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Lessons learned: What the University of Utah’s ISA pilot can teach us about innovative approaches to college affordability

Postsecondary education leaders, policymakers, and funders are often eager to launch new
programs to advance student success and meet policy and organizational goals. However they
don’t always prioritize measuring and evaluating programs to truly understand if they work. And,
it’s even more rare that they share when an initiative falls short of intended goals or is
discontinued altogether and why.

Today we are publicly releasing a research case study on the University of Utah’s pilot “Invest in
U” income share agreement (ISA) program. In 2019 the University of Utah launched this pilot
ISA program to fill student funding gaps to increase student completion rates, which was part of
the U’s nearly ten-year focus on increasing completion. Between 2017 to 2019, ISAs re-
emerged as a promising innovative financing solution. Purdue University and a number of short-
term credential providers started offering ISA programs, and several dozen other universities
followed suit.

The report, funded by Lumina Foundation, provides an overview on the student outcomes and
the development and implementation of the ISA program. Based on these findings, we offer
lessons learned for institutions considering developing an ISA. Broadly, the case study suggests
that to increase persistence and completion rates - particularly for students who face the
greatest barriers - universities need to continue to better address affordability and explore
additional funding options to fill unmet need gaps for students.

Here’s the good news: Students who participated in the Invest in U ISA program have high
bachelor’s degree retention and completion rates, which suggests the additional funding option
likely helped them persist and complete their degrees. ISA students had relatively high levels of
financial need and came from a variety of majors and backgrounds, suggesting these students
needed additional funding options in order to continue their education. ISA participants were
more likely to be students from low-income backgrounds, women, transfer students, students in
the academic middle (lower than average GPAs), and students with larger amounts of student
loan debt compared to the University of Utah’s population.


Despite these outcomes, the program was not without its challenges. The University of Utah
suspended the ISA program in 2022, after this case study was written. Some of the challenges
to program sustainability included low student demand, the complexity of explaining the ISA
product, the COVID pandemic and lowering of federal student loan rates, financial aid office
complexities, and uncertainty of the ISA policy and regulatory landscape. The University of Utah
is not alone in suspending the program. Purdue University, and some early pioneer ISA
programs, have done so as well, while other short-term credential programs, such as the Up Fund,
Stride Funding, and Pursuit, continue to offer ISAs for industry-aligned credential

Some of the fundamental concepts that made ISAs compelling ten years ago remain salient
today, namely the increased focus on measuring post-completion student outcomes, the
accompanying need to invest in data capacity and infrastructure, and the need to better align
credential cost and value. Measuring student earnings and employment data was in the nascent
stages in the 2010s. Now it has become center stage in a number of state and national efforts
such as the ACE Carnegie Reclassification Initiative, which seeks to measure higher education
institutions on social and economic mobility outcomes. For these reasons, we believe this case
study still has relevance and utility for the University of Utah and other institutions seeking to
develop and implement an ISA. Ultimately, this ISA research case study demonstrates that we
still need innovative ways to address issues of college affordability, completion, and alignment
of college cost and value.

By transparently sharing the data and lessons learned from this pilot ISA program, we hope the
report can serve as a resource to leaders and policymakers as they pursue innovative initiatives
to better meet today’s student and workforce needs. By learning from challenges and building
on what works, institutional leaders, policymakers, and funders can learn from each other and
create more effective and sustainable programs in the future.

About the Authors:

Courtney Hills McBeth, Ed.D. is Senior Vice President and Chief Program Officer at Strada
Education Foundation and is a research affiliate at the University of Utah’s Center for Higher
Education Research and Policy. From 2016 to 2020 during the development and
implementation of Utah’s ISA program, Dr. McBeth was special assistant to University of Utah
President Ruth Watkins and prior to that was managing director at the Sorenson Impact Center.

Jason L. Taylor, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership
and Policy and an Assistant Dean for Transfer Student Success in the Office of Undergraduate
Studies at the University of Utah. His research investigates how higher education and
community college policies shape educational opportunities for marginalized and
underrepresented college students.

Nile Brandt is a doctoral candidate in the Counseling Psychology (PhD) program at the
University of Utah. He is currently on a pre-doctoral internship at Appalachian State University
Counseling & Psychological Services. His research experience and interests involve student-
athlete success, mental health, and well-being.

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Last Updated: 12/5/23