Having made a career of community college administration, first as a grant writer and later as a college president, I know well the power of grants in advancing a college’s mission. Somewhere in the early 1990s, the NSF was one of the first grantmakers in higher education to recognize the role of community colleges in STEM undergraduate education. Ever since, two-year faculty have strived to enter the NSF world with varied success.
Unlike much of the grant funding from federal sources, success in winning NSF grants is predicated on innovation and advancing knowledge, which stands in stark contrast to a history of colleges making the case for support based on institutional need. Colleges that are repeatedly successful in winning NSF grants are those that demonstrate their strengths and their ability to deliver what the grantor wants. I contend that NSF grants will increasingly go to new or “first-time” institutions once they recognize and embrace their capacity for innovation and knowledge advancement. With success in winning grants comes the responsibility to document achievements through effective evaluation.
I am encouraged by what I perceive as a stepped-up discussion among grant writers, project PIs, and program officers about evaluation and its importance. As a grant writer/developer, my main concern was to show that the activities I proposed were actually accomplished and that the anticipated courses, curricula, or other project deliverables had been implemented. Longer-term outcomes pertaining to student achievement were generally considered to be beyond a project’s scope. However, student outcomes have now become the measure for attracting public funding, and the emphasis on outcomes will only increase in this era of performance-based budgeting.
When I was a new president of an institution that had never benefitted from grant funding, I had the pleasure of rolling up my sleeves and joining the faculty in writing a proposal to the Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program. College presidents think long and hard about performance measures like graduation rates, length of enrollment until completion, and the gainful employment of graduates, yet such measures may seem distant to faculty who must focus on getting more students to pass their courses. The question rises as how to reconcile equally important interests in outcomes—at the course and program levels for faculty and the institutional level for the president. While I was not convinced that student outcomes were beyond the scope of the grant, the faculty and I agreed that our ATE evaluation ought to be a step in a larger process.
Most evaluators would agree that longitudinal studies of student outcomes cannot fall within the typical three-year grant period. By the same token, I think the new emphasis on logic models that demonstrate the progression from project inputs and activities through short-, mid-, and long-term outcomes allows grant developers to better tailor evaluation designs to the funded work, as well as extend project planning beyond the immediate funding period. The notion of “stackable credentials” so popular with the college completion agenda should now be part of our thinking about grant development. For example, we might look to develop proposals for ATE Targeted Research that build upon more limited project evaluation results. Or perhaps the converse is the way to go: Let’s plan our ATE projects with a mind toward long-term results, supported by evaluation and research designs that ultimately get us the data we need to “make the case” for our colleges as innovators and advancers of knowledge.