PFS in Higher Education National Cohort

Third Sector is currently leading 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. This effort 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.

With Kresge support, Third Sector will build from that initial feasibility and offer six months of free technical assistance and training to four states and public systems of higher education. The four partner sites in the national cohort are: 

  • Arizona State University 
  • Colorado Department of Higher Education 
  • Connecticut State Colleges & Universities 
  • Ohio Department of Higher Education. 

Participation in Third Sector’s national cohort will prepare states to launch PFS projects and potentially to apply for new funding under the Fund for Innovation and Success in Higher Education (FINISH) Act which will, if passed, for the first time, authorize Pay for Success in higher education. Similarly, provider participation in the cohort will allow providers to inform, influence, and shape PFS projects that build off the various existing evidence-informed college access and success services.

If you’re interested in learning more about this opportunity, please reach out to Sarah Walton at


  • 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
  • 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 (invite only)
  • 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.


Arizona State University is a comprehensive public research university, measured not by whom it excludes, but whom it includes and how they succeed. Recognized by U.S. News and World Report as the country’s most innovative school, ASU graduates more than 20,000 thinkers innovators and master learners every year. ASU’s Educational Outreach and Student Services champions student success from kindergarten through college with Access ASU programs and initiatives designed to ensure that all Arizona students graduate high school ready to thrive in college and in the 21st century workforce.

Cohort project manager is Sylvia Symonds, Associate Vice President Educational Outreach & Student Services


Working with the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, the Colorado Department of Higher Education advocates, develops policies and supports students to maximize higher education opportunities for all. The Department believes every Coloradan should have an education beyond high school to pursue their dreams and improve our communities.

Read the state’s master plan for higher education, Colorado Rises: Advancing Education and Talent Development.

Cohort project manager is Cynthia N. Armendariz,  Ph.D., Program Director, Colorado Opportunity Scholarship Initiative


The Connecticut State Colleges and Universities (CSCU) contribute to the creation of knowledge and the economic growth of the state of Connecticut by providing affordable, innovative, and rigorous programs. Our learning environments transform students across our 17 institutions and enable over 140,000 Connecticut residents annually to pursue their personal and career objectives. CSCU’s mission is to promote the education of Connecticut residents and improve economic growth through affordable, innovative, and rigorous academic programs. As public institutions of higher education, we are positioned to make sure that all residents of the state have access to the educational opportunities they need and deserve. No other educational institution serves Connecticut in this way.

Cohort project manager is Benjamin Barnes, Chief Financial Officer, Connecticut State Colleges and Universities


The Ohio Department of Higher Education is the state agency that coordinates higher education in Ohio. The agency is directed by its chancellor, who is a member of the governor of Ohio's cabinet. The chancellor provides policy guidance to the governor and the Ohio General Assembly, advocates for Ohio’s public colleges and universities, and carries out state higher education policy.

The agency’s main responsibilities include authorizing and approving new degree programs, managing state-funded financial aid programs, and developing and advocating policies to maximize higher education’s contributions to the state and its citizens.

Cohort project manager is Stephanie Davidson, Ph.D., Vice Chancellor, Academic Affairs The Ohio Department of Higher Education

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.

The Higher Ed Cohort

Throughout the PFS in Higher Education national cohort, Third Sector will bring together the four cross-state group of partners to workshop, assess, and pilot PFS practices in higher education. The PFS in Higher Education cohort will include in-person convenings, which have been valuable for cohort groups to learn from each other, share common challenges, and generate possible solutions on their path to implementation. The PFS in higher education cohort has four primary goals:

    1. Educate participating stakeholders about Pay-for-Success contracting and funding mechanisms to impact improved outcomes at scale;
    2. Assess and enhance the capacity of state/system partners to explicitly identify and contract for meaningful college access and success outcomes;
    3. Drive demand toward the utilization of outcomes-based funding to catalyze a performance shift in higher education and improve student outcomes to and through college; and
    4. Develop shared tools and resources, (e.g., economic model and contract template) that promote a clear pathway for PFS pilot project construction and replicability for scale.

    PFS requires the collaboration of government, service providers, and funders. While the uAspire feasibility signaled where PFS in higher education may hold promise, Third Sector has found through past project work that often the most advantageous approach is to bring stakeholders together to workshop and refine an idea, pilot demonstration projects, and then learn from the process together. Third Sector is excited to lead this work with this national learning community cohort in higher education.

    Third Sector’s goal is to develop a strong cohort of higher education institutions, providers, and funders by fall 2019 that will then develop and pilot PFS projects focused on improving college access and success outcomes. Cohort content will draw on effective practices identified through feedback from our past and current cohorts. Participating stakeholder groups will develop a common language and understanding of how state policy, and other enabling factors, can provide the environment for PFS to be used as a tool to promote student success. This cohort approach, with customizable tools shared across the network, will be an effective way to reach a variety of stakeholders to scale and influence the larger national system.

    If you’re interested in learning more about this opportunity, please reach out to Sarah Walton at

    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 current 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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