Many people have described FIPSE as an organization willing to take risks. From an external perspective this no doubt is true, but FIPSE was so cautious about the selection process that from the inside, there was never a sense of taking leaps of faith. Great care was taken to understand the motivation for the proposals, the level of commitment of the applicant, and the ability of the institution to undertake the project. These matters were discussed in great detail, often with additional information obtained from the applicant. In instances in which FIPSE was uncertain about the ability of the applicant to carry out the project on the basis of the proposal submitted, a planning grant was provided rather than an implementation grant. In these instances, a program officer was sometimes assigned to work with the applicant, which was the case with Universidad Boricua (later renamed Boricua College), an institution that did not yet exist but was planning to provide educational opportunities for Puerto Ricans and other minorities in New York City. Rene Cardenas, a program officer with FIPSE, worked with Victor Alicia to develop a strong proposal. In this case, Alicia, who had originally taken a year's leave from his university, was asked to commit himself to a longer period to increase the chance of success for the project. Today, almost 30 years later, Boricua College is an accredited institution serving many minority students with a learning-based teaching approach. This kind of project did involve risk, but it was a risk worth taking.
As another example, FIPSE funded a project to develop learning opportunities for citizens not enrolled in colleges. The application came from a fully established institution, the School of Continuing Studies at the University of New Hampshire. But the targeted learners were unusual, as were the methods and content. This project was an early step in the development of the now well-established and remarkably successful Elderhostel.
In Vermont, a grant was made to an educational effort that had been started in l970 as a noncampus, open-access, community-oriented institution. That grantee, The Community College of Vermont, has thrived and continues to be an outstanding example of a college that organized itself around the learning needs and life patterns of its students.
Another grant was given to La Guardia Community College to establish a middle college-spanning the 10th to 14th years of schooling-in an effort to ensure continuity and coherence in both curriculum and learner services. Here again, the applicant was an established program and the need was great, but the idea was relatively untried. After a thorough investigation and discussions with the applicant, it became clear that this was a risk worth taking. Many of the learners would be lost to the system if some alternative way of approaching them could not be found. The project was a huge success; it continues today to serve as a model for others.
Other examples include grants to Native American Colleges, to learning exchanges, and for a whole range of improved teaching approaches in established institutions.
And there were failures, to be sure. These represented a very low proportion of FIPSE's grants, but FIPSE staff studied them in great detail to learn how better to deal with untried activities. For example, during the early 1970s, a few organizations applied to FIPSE with flat administrative structures. FIPSE learned that working with such structures was very difficult because they didn't offer a single person who could take responsibility for instituting the goals of the grant. In fact, organizations of this sort did not seem to be able to continue operating unless they changed their structure, and some gradually adopted more hierarchical structures. As a second example, FIPSE understood that adaptive change takes time-but this was underscored year in and year out. Most of the grants FIPSE made were for two years; in many cases, FIPSE provided additional grants in order to fulfill the more evasive-and lasting-elements of project goals.
In the final analysis, what appeared to be risk taking from an external perspective was, in fact, FIPSE's willingness to fund applicants who were trying to move forward with innovative ideas within local institutions, who were working in many cases to create new institutions, and who were often outside the accepted universe of postsecondary education. What appeared even more risky was FIPSE's insistence on looking at proposals based on the need of the learner. Yet it was this tension between local needs and national context, always based on the needs of the learner, that produced the most interesting and creative solutions, and that genuinely improved the conversations about postsecondary education and its future.