Tag Archives: Talent Search

Almost no one knows what education really means and the TRIO Talent Search program

In “As Graduation Rates Rise, Experts Fear Diplomas Come Up Short,” Motoko Rich says that “the number of students earning high school diplomas has risen to historic peaks, yet measures of academic readiness for college or jobs are much lower.” It’s a fascinating story and an older one than Rich lets on: In November 1991, before we had Facebook to distract us and the Internet as a scapegoat, Daniel J. Singal wrote about “The Other Crisis in American Education.” In that crisis, we learn of “the potentially high achievers whose SAT scores have fallen, and who read less, understand less of what they read, and know less than the top students of a generation ago.” Is that true? It’s hard to say. Many of 1991’s students are now tech visionaries and writers and parents themselves. I haven’t seen strong evidence that today’s 45 year olds are substantially dumber than 1991’s, or 1971’s.

What we can say definitively, however, is that schooling consists of at least two parts. Part of schooling is widely and conventionally discussed: It imparts real skills that students eventually need to lead productive and satisfied lives. The other part is less often discussed: Schooling functions as a signal of intrinsic conscientiousness, intelligence, conformity, and so forth. Bryan Caplan is writing a book called The Case Against Education about how the signaling model either dominates in education or has come to dominate in education.* The signaling model can explain Rich’s article because schools find teaching reading, writing, math, epistemology, and motivation much, much harder than they find giving people degrees.

Real education is also quite hard to impart because students resist it. I know because I’ve been teaching college-level writing for eight years. I’ve read a quote attributed to various writers that goes, “When a writer asks for feedback, what he really wants to be told is, ‘It’s perfect. Don’t change a word.'” That of course is rarely how writing works. When students show up to class, they by and large want to be told, “You’re perfect as you are. Don’t change a thing.” That is rarely true, but showing it to be true in a way that builds skill and that might be accepted is hard.

Giving people degrees, on the other hand, is easy.

This topic is particularly germane because the Department of Education (ED) just released a new Talent Search RFP. We’ve written about Talent Search before, in posts like “Sign Me Up for Wraparound Supportive Services, But First Tell Me What Those Are.” The goal of Talent Search, and other Department of Education TRIO programs, is to get low-income and first-generation college students to attend and ultimately graduate from four-year institutions of higher educations (IHEs, which is ED-speak for a college or university that confers four-year degrees).

But it’s increasingly unclear that “college” automatically adds a huge amount to earnings. America has a rapidly growing number of waiters, Uber/Lyft drivers, bartenders, baristas, barbers, and other service-sector workers who have college degrees employed in jobs that don’t require a degree. One widely noted report from the the Center for College Affordability and Productivity found that “About 48 percent of employed U.S. college graduates are in jobs that the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) suggests requires less than a four-year college education.” That is … distressing. Or depressing. Whatever it means to you, it is definitely true that a large cohort of college grads spend years doing things that may be fun but aren’t all that remunerative, often accumulating huge debts along the way.

The ED remains somewhat behind the education research frontier. At the ED, college degrees continue to inspire near-religious devotion. We don’t suggest that you tell the ED in your Talent Search proposal that college degrees aren’t magical. As a grant applicant, you may want to cite the research above, but only to explain how your proposed Talent Search program is so sophisticated that you’re aware of the research showing that “college” is a grab-bag of all kind of things, many of which are either signals or which don’t pay off for degree holders. Can a random Talent Search program overcome the problems of correlation and causation implied by the ideas I’ve cited above? I doubt it. But there’s no reason you can’t say you can. There is a time and a place to discuss real education and the real world. Your Talent Search application isn’t it.


* Watch this space for a review when it does appear.

I’ve Got Those End of the Year, Grants.gov, Don’t Work So Good Subterranean Homesick Blues Again

As 2010 proposals slide into the archives, I find myself reflecting on the inadequacy of Grants.gov and other federal electronic grant submission portals. After about seven years of electronic submissions, why is the federal government so incredibly incompetent at this? After all, Amazon.com can take hundreds of thousands of orders a day and Apple can ship tens of thousands products a day, but Grants.gov is overwhelmed by a few hundred or thousand grant submissions. In essence, Grants.gov goes “biddle-up,”* like our puppy after a hard day of watching us write proposals:

YouthBuild hunting season ended with a December 3 submission deadline. We caught our limit of YouthBuilds this year, which we usually do, and met the deadline, which we always do. Since submitting an electronic proposal involves what is essentially an electronic signature, Seliger + Associates does does not actually submit them. Instead, we complete the submission package and email the files to our clients, who actually hit the submit button. In the good old days of hard copy submissions, our clients would FedEx their signature pages and we’d copy and submit the applications.

