The Nature of Guidelines
From the beginning, FIPSE chose to publish guidelines for grant proposals rather than to design requests for proposals (RFPs), which usually take the form of highly specified contracts.* This was a natural outgrowth of the early planning to create a federal foundation for higher education. It was also in line with HEW Secretary Elliot Richardson's directive to prevent "hardening of the categories."
In a variety of ways, the guidelines institutionalized FIPSE's mandate to be inclusive. FIPSE, the guidelines stated, "would provide grants to and contracts with institutions of postsecondary education or combinations of such institutions and other educational agencies and organizations concerned with the improvement of postsecondary education." The guidelines also stated that FIPSE "encourages the submission of proposals from new as well as existing structures."
In addition, the guidelines were not designed to be formulas for solving a problem already understood by experts. Instead of spelling out strategies or procedures, the first published guidelines featured broadly defined problem areas. In FIPSE's first years, the titles of the Comprehensive Program show considerable breadth and consistency, even as they evolved:
In effect, these broad rubrics were goals or purposes of reform that would allow FIPSE to consider the greatest possible variety of agents and activities. Within the guidelines, topical areas were discussed and analyzed with the aim of being suggestive rather than prescriptive.
||FY 1973 to FY 1975:
New approaches to teaching and learning
Implementing equal educational opportunity
Revitalizing institutional missions
New educational missions
Encouraging an open system
||FY 1976 to FY 1979:
Extending effective educational opportunity to those still not adequately served by the system
Meeting individual needs in a mass system
Improving programs, personnel, and instruction for more effective education
Creating and applying more meaningful criteria for the award of postsecondary credentials
Reducing costs and stretching the educational dollar
Making better use of educational resources beyond colleges and universities
Helping people make better choices about whether, when, and where to participate in education beyond high school
Preserving institutional vitality in the face of growing rigidity and regulation
Under each of the rubrics there was a thoughtful discussion of needs. For example, under "New approaches to teaching and learning," the guidelines did not list several new approaches immediately, but instead described the growing needs for education that would strengthen social responsibility, that would lead to a productive life through career and professional preparation, and that would enhance personal development. The several-page discussion of these needs helped to educate applicants, but more importantly, it served as an invitation to a dialogue about needs and possible responses. Only after this description of needs did the guidelines "encourage experimentation of the following kind: integration of learning experiences, the individualization of educational services, improved techniques, and new methods of assessment and evaluation."
A similar approach was used with each of the other topics. In every instance, if the guidelines suggested strategies at all, even in general terms, they depicted the strategies as suggestive, not prescriptive, and emphasized that there might well be more effective methods or approaches.
The guidelines also emphasized, over and over, that the proposed projects should benefit the learner, if not directly, then in indirect ways that should be clearly described. FIPSE saw the learner as the intended beneficiary-not the institution, the faculty member or the administrator. Each grant proposal needed to be tied back to the learner, and the type of learner being benefited had to be clearly delineated. There was no assumption that what would be good for one learner would be good for another. So while the purposes were broad and the strategies only suggestive, the unifying force was the dual goal to benefit the learner while simultaneously recognizing the growing diversity of learners and learner needs.
FIPSE's guidelines attempted to model clear, nontechnical writing, which FIPSE in turn valued in proposals. The guidelines emphasized that all project goals and methodologies needed to be comprehensible to generalist reviewers and staff.
Over the first few years, the guidelines also gave growing emphasis to program evaluation. FIPSE considered it the applicant's task to design an evaluation appropriate to the proposed project. Outcomes included but were not limited to measurable objectives; FIPSE requested applicants to consider both short- and long-term objectives.
Within the first five years, the guidelines for the Comprehensive Program included a detailed, practical guide to proposal development.
Dissemination of Guidelines and Information
Many applicants were first-time proposal writers. This was encouraged not only by the broad and open content of the guidelines, but also by the ways they were disseminated.
The principal vehicle for publication remained the Federal Register, and stories about the new program and its encompassing mandate appeared in Change and the Chronicle of Higher Education-both fairly new publications in their own right in 1973. In addition, newspapers outside the education press, sometimes at the local level, covered FIPSE grant recipients who were working on a unique or surprising idea. Before the era of large databases, FIPSE developed mailing lists of previous applicants to disseminate its guidelines, and it used institutional lists from the higher education associations. On the other hand, FIPSE had no advertising or promotion budget.
