Department of Education Grants Are All About Going to College and Completing A Four-Year Degree

Certain things about grant writing can only be learned by reading between the lines: that requires reading individual RFPs carefully, reading many RFPs, interacting with various organizations, interacting with program officers, and the like. This is a post about reading Department of Education (DOE)* RFPs, which means reading “between the lines;” whatever else a particular DOE RFP may require, they really want kids to graduate from four-year colleges. Almost every DOE program—whether it targets four year olds, eight year olds, or eighteen year olds—has to claim that it’ll make more kids attend and graduate from a four-year college.**

The graduate-from-college goal comes from the DOE’s relentless focus on the fact that college graduates on average make a lot more money than non-college graduates. This, however, may be a causation fallacy—college graduates are different in many other respects from people who haven’t finished college—but if you’re writing a DOE proposal, you’re not trying to debate or change policy. You’re trying to give the funder what they want, and the DOE wants college graduates. Bryan Caplan is writing a book called The Case Against Education that argues education is actually a signaling arms race and that most education is socially wasteful and not particularly useful.

I don’t want to start a dispute about the correctness of Caplan’s claims or the DOE’s view in this forum—I’m being descriptive, not proscriptive, here—but I do want you to know that there is a big, often unstated corollary to almost any DOE grant program. It may be true that DOE is behind the times and has forgotten that college is probably not a panacea for economic inequality. It is true, however, that both the American political left and the American political right are broadly pro-education, since they associate education with both work and opportunity.

Your proposal should be broadly pro-college whether you’re a nonprofit, a Local Education Agency (LEA), or an Institution of Higher Education (IHE), and you should definitely announce that your program will increase college attendance and graduation rates. That’s true even for an elementary school project: argue that your program will cause today’s six year olds to graduate in sixteen years. Will your program actually increase the number of graduates? Maybe. In the real world no one really tracks the outcomes of the product of individual school districts and even if they did, that information might not be real useful: what happens if a kid moves three times and has three different school district experiences, and the graduating school is the very last one? These kinds of issues arise in many evaluation sections, and we bring the issue up because it’s a specific example of the general principle that evaluation sections are more theater than reality.

As we’ve written before, there are various “grant waves” that strike due to changes in the economy, changes in what the commentariat is discussing, changes in technology, or changes in policy / politics. From 2000 – 2008, for example, a series of programs to prevent teen pregnancy through abstinence education were big. Since the Great Recession, job training has gotten big. Next year it may be something else. Regardless of the changes, however, you should try to see them coming and be aware of what’s happening in the larger world.

Incidentally, the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) is always about two things: getting people insured and providing enhanced access to primary health care for low-income people. If you see a HRSA program, include those two components. The first has really come to the fore since the ACA passage. The second has been around longer but has arguably grown in prominence. I’m writing this at the end of 2014. In four years HRSA and DOE may have different priorities. But for now, you’re going to be a more successful applicant if you promise what we’re suggesting you promise.


* There are actually two federal “DOEs,” the Department of Education and the Department of Energy. Take it up with your congressperson.

** I don’t mean to slight community colleges, but DOE wants kids to get four-year degrees, not two-year degrees or certificates. Community colleges can’t get no respect (though they do get a fair amount of grant money). Once again, take it up with your congressperson.

About 20 years ago Isaac went to a bidders’ conference in Seattle about the DOE’s Student Support Services (SSS) program, which funds community colleges and is one of the several “TRIO” programs. The program officers droned on about pointless, obfuscated minutia; the audience was naturally beyond bored. Suddenly, a very large man sitting next to Isaac stood up and said loudly more or less: “Why do you guys keep jabbering on. You just want more kids to graduate from a four-year college. Isn’t that the whole point of TRIO?”

The audience sprang to life with applause, as the program officers admitted that was the case. Isaac talked to the guy afterward, and he’d been running a TRIO program in Illinois for years and knew SSS better than the presenters. Isaac says this is the only time he ever learned anything useful at a bidder’s conference—and this nugget was really revealed between the lines.

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