One of our YouthBuild clients was trying to upload her application through Grants.gov on December 1, two days before the deadline, which is ordinarily enough time. But I received this startling email from her:

I have tried to submit it [YouthBuild] one hour and 20 minutes ago. It’s still “processing.” And I don’t want to try to submit again until I get a go ahead from someone. We also found out more than 25 other grants have Dec. 1 as deadline.

The entire Grants.gov system is apparently not robust enough to handle 25 deadlines on a given day. Maybe the whole grant submission process should be turned over to WikiLeaks, which seems to have unlimited bandwidth.

A few hours later, she sent the following email:

Right now, at this minute, it is 4 hours and 22 minutes ago, and my screen says “Processing, please don’t close the window until you receive a confirmation.

I called our client and told her to call Grants.gov tech support (800-518-4726). When she finally got a live person on the line, the tech deleted her application and told her to re-submit. She did and it took another four hours to complete the submission process. In the age of instant everything, uploading a 4 MB Grants.gov *.pdf file took over eight hours! At least it got submitted. I’ve written about the perils of Grants.gov in Now, It’s Time for the Rest of the Story, but that was over two years ago. One would think Grants.gov would have been improved in two years, but apparently not so much that you’d notice.

One change is that Grants.gov tech support is now open 24 x 7 now, instead of being closed on weekends. Of course in the federal world 24 X 7 doesn’t exactly mean every day, since the Grants.gov support describes its hours as follows: Hours of Operation: 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We are closed on federal holidays. This year, they’re closed on Saturday, December 25 and 31.

In addition to YouthBuild, this has also been hunting season for the Department of Education’s Talent Search Program. The Talent Search deadline is December 28, as I pointed out in Talent Search RFP Finally Published — But What A Stupid Deadline. If you were trying to avoid working on Christmas weekend and hoped to upload on Friday (as one of our clients tried to) but ran into a problem, Grants.gov would likely be closed just when you needed them. This would mean trying to contact them on a Sunday (good luck finding a live person on a holiday weekend) or waiting until Monday. Since Grants.gov gives itself 48 hours after the submission button is pushed to send a series of confirming emails, one can see the disaster potential. I expect many Talent Search application submissions are going to get screwed up. Because of this possible perfect storm we finished our work on Talent Search proposals last week. If anyone out there in blog-reader land ran into this problem with Talent Search, leave a comment.

Before you think I’m picking on Grants.gov, here’s another tale from the darkside of electronic grant writing portals. Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) mostly disdains Grants.gov for a little gem called (warning .pdf alert) Electronic Handbooks (EHBs). Leaving aside the fact that the EHB system is intertwined with Grants.gov (which is too complicated a story for this post, but another example of unnecessary complexity in the grant submission process), EHBs is also notorious for submission problems. In addition to YouthBuild and Talent Search, this has also been hunting season for HRSA’s New Access Points (NAP) Program, which had a Grants.gov deadline of November 17 and EHBs deadline of December 15 (don’t ask). We received the following email from one our NAP clients on December 21:

I don’t know if I told you or not, but I did push the button on the NAP before the deadline and was successful in getting the application through to HRSA. I got an email last night from HRSA extending the deadline to December 23rd, this Thursday. Due to the high request for waivers for getting the application in, they decided to extend the deadline. Apparently, HRSA servers couldn’t handle the massive NAP applications that were trying to get in by the deadline of the 15th.

HRSA’s servers couldn’t handle the “massive NAP applications” and went biddle-up, like our golden retriever. I have a feeling Google could have easily handled these uploads, which are hardly massive. Condolences to all of you NAP applicants out there who sweated blood to meet the December 15 deadline only to learn after the deadline passed that it had been extended by a week. Apparently, HRSA has a practical joke department.

With all due respect to hard working GS 11s at grants.gov and EHBs, who are toiling this holiday season over vats of simmering grant proposals, and to paraphrase B. Dylan, I’ve got those end of the year, Grants.gov don’t work so good Subterranean Homesick Blues again. At this point, “I’m on the pavement, thinking about the government.”


* When the Notorious D.O.G. was actually a puppy, she liked to roll over to show us her belly (“biddle”), so she could be scratched (“biddled”). She still goes biddle-up and likes to be biddled, but then again, who doesn’t?