The first year's competition yielded almost 2,000 proposal submissions to the Comprehensive Program, double the number that were expected. This immediately produced a backlog of interested applicants and increased FIPSE's visibility in many postsecondary communities. Some unsuccessful applicants were invited to submit a new proposal the following year, and all were offered feedback and the reviewers' comments. Over time the reviewing sites that were dispersed nationwide took on the form of learning centers about how to develop a good grant. The informal discussions at these meetings of reviewers, which usually lasted a few days, proved to have considerable educational value in themselves. In addition, the involvement of more and more people in the review process helped FIPSE become well known.
From its inception, FIPSE sought to share information among projects and institutions. Beginning with the first year, FIPSE produced a booklet describing all projects and listing all project directors. In the third year FIPSE began producing Resources for Change, an annual publication that grouped projects under topic headings and provided full contact information for project directors. All new or potential applicants were encouraged to contact current or former project directors as resources.
From the first year, FIPSE program staff spread the word about FIPSE and the work of its grantees through professional conferences in Washington, D.C., and "beyond the Beltway." In addition, staff members saw themselves as actively engaged in the field, reminiscent of the role of agricultural extension agents from an earlier era (federal travel was still fairly easy in the early and mid-1970s). Each staff member was responsible for a portfolio of projects, and there was an expectation that projects should be visited at least annually. Staff would travel for a week or more to visit existing grant sites (for example, a visit to Texas to cover projects in three cities) and to meet with potential applicants.
Contrary to the style of most federal agencies and many foundations, FIPSE program officers also encouraged office visits to discuss prospective applications (a similar attitude developed in the National Endowment for the Humanities and National Science Foundation during the same years). Until the cut-off date for the submission of proposals, FIPSE staff effectively met with all comers, with one caveat: program officers preferred direct contact with potential project directors rather than with grants and development officers. This approach fostered hands-on conversations about specific and practical issues, and it helped keep FIPSE accessible to smaller institutions that did not have the benefit of full-time development staff in Washington, D.C.
Two-Stage Application Process
Given the relatively modest size of FIPSE's budget ($10 million compared with $100 million for the National Institute for Education) and the short time that FIPSE had to get information to prospective applicants during the first year (1973), the staff assumed that only a relative few would venture into the uncharted waters of a new federal program. The new agency had no "track record," after all, to suggest what it might fund. Yet FIPSE was deluged with proposals in 1973.
The fact that FIPSE began without a well-developed system of processing grant applications reflected both the short time to prepare and the iterative decision-making process that characterized much of the planning at FIPSE. Rather than make assumptions or model its new program on existing federal agencies, FIPSE developed many of its practices from staff interactions with the postsecondary community. As a result, FIPSE developed a reputation for being very responsive.
From the beginning, FIPSE used external reviewers to assist in the selection of proposals. In 1973, however, faced with making decisions on 2,000 proposals, both the staff and the reviewers were overwhelmed. During FIPSE's second year, the staff developed a new system to streamline the process. Many federal agencies limit the number of applications they receive by writing narrower guidelines and by decreasing the range of institutions that can apply. Instead of adopting these approaches, FIPSE developed a two-stage application process: Applicants were invited to submit five-page preliminary proposals first. Based on these preliminary proposals, FIPSE invited the stronger applicants to prepare full proposals. This two-stage process could hardly have been unprecedented, but to our knowledge no governmental agency had used it for such broad purposes. The new arrangement not only reduced work for the staff and the applicant, but also had other beneficial consequences for the program.
Most importantly, the two-stage process allowed FIPSE to continue to welcome large numbers of applications, thereby expanding the range and diversity of proposals. And it freed applicants to write shorter idea pieces before engaging in the more extensive and laborious effort of developing full proposals. The low risk and high potential of the preliminary proposals encouraged educators to share entrepreneurial and innovative ideas in a national context.
The preliminary competition also served to level the playing field. In inviting applicants to prepare full proposals, FIPSE provided them with staff and reviewer feedback on their preliminary proposals-before the final project was fully designed. This allowed individuals and institutions without access to large grant development offices to compete on a more equal footing with larger organizations.
The narrative was a key part of a successful application at both the preliminary and final stages, requiring the applicant to frame a problem over time by discussing past attempts to solve it, a project plan for the present, and anticipated future results or outcomes. Applicants were required to define problems in their own terms, exploring their ideas rather than providing technical explanations laden with jargon. Particularly at the preliminary stage, FIPSE asked applicants to describe needs and problems within the context of their institutional priorities. This shifted their focus from policy or national-level solutions to problems as they were experienced in practice. Preliminary proposals that discussed problems only in broad terms tended to be less competitive. At the full proposal stage, however, applicants were encouraged to place their ideas in a wider regional and national setting. In judging the value of proposals, the potential for national impact was always considered along with local responsiveness.
