How Per Scholas Uses Research-Practice Partnerships to Drive Innovative Program Improvement

By Shawna Anderson, Donna Wharton-Fields

Over the past decade, the workforce development field has increasingly adopted a sector-strategy approach to meet the needs of both workers and employers. Sector programs train people for high-quality jobs in industries and occupations that have strong local demand and offer opportunities for career advancement. The programs include such offerings as job-readiness training, occupational skills training, support services, and assistance with job searches and job placement, and go beyond more traditional workforce development programs by developing strong relationships with local employers. The goal is to improve the economic mobility of individuals with low incomes who are traditionally excluded from high-quality jobs.

While there is a sizable body of evidence about the effectiveness of sector programs, much remains to be learned. One central question is how to expand access to these programs, which have struggled to enroll disadvantaged workers. Another is how to effectively increase enrollment, which has not kept pace with the need. Improving the scope and reach of sector programs requires a variety of skill sets and perspectives, and many providers do not have the internal capacity to address these challenges on their own. In recent years, research and practitioner partnerships between providers and outside organizations have been developed to help drive program improvement. Per Scholas, a sector-based training and career advancement organization based in New York City, has had success in this regard, partnering with and leveraging the expertise of outside research firms to improve its program and expand its reach. This brief focuses on one such partnership.

Per Scholas Program Model

Per Scholas launched its IT training program in the Bronx, NY, in 1994, providing no-cost training to participants and then connecting graduates directly with employers. It established itself early on as a learning organization committed to continuously improving its operations, programs, and services by participating in two major randomized controlled trials aimed at assessing the effectiveness of the sector-based program model: the Sectoral Employment Impact Study with Public Private Ventures in 2006, and the WorkAdvance study with MDRC in 2011. The studies’ impact evaluations demonstrated that Per Scholas’s program model could substantially improve earnings for working adults looking to advance beyond low-wage jobs. Building on these promising results, Per Scholas has expanded over the years. Today it offers programs in seventeen cities and has provided more than 16,000 graduates with skills training and access to employer networks. A recently published report by MDRC on the WorkAdvance demonstration after seven years showed that Per Scholas’s employer demand–driven sector strategy significantly increased participants’ earnings and led to sustained advancement over time. 

Per Scholas has set ambitious goals to expand access and significantly increase annual enrollment in its programs by 2025. While the initial studies demonstrated its effectiveness in terms of participants’ earnings and advancement, the results also highlighted that, like many sectoral training programs, Per Scholas’s admissions process showed significant drop-off from application to enrollment. Despite the  program's use of careful screening processes to help ensure candidates could both benefit from the program and be successful once in the field, attrition rates in the study were high. Per Scholas set out to test and champion new ways to open up the program—carefully, but meaningfully. To achieve this, the organization partnered with MDRC to understand whether it could serve even more people while generating the same strong results for learners.

Expanding the Impact

MDRC’s “Expanding the Impact” study was designed to help Per Scholas deepen its impact by enrolling more learners while maintaining the positive outcomes achieved using its sector strategy. To guide this research, Per Scholas and the MDRC team developed a primary research question—“Can we broaden our assessment of who is a good fit for the program?”—and co-designed a mixed methods study to begin addressing it. A funnel analysis of admissions practices revealed that many prospective learners exited the enrollment process before they took the formal assessment of their capacity to successfully complete the program. As a next step, Per Scholas asked MDRC to develop a predictive model that would help assess prospective learners’ fit for the program using application data such as employment and education history as predictors instead of standardized test scores. Unfortunately, after some testing, the predictive model using application data didn’t meet a high enough accuracy threshold to confidently predict success.

Although quantitative data analyses illuminated key areas for improvement in the admissions process, a qualitative analysis proved more useful in understanding how Per Scholas might enable more prospective learners to apply and enroll. MDRC assisted Per Scholas in using a human-centered design technique called “customer journey mapping” to gain insights into how the program might address the drop-off of prospective learners throughout the admissions process. Together, the team developed the persona of a typical Per Scholas participant, called “Maya,” derived from a quantitative analysis of participant data. By mapping the application process from the perspective of Maya’s life circumstances, Per Scholas staff members deepened their understanding of what it took to apply and gain admission to the program, and how challenging the process could become for applicants because of the number and complexity of steps they needed to complete.

Through numerous intensive workshops and design sprints, MDRC guided Per Scholas staff members in identifying specific points in the process that could improve the experience of the prospective learners and reduce the number of those who were not completing the admissions process. The goal was to better center on the users’ needs and remove unnecessary barriers and steps. Engaging in these exercises helped staff members think more critically about the nature and quality of prospective learners’ overall experience with the organization. It also prompted Per Scholas to challenge itself to reexamine what information was necessary to capture to ensure that learners and Per Scholas were a good fit. These workshops led to a redesign of Per Scholas’s intake process to reduce the number of steps in the process, followed by a two-month pilot. The Per Scholas team introduced automation to the admissions process to help prospective learners get through the process more quickly, revamped the orientation session, and used behavioral interview techniques to try get to know applicants better, among other things. Based on the pilot results, Per Scholas began training the staff on the new procedures in anticipation of rolling out nationally in early 2022. The new process is substantially less burdensome for staff members, who now have less manual work to complete, as well as for participants seeking admission, while continuing to ensure that these prospective learners are a good fit for the program.

Looking Ahead

Per Scholas’s partnership with MDRC continues through the Lever for Change initiative, an affiliate of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation; the mission is to unlock significant philanthropic capital to address some of the world’s most pressing challenges. Per Scholas was granted $10 million as part of its Economic Opportunity Challenge to improve economic opportunities for people with low incomes. MDRC is partnering with Per Scholas as the program expands its 17 existing in-person training locations, launches 10 additional new sites, and continues to add new remote courses to help triple the number of people it trains by 2025. Over the next three years, Per Scholas will seek to use its Lever for Change funding to help many more individuals pursue technology careers in cities across the country. MDRC looks forward to supporting this vision by using human-centered, operational data science to help the organization continuously improve its programs and systems. The Lever for Change work is starting by taking a fresh look at key program milestones by training track, program site, and subpopulation. This will be followed by an in-depth analysis of how to improve application-to-enrollment conversion rates. Lever for Change will also take a critical look at Per Scholas’s application assessment methods to see how they can be improved and will examine the options for supporting learners (possibly through stipends) to better improve equity and access to the program.


Strong organizations do not rest on their laurels. This brief describes ways in which Per Scholas is continually pushing to improve its program services and sector strategy training model. Per Scholas’s leaders recognize that no single organization can take on all of the longstanding issues in workforce development. Through innovative partnerships and a growth mindset, the program continues to evolve and expand to help individuals with low incomes pursue high-quality jobs and opportunities for career advancement.

Anderson, Shawna and Donna Wharton-Fields. 2022. “How Per Scholas Uses Research-Practice Partnerships to Drive Innovative Program Improvement.” New York: MDRC.