Politics and Proposals Don’t Mix: Your Politics (or Your Organization’s) Shouldn’t Matter in Grant Writing, and Neither Should Elections

Ed Nelson asks, “Do conservative non-profits get grants or are federal grants such an anathema to them, [and] they choose not to apply?” I want to answer, but the question itself feels wrong because politics shouldn’t be an issue in human service delivery. Politics and political views matter in Congress, which decides what kinds of programs to fund, and can matter in federal rule making that ultimately leads to RFPs being issued, but by the time an RFP is issued, political questions have been resolved and implementation is everything.*

So “conservative” nonprofits are just as likely to get grants as “liberal” ones, but even if your organization has a political bent among your staff, you shouldn’t put that in the proposal. Besides, I’m not sure there’s a “conservative” or “liberal” way, for example, to provide construction skills and academic training (YouthBuild) or to repair low-income housing to fix safety hazards (Healthy Homes)—to name two programs we’ve worked on recently. Both programs are designed to be fairly narrow: you conduct outreach, you do an intake assessment, you select participants, you do things to/with participants, and they come out over the other end better. There isn’t a lot of room for politics.

Even in programs where you can talk about divisive political issues, you’re often better off taking pains not to. For example, we work for a large number of Community Health Clinics (CHCs), as well as organizations that provide various kinds of sex or abstinence education (one such RFP inspired this post on proposal research). We never ask about our clients’ views on one of the most divisive political issues in America because their views don’t matter for proposals. In fact, I’m taking pains to avoid that word starting with “a,” lest the comments section turn into a flamewar. You’ve heard the word before, it has talismanic properties among both left and right, and we never use it in proposals. Neither should you. You don’t know who’s going to read the proposal, their political leanings, or how your implied politics might affect your score. We’ve also never seen an application that specifically addresses the procedure in question.

In addition, nonprofits, especially the 501(c)3s we most often work for, aren’t supposed to engage in lobbying or other overtly political behaviors. If you’re with a nonprofit, you’re supposed to be helping people and/or achieving your charitable purpose. So you should concentrate on that in your proposal.

One other observation about politics and proposals: you should also avoid assuming that the nonprofit apocalypse is upon us or nonprofit salvation is nigh due to a particular election.

Isaac likes to point out that he got out of the grant writing game in the early 1980s partially because he was tired of it at the time and partially because he thought Reagan would kill too many discretionary grant programs. The latter, it turns out, was not only wrong, but hilariously wrong, and when he started Seliger + Associates in 1993, the most astonishing thing was how little grant writing had changed from the 1970s to the 1990s—and this trend continues to the present.

In the decade and change I’ve been paying attentions to grants and grant writing, I’ve heard a great deal of teeth gnashing about politics, but every week I compile the Seliger Funding Report and find the federal government, as well as states and foundations, have issued RFPs for new and existing discretionary grant programs regardless of the party in power or the divisions in government. Whatever the disagreements between the major political parties in the United States, both love discretionary grant programs, which persist across decades of political oscillation.**

Lots of people with passionate political feelings and views write blogs expressing those views, inflict them on friends and family, and post snarky Facebook updates about candidates and election results. Those are lovely, appropriate forums for such sentiments. Your grant application is not. Whether you’re to the right of Attila the Hun or to the left of Marx (Karl, not Groucho), leave those opinions out of your proposal.


* And implementation is, or should be, non-partisan.

** Note too Isaac’s post, “Reformers Come and Go, But HUD Abides,” which is essentially about the tendency of federal agencies and program to persist over time.

Talent Search RFP Finally Published — But What A Stupid Deadline

Last Sunday I posed the question, “Searching for Talent Search: Where Oh Where Has the Talent Search RFP Gone And Why is It A Secret?.” I still don’t know why the RFP release date was a secret, but on Wednesday, the Department of Education finally published the Talent Search application instructions. Hallelujah, or as my now 24 year old son used to say at about age five, “Hallalulah!”

One minor problem: The deadline is December 28, dead center between Christmas and New Years Day. I wonder why the Department of Education would pick such a dumb deadline. A quick check of the calendar reveals that Christmas and New Years Day fall on Saturdays. Anybody who has worked for a public agency will know that almost all Talent Search employees will, at a minimum, take off December 24 and 31, and most will be on vacation from December 24 through at least January 3. Most folks want to combine vacation days with holidays and quasi-holidays to stretch out their time off.

Thus, there will be no one home to look at proposals submitted on December 28. Likely, because of the hullabaloo in D.C. with the start of the new Congress on January 3 and MLK day on January 17 (another opportunity to stretch a three day weekend into ten days off), not much will likely happen with Talent Search applications until at least the third week in January.

So why make Talent Search applicants work right through Christmas? The Talent Search team is either venal or just plain stupid. As Forrest Gump observed, “Stupid is as stupid does.”

