Engaging Student Support Service Providers in Higher Education

This blog series is centered on Third Sector’s assessment on applicability of Pay for Success in higher education in partnership with a new cohort of stakeholders. This is blog post #3 of the series.

Third Sector recently launched a national Pay For Success in Higher Education cohort of four higher education state and system partners that are interested in exploring Pay for Success (PFS) as a way to fund wraparound student support services that improve enrollment, persistence, and graduation outcomes for underserved students. Common wraparound services include college application assistance, financial aid support, and mentoring/advising. Numerous studies have shown these services are critical to bridge the college access and success gap for students who historically have not received equitable access to resources in the academic pipeline. Beyond their active role in delivering in-person and virtual services, providers carry deep expertise on the needs, perspectives, and experiences of underserved students. We sought provider input to inform the national cohort’s potential PFS projects through a Request for Information (RFI). 

The RFI received responses from 37 providers serving 23 states; four of those providers operate nationally and several operate in multiple jurisdictions. These organizations, ranging from nonprofit and for-profit service providers to campus-based partnerships, emergency aid grantors, and scholarship funders, serve between 250 to 10,000 students annually. We have summarized our learnings from this RFI and their applicability to PFS and the cohort below.

Student Population: All providers who responded support a specific demographic of historically under-resourced students, including low-income, first-generation, LEP (limited English proficiency), and students of color. Providers also ranged from serving pre-college (high school or middle school) students, students already enrolled in college and working toward a degree, and non-traditional students who may be adult learners or those who completed some but not all of college. A few providers bridged the gap between high school and college. 

Student Support ServicesProviders who responded varied widely in their service offerings, focusing on one or more of the following: mentoring and coaching, school selection and college application assistance, financial aid support, non-financial supports, and workforce preparation and training. 

Provider services for pre-college students ranged from one-off encounters, such as a credit-bearing course or a drop-in advising center, to continuing care models that follow students as they age with individual coaching and/or peer mentorship. For example, a nonprofit in the California Bay Area provides personalized advising and college financial aid workshops, campus tours, and application assistance in 27 high schools, as well as peer support, financial aid management, and renewable scholarships for their students once in college. Other unique models include a Connecticut nonprofit which pairs current college students as peer mentors with low-income and first-generation high-schoolers to assist with goal-setting, financial aid applications, and academics.

Providers serving post-secondary students who have already matriculated tend to focus primarily on “resource-brokering.” Resource-brokering can be direct, providing actual services like childcare, or indirect, such as referrals to on-campus services and equipping students with the right language and social capital to self-advocate for these services. One national nonprofit offers access to emergency financial assistance to help students persist in the face of unforeseen financial hardships.  Another provider runs a drop-in student center in downtown Boston for academic and non-academic supports including free meals, internet access, and childcare and other workforce-related supports.

Outcomes and Evaluation: Broadly, providers are centered on achieving enrollment, persistence, and graduation outcomes. Within those categories, providers are tracking metrics on progress towards college access and success, including FAFSA completion rates and net financial aid secured, college credits completed, semester to semester persistence, and time to graduation. While many providers self-reported positive outcomes for their services, we are continuing to explore which service models are supported by rigorous evaluation such as randomized control trials or quasi-experimental research methods.

Data Access: In addition to thorough and detailed self-reported data, some providers access administrative data sources (data collected and validated by the government). This includes data from high schools, higher education institutions, and government agencies to further understand student outcomes and program adaptations to better support students. One unique provider, one of two for-profit providers who submitted to the RFI, uses financial transaction data from student bank accounts to connect financial behaviors to emergency needs and make predictive, proactive referrals to social services programs or emergency aid opportunities. 

Funding: While some providers already receive public funding at the federal, state, or local level or funding directly from a higher ed institution, most providers are reliant on philanthropy and are looking for additional sources beyond their current relationships. One provider wrote, “Too often, foundation and grant funding is targeted at pilots and proofs of concepts, when what is needed now are bigger investments to make substantive changes using what we already know works and can make institutions and systems more agile and impactful.”

Application of RFI to Cohort: Next Steps

There is no one-size-fits-all, ideal service provider. The types of services our cohort state and system partners eventually procure will depend heavily on the student populations they choose to focus on, student needs, and the outcomes each is trying to improve. However, there are common characteristics that, based on Third Sector’s past experiences, indicate a provider may be well-suited for a PFS contract; we saw elements of these PFS characteristics in all of our RFI respondents. These factors include working with a well-defined population, providing evidence-informed, scalable services, and demonstrating a track record of achieving intended outcomes with clearly defined metrics. Providers who use data, especially administrative data, to inform programming decisions are in line with the goals of PFS, where data is used for continuous learning and program improvements in pursuit of outcomes. Additionally, a provider’s openness to alternative funding approaches is key for potential PFS projects. Even providers with existing funding relationships with government were enthusiastic about leveraging public dollars through a PFS contract as a sustainable, reliable, and innovative source of funding to scale and reach more students. 

Moving forward, Third Sector is working to consolidate provider responses and learnings from higher education research and evaluation partners, like the Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS) and MDRC, in a landscape assessment that will be shared with the PFS in Higher Education cohort sites and the Kresge Foundation. The hope is that the landscape assessment will be a useful tool to highlight attributes of service providers as sites continue to develop the building blocks for PFS pilot projects that fund wraparound support services for under-served students. Ultimately, provider engagement with the Pay For Success in Higher Education cohort ensures a more comprehensive, cross-sector understanding of the factors driving college success outcomes from enrollment to graduation and beyond. We are excited to convene the cohort at the National College Access Network (NCAN) conference in Indianapolis this September where we will have the opportunity to learn from providers in attendance who support students across the country. 

More information on the PFS in Higher Education National Cohort is available on our website.