As dean of institutional effectiveness and grants I have varied responsibilities, but at heart, I am a grant writer. I find it easy to write a needs statement based on available data; more challenging is the process of developing an effective evaluation plan for a proposed project.
A lot of time and effort – taxpayer supported – go into project evaluation, an increasingly significant component of federal grant applications, as illustrated by the following examples:
- My college partners on two existing U.S. Department of Labor Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) Grants – almost $2 billion nationally to expand training for the unemployed – which allow up to 10 percent of project budgets to be designated for mandatory external evaluation.
- We have an $8.5 million U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Health Profession Opportunity Grant demonstration project. Part of that “demonstration” included mandatory participation in activities conducted by contracted external evaluators.
We recently submitted grant applications under the highly competitive U.S. Department of Education Student Support Services (SSS) Program. My college has a long-term SSS program, which meets all of its objectives so we’ll receive “extra” prior experience points. We are assured refunding, right? Maybe, as long as we address competitive preference priorities and score better than perfect – every point counts.
Although external evaluation is not required, when comparing language excerpted from the last three SSS competitions, it is clear that there is a much greater emphasis on the details of an evaluation plan. The guidelines require a detailed description of what types of data will be collected and how the applicant will use the information collected in the evaluation of project activities. It is no longer sufficient to just say “project staff will collect quantitative and qualitative data and use this information for project improvement.”
Our successful evaluation plans start with a detailed logic model, which allows us to make realistic projections of what we hope will happen and plan data collection around the project’s key activities and outcomes. We use these guiding questions to help formulate the details:
- What services will be provided?
- What can be measured?
- perceptions, participation, academic progress
- What information sources will be available?
- What types of data will be collected?
- student records, surveys, interviews, activity-specific data
- How will we review and analyze the data collected?
- What will we do with the findings?
- Specific actions
Unlike universities, most community and state colleges are not hotbeds of research and evaluation. So what can grant writers do to prepare themselves to meet the “evaluation plan” challenge?
- Make friends with a statistician; they tend to hang out in the Mathematics or Institutional Research departments.
- Take a graduate level course in educational statistics. If you’re writing about something it is helpful to have rudimentary knowledge of what you write.
- Find good resources. I have several textbook-like evaluation manuals, but my go-to, dog-eared guide for developing an evaluation plan is the National Science Foundation’s “2010 User-Friendly Handbook for Project Evaluation” (Logic Model information in Chapter 3).
- An open-access list of Institutional Research (IR) Links located on the Association for Institutional Research website (AIR; a membership organization), provides more than 2200 links to external IR Web pages on a variety of topics related to data and decisions for higher education.
- Community College Research Center (CCRC) resources, such as publications on prior research, can guide evaluation plan development (http://ccrc.tc.columbia.edu/). The CCRC FAQs Web page provides national data useful for benchmarking your grant program’s projected outcomes.