You be the judge. Of course, if you really want to have a Happy Holiday, let us slave over your hot Talent Search proposal and you can hit those day after Xmas sales to do your part to bring the economy back.

Searching for Talent Search: Where Oh Where Has the Talent Search RFP Gone And Why is It A Secret?

UPDATE: Talent Search has finally appeared, and the RFP vindicates much of what Isaac wrote below.

Having been in business for over 17 years, Seliger + Associates has lots of spies. Well, not spies exactly, but clients, former and current, program officers and assorted grant cognoscenti who send us interesting nuggets. Recently, one made it into “Be Nice to Your Program Officer: Reprogrammed / Unobligated Federal Funds Mean Christmas May Come Early and Often This Year” about the anticipated release of the Talent Search RFP.

A client for whom we wrote a funded proposal for a different TRIO program let us know that the “Draft Talent Search Application” was hiding in plain sight at Bulletin Board of an organization called the Council for Opportunity in Education (COE). Even though I’ve been writing TRIO proposals since the early days of the Clinton administration, I’d never heard of COE, which turns out to be more or less a trade group for TRIO grantees and wannabes. Our client hangs out at COE gatherings and told us about the draft Talent Search RFP, since we’re going to write the proposal for her nonprofit. I din’t bother reading the draft RFP because only the final published document matters.

What was intriguing, however, was that the draft Talent Search Application indicated that the real RFP would be issued on October 22. Astute readers might realize that it’s now Halloween. So what happened?

To investigate on behalf of our client and curious Grant Writing Confidential readers, I sent an e-mail to Julia Tower, the contact person listed on the COE website for Talent Search, on October 23. The draft documents were apparently kicked over to COE by the Department of Education, much like YouthBuild stuff is often kicked over to YouthBuild USA by the Department of Labor. Anyway, my e-mail to Julia went out on October 23 and asked innocently (I know it’s hard to believe, but I can be sweet at times) if she knew when the Talent Search RFP would actually be published and if she knew the reason for delay (I can guess the reason, which I reveal below—wait for it—but wanted to back check with somebody actually “in the know”).

Julia sent me a reply, typos and all, that said: “The ED source for all TS info- regs were published- draft appl for grants available on web site eventually- & at ED free wkshops now.” I love “free wkshops” as much as the next guy, but I replied by reiterating my query because Grant Writing Confidential readers presumably want to know if she knows when the RFP will be published.

Julia again ignored my pointed questions and replied, again with typos, “Is your company an institutuional member of coe?” I wrote back:

We are not COE members, but why does this matter?

As bloggers, we sometimes act as journalists. You may wish treat my inquiry the same as if it were coming from a NYT, WP or WSJ reporter, since it is possible I may use this exchange in a blog post. Are the questions I’m asking proprietary in any way or is it not public information? If it is not public information, why is it a secret? A “no comment” or decline to comment might strike our readers, who number in the thousands, as evasive.

FYI, as a grant writer, I can assure you that a draft application and workshops are useless. What matters is the published RFP and the deadline. If I write the post, I’ll explain why.

Since then, I haven’t heard from Julia or anyone else at COE, and, as of this writing, the Department of Education still hasn’t published the Talent Search RFP. Since they have now missed the publication date by at least 10 days and are supposed to provide applicants at least 45 days to respond, the proposed proposal submission deadline of December 9 will also probably be stretched out by at least 10 days, putting it around December 20. Oops, that’s a bit close to Christmas, which might push the deadline into January and smack into the FY 2011 budget hurricane that was the subject of my original post. Funny how grant writing things that come around, go around.

Note to Julia—a draft application and pre-application workshops are fairly useless from a grant writer’s perspective because the only document that really matters is the RFP/application as published in the Federal Register and/or grants.gov. The rest is merely speculation and isn’t binding. I also can’t imagine why the Department of Education flies Program Officers all around the country for these workshops, which could easily be presented on the web as podcasts or what have you. It seems the TRIO office at the Department of Education is firmly cemented in the last century.*

Now, for my guess regarding the delay: It is probably a result of the giant backlog at the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The OMB has to approve all RFPs, regulations and other federal announcements prior publication. With the current avalanche of RFPs, as well health care reform and Wall Street reform rule making going on, I suspect the boys and girls at the OMB are probably a wee bit behind. In addition to Talent Search, we’re also waiting for HRSA to issue their FOA (Funding Opportunity Announcement, which is HRSA-speak for RFP) for the Expanded Medical Capacity (EMC) program. Another our spies said the EMC FOA is hung up at the OMB, and I suspect it’s probably sitting on top of the Talent Search RFP on some GS-11’s desk.


