachelor’s degree in 4 years. Student parents, who make up 1 in 5 college students, often have higher GPAs than students without children, but are more likely to end up dropping out of college, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Different challenges may be playing a role in student success in a particular state, and PASS offers the opportunity to explore those factors, identify targeted supports, and leverage funding to address student needs. PASS hopes to provide a key piece of this puzzle through outcomes-focused contracting that will create strong partnerships between higher education systems and institutions and service providers.

States who engage in the PASS cohort will spend the first four months workshopping the foundational components for a successful outcomes-focused pilot project: priority student population, outcomes and data, student services, and funding.

During this time, TS will also help states to finalize their pilot project’s hypotheses and determine their readiness to move forward. States that are ready will then develop an implementation plan for their project.

These partnerships will bring needed services to students who wish to obtain a college degree. The outcomes-focused contracts will support states in creating a proof-of-concept for forging relationships with evidence-based service providers in a way that makes clear the value of these relationships measuring student outcomes. Additionally, outcomes-focused partnerships offer an opportunity to tailor services to priority populations, address the needs of students who face particular barriers, and consequently make progress towards closing achievement gaps.

Between now and May 7th, we are inviting state higher education departments, higher education commissions, and networks of colleges and universities to participate in this upcoming cohort by completing an RFI process with Third Sector support. We hope you’ll join us to explore this opportunity and advance equity in Higher Education.

For information on how to apply please visit:  If you have any questions or would like to set up a phone call to discuss this opportunity, please contact Marissa Williams at

Deadline to participate: in Cohort 2: Between now and May 7th