Not every academic year includes a pandemic and $40 billion in new funding. Rather, most years start with leaders anxiously awaiting announcements from the U.S. Department of Education that could make or break their strategic plans for the years ahead. Across spring and summer, their teams write applications to renew, expand, or bring new programming to their campuses under Title III, Title V, or similar sources.
The announcements fall under an umbrella of acronyms: TRIO, SSS, SIP, HSI STEM, ANNHSI, PBI, MSEIP, PBI, AANAPISI, and NASNTI, to name a few. These programs provide the seed or sustaining investment essential to much of higher education student success programming as we know it, including $2.6B in funding across over 5,100 grants awarded in the federal year ending this past September.
Across the past decade, the Department of Education has rolled out more requirements to improve data collection and leverage evidence-based practices—and that uptick is not expected to decrease. In this blog, I’ll highlight a few trends at the federal level that are already impacting how grants are awarded and share what you can be doing to secure future funding.
The era of evidence and evaluation
Over a decade ago, the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences established the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) to collect, assess, and disseminate promising practices. The WWC and the inclusion of “evidence of effectiveness” in Title III and other grant competitions signaled a new prioritization of outcomes in Education funding decisions. And this trend continues: a November 2021 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on evidence-based policymaking in federal agencies found that managers at the Department of Education reported sustained or increased use of performance information in running their offices.
What does this focus on effectiveness mean for institutions? In short: if your data is not in order, expect your ability to secure or maintain funding to suffer.
As the above figures from GAO’s 2020 audit of TRIO suggest, scrutiny is already here. With the eyes of lawmakers, administrators, and regulators on costs and effectiveness, what can institutions do to sustain their student success funding?
What to expect and how to prepare
The GAO made two recommendations that we expect the Department of Education to apply moving forward. Here are a few ways you can prepare.
The Office of Postsecondary Education will take additional steps to ensure the performance data TRIO grantees report are reliable.
With 3,000+ TRIO grantees individually reporting data to the Department of Education each year, expect reporting mechanisms to shift toward automation and audits of data quality. To meet higher standards, campus leaders may find that a more foundational reevaluation of campus data strategy may be essential.
What is in your institution’s control may feel limited, but you have great opportunities to use current tools like your Student Success Management System to prepare for heightened reporting standards. For example, we know virtual student services are here to stay, and beyond improved user experiences, institutions can benefit from the ways virtual tools improve collection of service utilization data. EAB’s Navigate and Starfish partners have built-in access to an array of utilization reports, and your Strategic Leader can help you apply these to questions coming from funders.
You are not alone if you feel behind. Based on a decade of research and 600+ technology implementations, EAB has heard from hundreds of Presidents, CIOs, and leaders from IR and Institutional Effectiveness about the need to improve the quality and availability of good data. To overcome issues like system siloes, sprawling data management costs, and limited business intelligence functions, EAB has invested in equipping partners with decentralized analytics tools and vendor-agnostic approaches to facilitate the type of digital transformation changes in grant reporting will require.
The Office of Postsecondary Education will overhaul assessments of the effectiveness of TRIO programs, potentially altering funding formulas and decreasing the value of prior experience in favor of outcomes.
According to the 2020 GAO audit, if returning TRIO applicants were not granted experience points, 23% would not have received funding. We do not expect experience points to disappear entirely, but they may see an overhaul.
Ahead of funding formula changes, what can returning and new applicants alike do to strengthen applications? Design your programs to include effectiveness evaluations that are sustainable and replicable from the outset. Rather than one-time or narrow project-based evaluations, as you design and build out your student success programs consider how you can fold evaluation and continuous improvement into normal workflows and change management processes. This type of approach is already underway at schools like Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, where Starfish is used to evaluate outcomes of academic interventions to improve their effectiveness.
These efforts aren’t limited to the student success space either. For example, CSU Fullerton has shared how they are disaggregating data to improve equitable outcomes. This type of investment in data foundations pays dividends when institutions go out to funders or report on existing programs.
Think beyond your grant strategy for sustainable success work
While emergency COVID-19 funding proved a lifeline or windfall for many institutions, sustaining investments in student success beyond the pandemic requires renewed attention to your federal grant strategy. We have experienced a decade’s march of performance funding and outcomes-based awards, and these show no signs of slowing. To position your institution for continued success, you may need to evaluate your data foundations or accelerate your investments in systems underpinning your student success landscape to ensure reliable funding for the future.
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