Learning to Do Better: Building the Evidence Base on Career Impact Bonds and Economic Mobility

Thomas Coen June 15, 2022

You can’t improve something if you don’t know it’s working. As a researcher and program evaluator, I’ve spent my professional career assessing interventions to determine if they are improving people’s lives. But waiting years to measure a program’s outcomes isn’t enough. By the time you have the results, it’s too late for the many individuals who continue to receive those services.

At Social Finance, we’re committed to engaging in iterative, data-driven learning to continuously improve our outcomes-based practices and advance the field. That’s why, with funding from the Strada Education Network, we have launched a partnership with MDRC, an independent policy research and evaluation organization, to implement a robust learning agenda to assess the implementation and outcomes of the Career Impact Bonds funded through the UP Fund.

The UP Fund

In September 2020, Social Finance launched the UP Fund: a $50 million pool of catalytic capital investing in Career Impact Bonds. Designed to remove the risks that students typically bear in pursuing career education and training, the Career Impact Bond brings together student-friendly financing, short-term career-based training, and supportive services so that participants can enroll in training programs at little-to-no upfront cost. Those who gain employment with earnings above a pre-determined threshold repay program costs through income-based monthly payments with fixed repayment terms and payment caps. Those who don’t achieve employment success pay nothing. To date, more than 2,000 learners have enrolled across four training programs using this model. Sixty percent of these learners identify as a person of color, and close to 80% have an educational experience that does not include a bachelor’s degree. The median age of enrolled learners is 28.

The Learning Agenda with MDRC

The UP Fund offers a unique opportunity to understand how to better accelerate economic mobility for people facing barriers to education and employment. Our Learning Agenda will assess the Career Impact Bond model to determine which aspects of it are working for participants and which can be improved. It will address questions that encompass a participant’s journey from enrollment in a training program to their longer-term career trajectory, such as:

  1. Are there barriers or design choices in the admissions and enrollment process that may exclude certain populations?
  2. What are the facilitators and barriers to program completion, and do those vary depending on race, gender, income level, or prior educational attainment?
  3. What are participants’ labor market outcomes, and how do those vary over time and by subgroups?
  4. What are the facilitators or barriers to employment and training repayment obligations?
  5. How do employers view the Career Impact Bond model for hiring and employee retention?

Elevating community voice is a critical part of this process. We will incorporate user perspectives in multiple ways, including through the creation of a Learning Collaborative: a group of current and former program participants and training provider staff who will provide regular feedback to the MDRC research team on our learning questions, research agenda, and results. MDRC convened the Learning Collaborative twice during the Learning Agenda design process.

We are also committed to incorporating an equity lens throughout our learning process. For this reason, we will carefully examine any differential outcomes among those served by race, ethnicity, gender, income level, and prior educational attainment. Through in-depth interviews with learners, MDRC will unpack important contextual information to understand access to training and financing; the job search process; and the participant experience during training, through post-training employment, and when engaging with the financial servicer in each Career Impact Bond.

We are committed to transparency and learning. As the process unfolds, we will share information about MDRC’s findings and how we are using those findings to improve our work. It is our sincere hope that the findings will also be useful to students, training providers, policymakers, and researchers who aim to improve economic mobility.

Learn more about the Career Impact Bond >>