The Review and the Selection of Proposals
The selection of proposals was an extensive and intensive process involving initial contact, the submission of preliminary proposals, external review, staff review, the submission of full proposals, additional staff analysis and discussion, and analysis by the board. Information was gathered from throughout the country and from very different organizations and individuals. In the end, the projects that were funded not only were formed by but also shaped the process of review. Few proposals escaped major modification during the negotiations over budget, implementation, or institutional participation. On the other hand, the funded projects did not represent a unified vision of the future of postsecondary education. The solutions that were represented in the final grant list reflected the diversity of the original applications received.
The first stage of review was to assess the five-page preliminary proposal in which the applicant described the problem being addressed, its significance, and the proposed approach for addressing it. Typically, FIPSE received between 1,500 and 2,000 preliminary proposals per year. The challenge was to identify 300 to 400 of the most promising projects, whose directors would then be invited to submit full proposals. To assist in this process, FIPSE turned to external reviewers.
There are, of course, many reasons for soliciting external assistance in reviewing proposals for funding. (For instance, special expertise is required in some cases.) At FIPSE, the use of field reviewers was driven by a desire to include practitioners from around the country and from disparate segments of the postsecondary community.
Because FIPSE funded mostly action-oriented projects, it did not use the typical federal research model for identifying reviewers; that is, FIPSE did not only seek experts or researchers in narrow fields of inquiry. Rather, FIPSE placed a premium on practice, on wide-ranging experience (including both formal and informal learning environments), and on a generalist perspective on postsecondary education. By including mostly practitioners, FIPSE gained an authentic understanding of what was happening on the ground. When FIPSE used faculty reviewers, FIPSE included junior faculty as frequently as their senior colleagues. In this manner, FIPSE captured issues pertaining to those entering the field as well as the more seasoned leaders.
FIPSE further expanded its list of reviewers to match its applicant pool. FIPSE invited representatives from community organizations, field-based learning endeavors, and adult learning groups, as well as those from community colleges, four-year colleges, and universities. By broadening the field of players in this manner, FIPSE's staff and board obtained some decidedly different views about change and improvement in education beyond high school.
By expanding the list of external readers in these ways, FIPSE ensured that invitations to submit full proposals would be distributed to a diverse range of projects. The intense discussions at the review meetings often fueled later staff debates about priorities and needs, which often found voice in FIPSE's subsequent guidelines. Meanwhile, the reviewers themselves often took new ideas about change and innovation home to their own institutions and professional conferences, thereby informing and shaping some of the most pressing debates in the larger postsecondary community. In this way the learning agenda of FIPSE began with its earliest selection process.
This widening of the field of reviewers did not occur overnight. During its first two years, FIPSE held review sessions in Washington, D.C., and had difficulty attracting review groups that reflected diversity of position, institution type, and ethnic background. In FIPSE's third year, the staff members developed a solution that seems obvious in hindsight: they took the process into the field. FIPSE staff fanned out to locations from California to Massachusetts with boxes of proposals. Teams of 5 to 15 readers met in schools, offices and community centers to engage in marathon reading and review sessions. After that, FIPSE had much more success attracting diverse groups of reviewers.
In general, the external reviewers were asked to evaluate proposals for their potential to contribute to the improvement of postsecondary education.
Before, during, and after these review meetings, staff played a crucial role in explaining and analyzing proposals, and in communicating with applicants. Based on the reviewers' comments, staff members recommended 300 to 400 of the most promising projects, those whose directors would be invited to submit full proposals. In making these recommendations, staff sought to avoid over-concentration in any one sector, region, or institutional type. Staff also sought to ensure that unusual or "out of the box" ideas were not overlooked due to their atypical presentation. At least one such proposal in the first year, that of Alverno College, had a very unusual format, which almost doomed it to oblivion: the appendices held the meat of the proposal. This proposal was reconsidered and subsequently became one of the most successful grants FIPSE ever made.