* In the early days of our business, I actually sometimes went to RFP workshops, but not to listen to the blather and giggling of the Program Officers (go to any such workshop and the presenter will eventually giggle when confronted with an uncomfortable question). I went to market our services, wearing a Seliger + Associates “WE KNOW WHERE THE MONEY IS” t-shirt and passing out marketing flyers.

This typically drove the Program Officers over the edge. I was actually almost arrested at a Department of Education TRIO workshop on the campus of Seattle Community College around 1995. When the Program Officer figured out what I was doing, she called campus security. The President of the College promptly showed up with an officer or two in tow and demanded to know what I was doing. I said I’m simply drumming up business and exercising my free speech rights. He huffed and puffed and left me to pass out flyers and chat-up the attendees.

Here They Come: RFPs Are Thundering Down the Plain, So Look out for the Carol M. White Physical Education Program (PEP), Upward Bound, Choice Neighborhoods, REACH CORE and More

In the somewhat interminable but occasionally engaging Dances with Wolves, Kevin Costner finally ingratiates himself with his Sioux neighbors by telling them that the “tatonka” (buffalo) are suddenly thundering nearby. Last February, I asked Where Have All the RFPs Gone? Well, the FY ’10 grant tatonka are finally here and the distant noise you hear is the sound of federal grant opportunities. Work fast, because this herd will have come and gone by the end of the federal fiscal year on September 30.

For example, the Department of Education finally issued RFPs for the Carol M. White Physical Education Program (PEP), the High School Graduation Initiative, Personnel Development To Improve Services and Results for Children With Disabilities, and the Fund for the Improvement of Secondary Education (FIPSE) last week.

In 2008, the FIPSE RFP was issued on March 21. This year, it was issued on June 14. Under normal circumstances, this could be chalked up to random variation in funders. This year, that’s much less likely because of the stimulus madness that continues to work through the federal system. The good news about FIPSE: in 2008 it had $2,584,000 for seven grants. This year it has $27,307,000 for 37 grants. This isn’t the only program that’s seen a massive money increase: Personnel Development To Improve Services and Results for Children With Disabilities has gone from $1,500,000 in total funding to $22,900,000.

We heard from a client recently (we wrote their funded Upward Bound proposal in the last funding round about four years ago) that RFPs for both Upward Bound and Talent Search will soon be issued by the Department of Education. It is unusual for RFPs for two “TRIO” programs to be issued in one fiscal year, but this is no usual year.

On the community development front, HUD has about 35 or so competitive grant programs, but only one or two NOFAs (HUD-speak for “RFP”) have been issued this year, which means there are more than 30 to go. Another client, for whom we wrote a funded Lead-Based Paint Hazard Control (LBPHC) Program proposal last year, was just at the grantee meeting. The HUD program officer told the group that all of the NOFAs are late this year (duh!) but would be issued with short turnarounds—just like the Department of Education RFPs listed above. Expect to hear HUD hooves in the distance for such old faves LBPHC, Healthy Homes, various Housing Choice Voucher—formerly called Section 8— programs and lots more soon. There will be a HUD NOFA stampede.

In a tease of goodies to come, HUD just released a “Pre-NOFA” for an entirely new competitive program, Choice Neighborhoods. This is not to be confused the Department of Education’s Promise Neighborhood Program, for which the RFP process concludes next week, even though both are new programs that can be used to fund more or less the same activities. Choice Neighborhoods will have $65,000,000 up for grabs once the HUD program officers can shovel the NOFA out the door, which should be within a few weeks. I’ve never seen a “Pre-NOFA” before, but once again this is an unusual year with strange portents in the grant world. I guess a Pre-NOFA is like getting one of those annoying “Save May 12, 2018 for Hershel Himmelfarb’s Bar Mitzvah” in the mail. This is HUD’s way of saying, “Stay tuned––MONEY COMING, MONEY COMING.”

I love the Promise Neighborhoods and Choice Neighborhoods programs because both offer planning and implementation grants, so grantees can keep the party going for years. Not to be outdone, HRSA also just issued an announcement for the wonderfully named Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health for Communities Organized to Respond and Evaluate (REACH CORE) Program. REACH CORE grantees get two-year, $400,000 planning grants followed by multi-million dollar five-year implementation grants. Seven year grants! Now this is worth competing for.

Looks to me like it is a fine grant hunting season this summer. Get out your virtual Sharps 50 Caliber Buffalo Rifle in the form of a trusty iMac or MacBook out and start plinking. You’ll be exhausted, but you’ll have a week or two at the start of October before the FY ’11 RFPs start down the chute.