Renewable Learning: How A New Partnership is Taking a Sustainable Approach to Workforce Development

October 22, 2019

Takeaways

Income share agreements (ISAs) are an increasingly popular model of outcomes-based education financing.
The Workforce ISA Fund serves 76 students pursuing career-oriented certificate programs in high-demand fields.

As the labor market tightens and the pace of technological change continues to accelerate, it’s becoming an increasingly common theme that the traditional “one-and-done” model of education is over. Workers and job seekers are finding that the skills learned in high school and college can no longer carry them throughout their careers. As a result, employers, policymakers, and analysts alike are increasingly calling for new approaches to lifelong learning that will help upskill and re-skill individuals to compete and succeed in a fast-changing economy.

In this shifting landscape education and workforce organizations are joining forces to experiment with new models with the potential to create pathways to opportunity and economic mobility. 

This need for a new approach to lifelong learning inspired the San Diego Workforce Partnership and University of California San Diego Extension (UCSDx) to launch a new, first-of-its-kind workforce development program this spring. Known as the Workforce ISA Fund and backed by a cadre of impact investors including Google.org, Strada Education Network, and the James Irvine Foundation, the initiative is designed around a principle that is taking hold across the education and upskilling ecosystem: education financing that is outcomes-based, career-focused, and sustainable for providers.

How does the Workforce ISA Fund work? Michael Horn’s op-ed in Forbes, introduced the concept of “renewable learning”: a new approach that could “leverage investments in workforce development to create evergreen funds that recycle prior outlays to fund future adult learners to get the training they need.” This approach is made possible through income share agreements (ISAs), an increasingly popular model of outcomes-based education financing which is the namesake of the Workforce ISA Fund.

Under the terms of an ISA, students pay reduced (or zero) tuition up-front in exchange for a fixed percentage of their income after graduation, over a fixed and pre-set period of time. ISAs include minimum income thresholds to ensure that graduates are not burdened with payment during times of financial hardship, and maximum payment caps so that high-earning students never pay more than a predetermined amount. Most importantly for the renewable learning model, ISAs also enable students to “pay it forward”: in the Workforce ISA Fund, graduates’ payments are directed straight back into the fund itself, which continues to support future cohorts of students.

Launched this spring, the Workforce ISA Fund currently serves 76 students pursuing career-oriented certificate programs in high-demand fields like digital marketing and web development. Already, the initiative is fulfilling some of the early benefits of an income share agreement program: reducing the upfront cost of the certificates helps to remove the financial barriers that prevent many would-be career-changers from pursuing re- and upskilling opportunities. And the fund’s pay-for-success model means that the fund only continues when our graduates get good jobs, giving the Workforce Partnership and UCSDx “skin in the game” to ensure that students persist and succeed in the program. 

In the months and years to come, we’ll continue to gather data as Workforce ISA Fund students graduate and pursue careers in high-growth tech fields. The more we learn, the better we’ll be able to tailor our programs -- and the ISA model itself -- to ensure that we’re providing students with the right levels of support throughout their educational experience. It’s still early in the process, but we’re hopeful that the Workforce ISA Fund can serve as a bellwether for other education providers and workforce institutions to consider new -- and renewable -- approaches to help Americans succeed in tomorrow’s world of work.