FIPSE's feedback to all applicants conveyed the seriousness with which the staff valued the applicants' ideas. Staff provided reviewer and other comments to all who submitted preliminary proposals. Staff members were also available for questions both from those who had been selected for full proposal preparation and from the unsuccessful preliminary proposal applicants. Interactions with those preparing full proposals focused on issues (such as project scope, budget, timeline, and stakeholder commitment) that could strengthen the proposal's competitiveness. Applicants had six weeks to submit their full proposals.
Full proposals were in the range of 20 pages, often with substantial addenda. The review process at this stage began by grouping projects, perhaps based on similar interventions, constituents, or institutional type. If the initial review raised questions not answered in the proposal, staff would contact applicants directly. This occurred frequently when the extent of institutional involvement and the nature of their commitment was not clear. As the proposals were sorted into various groups, program officers were assigned groups of applications, which they investigated in greater detail and ultimately advocated for in staff discussions. In this way, staff developed deeper understanding of the proposals and closer relationships with applicants. To avoid overly strong allegiances, proposals were moved from time to time from one portfolio to another.
As with the preliminary proposals, the full proposals were also reviewed externally. After this review was completed and staff follow-up was provided on outstanding questions, the proposals were prioritized. This process involved lengthy and in-depth staff meetings with the program officers and the director.
In the early years, these meetings were usually held as two- or three-day retreats away from the office, often at Belmont, a facility in Maryland for small conferences. These discussions included detailed examination of individual applications, their feasibility, soundness, the importance of the problems being addressed, and the significance of the social issues surrounding them. Because the funds for new grants were limited (FIPSE could accept one proposal out of every three or four at this stage) and many proposals were strong, it was always difficult to gain consensus in prioritizing proposals-and the process usually involved extensive and heated debate. These discussions turned out to be among the most critical learning events of the year for the staff.
From the submission of full proposals to the announcement of final grants (roughly two months), the list of finalists continued to evolve, as staff discussion brought out new information and deeper insights. Additional input and negotiations with applicants often improved their chances of success. As another consideration before determining that a grant should be awarded, the director would telephone the president of the institution that had submitted the proposal (unless, of course it had been submitted by that person) to discuss the grant. Information from this call was added to the mix. In many instances this was the first time these officers had heard about the proposal, but they often watched the development of events after that. Many applicants reported that this phone call enhanced the project's legitimacy on campus.
The final stage in the review process was the presentation of the staff's recommendations to FIPSE's advisory board, which acted as an incentive for and a check on the work of the staff. The board members were experienced public leaders and leaders from postsecondary education, and they brought a critical and practiced eye to the selection process, often raising additional questions. As leaders in the movement to increase diversity in postsecondary education, they were also effective advocates for projects that brought new groups to the table. Their discussions educated the staff and influenced the development of guidelines in subsequent years.
Meeting up to four times a year, the board was, by design, more engaged than most advisory boards for federal agencies. Board members received summary descriptions of all recommended grants, and had access to the full applications, reviewers' comments, and staff assessments. Board discussions usually focused on a new or significant group of grants that represented an issue of special concern for FIPSE, but they also included individual grants and other pertinent issues.
FIPSE's grant-making process was not perfect, of course. Undoubtedly, some worthy projects were not funded and some that were should not have been. But the high percentage of successes, as measured by the program evaluation in 1978, suggests that the process worked well to a remarkable extent.
Grants were considered for informal grass-roots cooperatives as well as major universities. There were proposals from advocacy groups seeking to restructure parts of postsecondary education and from university presidents seeking to understand management in a new system of mass higher education. It was impossible to use the same measures to evaluate all of these projects and organizations. Innovation, creativity, and leadership were considered, along with sound planning, experience, and knowledge of the institutional context. By the time they were funded, each successful proposal had been thoroughly examined, compared, contrasted, and investigated-in a process that is best described as iterative and evolutionary. Decisions were based not on a numerical score, but on competitive comparisons and analyses of a wide range of information from several sources.
The authors of unsuccessful proposals often contacted FIPSE for feedback after the announcements were made, and FIPSE staff responded to their questions in detail. Even though this absorbed substantial staff time, it was a very effective education process for applicants and FIPSE staff. It helped put a personal face on a highly competitive federal grant process. Many subsequent FIPSE grantees reported that those feedback sessions vastly improved their ability to design a successful project.
It is true that FIPSE's grant-making process was involved and expensive, requiring significant investment in professional time, field participation, and leadership. But the process did much more than identify promising projects for funding; it heightened and improved the conversation about learning in postsecondary education.
For-profit entities had to be funded through contracts, but they were still treated as if they were prospective grantees in the Comprehensive Program competition.