PFS in Higher Education National Cohort

Third Sector recently concluded a national cohort of engaged stakeholders including public systems of higher education, college access and success providers, and funders to explore outcomes-oriented Pay for Success (PFS) opportunities as a way to fund wraparound student support services that improve matriculation, persistence, and graduation outcomes for underserved students.

Third Sector delivered six months of training and technical assistance to support state/system partners’ exploration of PFS as one tool to better connect resources to impact for underserved students. The project worked to:

  • Assess Pay for Success in Higher Education by collaborating with three stakeholder groups: state government and higher education agencies, leading college access and success providers, and potential upfront funders
  • Workshop Pay for Success criteria with stakeholders in order to adapt a PFS project structure to the higher education context
  • Generate tools and resources to develop pilot projects and to support replicability across higher education systems

Read more about the cohort participants and the project’s background below.

If you’re interested in learning more about Third Sector's experience in Higher Education, please reach out to Sarah Walton at

PFS in Higher Education National Cohort Partners

States and Public Systems of Higher Education

State and system partners who participated in the cohort completed a guided process to develop the key components of Pay for Success projects including: 

  • A pilot project hypothesis that has been vetted by stakeholders, 
  • Tools that they can use to move their project forward (including an economic model, term sheet, procurement language, contract language), and 
  • A site-specific implementation roadmap of next steps. 

These efforts have been guided by six workstreams with interactive exercises that have guided stakeholders to align on core components of a PFS project. The cohort partners included:

Provider Advisory Group

Third Sector engaged an Advisory Group of eight college access and success providers to assess readiness for PFS and to foster cross-stakeholder discussion on PFS project hypotheses and tools with state and system partners. As a result of this work, providers have a better understanding of PFS, their readiness for PFS, how they may want to engage in it, and recommended next steps to strengthen readiness. The Provider Advisory Group included:

Catholic Charities Fort Worth logo
College Forward logo
College Possible
Edquity logo
Educate Tomorrow logo
Inside Track logo
One Million Degrees logo

Third Sector will share its findings from the above activities in early 2020, while also providing recommendations for leveraging PFS in the field. To view the cohort participant’s final presentations and hear a preview of the provider and funder landscape, check out our webinars page and the other cohort resources below.


  • PFS in Higher Education National Cohort Project Summary
  • Blog Posts:
    • Blog #1 - Leveraging Pay for Success in Higher Education: Building a National Cohort to Boost Student Success Outcomes
    • Blog #2 - Four Communities Selected to Receive Training and Technical Assistance in Third Sector’s PFS in Higher Education National Cohort
    • Blog #3 - Engaging Student Support Service Providers in Higher Education
    • Blog #4 - PFS Cohort’s NCAN Reflections: Advancing Equity and Keeping Student Outcomes at the Center of the Work
    • Blog #5 - Pay for Success Holds Promise in Higher Education: National Cohort Learnings
  • Cohort Webinars - To view webinars hosted for the cohort, visit this page. Webinars include:
    • Exploring PFS with Student Support Services - Aug. 21, 2019
    • Pay for Success “101” - Oct. 22, 2019
    • Funding in PFS Projects - Oct. 30, 2019
    • Services with an Evidence-Base and Procurement Implications - Nov. 13, 2019
    • Importance of PFS Pilots in Order to Launch PFS Projects - Dec. 3, 2019
    • PFS in Higher Education National Cohort Final Presentations - Dec. 11, 2019
  • One-Pager about the project
  • Initial State Request for Information: Third Sector invited states and public systems of higher education to submit a Request for Information response to be considered as one of the sites for the national cohort. Slides here.
  • Initial Provider Request for Information: Third Sector invited college access and success service providers to submit a Request for Information response to inform a landscape assessment of available support services. Slides here.

Background: A New Approach to Systematically Finance College Access and Success

Research shows that college-intending low-income, first-generation, students of color disproportionately experience poorer matriculation, persistence, and graduation outcomes in their path to and through college. These students would benefit from additional wraparound student support services to navigate the system and overcome barriers in order to access and succeed in college. There are a variety of wraparound student support services offered by providers across the country that have demonstrated success in achieving the intended access and success outcomes for college-intending students of underserved backgrounds. While the evidence base of these services continues to grow, funding is often unsustainable. In the last ten years, the cost of postsecondary education has increased by 35% while the availability of public funding for state institutions of higher education has declined.

Third Sector’s PFS in Higher Education National Cohort builds on a 2017 Kresge-funded engagement with uAspire, a national provider of college affordability and financial aid counseling in which Third Sector conducted a PFS feasibility assessment for text-based student support services offered by uAspire. In Promoting Student Success: Using Pay for Success to Improve Student Attainment in Higher Education, Third Sector distilled the lessons of that assessment for stakeholders interested in exploring how PFS may hold promise for achieving better outcomes for students pursuing postsecondary education. The PFS Higher Education cohort initiative grew out of the recommendation to work with governments and higher education institutions that are well positioned to participate in a learning community to develop and pilot PFS's applicability and effectiveness to finance and scale access and success supports.

Third Sector's Cohort Experience

Third Sector uses our cohort model to network organizations and institutions working toward similar goals. To-date, Third Sector has developed three cohort experiences across issue areas and jurisdictions. Third Sector’s cohorts typically run for around 18 months, with 3-4 in-person convenings combined with a series of webinars to share subject-matter content. During convenings Third Sector curates a combination of panels from leaders in the field, facilitates workshop time for project teams, and offers working-sessions for sites to compare notes and troubleshoot common challenges. We have found that cross-state cohorts provide motivation and support to leaders across jurisdictions because they are not constrained by the “status quo” from their own state and are able to jointly identify creative ways to use federal funds. 

Visit our Empowering Families and Administrative Data Pilot pages to find out more about our other cohort work.

Please contact Sarah Walton if you are interested in learning more about the PFS in Higher Education National Cohort.

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