Why Title III SIP is Unique

Among all the U.S. Department of Educations grant opportunities, the Title III Strengthening Institutions Program (SIP) is most unique. The JCCI Resource Development Services team monitored the federal budget proposals presented in 2017 and was shocked to learn that the initial budget from the president’s office removed the entire line item for Title III SIP. The Trump administration stated that funding was removed from the budget because they felt Title III SIP duplicates other grant funding opportunities. Every educational institution that has ever received an SIP grant award understands how this program is different from most other DOE grants. Fortunately, Congress’s final budget returned that line item funding to cover grantees at least during the 2018 year. With much debate about government spending and the national debt and an uncertain future for Title III SIP, it seems appropriate to consider what makes SIP different and why continuing this type of funding will, indeed, strengthen our higher educational institutions.

Problem Solving

Though there are many federal grants that target under-resourced institutions serving low-income students, only Title III SIP compels an institution to examine a significant problem that is unique to their operations and their student body. Successful applicants will not only identify this problem, but will also propose a research- and evidence-based solution to that problem. Project evaluations must demonstrate successful problem solving and achievement of outcomes within the 5-year grant time frame. The grantee is responsible for showing that the problem has been resolved with no future need for additional DOE funding. This grant enables institutions to solve problems that impact the long-term future of the organization and the students they serve and requires grantees to resolve the issues “on time and within budget.” In fact, awardees cannot re-apply for the same problem, and they must wait a minimum of two years before applying for a Title III SIP grant to assist in resolving a different issue. If a grantee applies in another grant cycle, the institution receives no benefits for being a prior SIP recipient.

By Comparison

For those who are unfamiliar with the way other federal grant programs work, the problem-solving and time-frame benchmarks for Title III SIP grants may not seem that unique; however, by comparison to other DOE grants, the unique nature of SIP becomes clear. Consider SIP in comparison to DOE TRIO grant programs. Like Title III, there are several specific grants under the TRIO umbrella. For example, Talent Search and Upward Bound are under the TRIO umbrella of grant funds. Like Title III, TRIO grants are intended to help higher educational institutions provide educational services to students from disadvantaged backgrounds who may have to overcome challenges to completing a degree program. Challenges might include low income, disabilities, or being a first-generation college student. TRIO grants provide important funding to address a variety of socio-economic challenges to student success and higher education.


Unlike Title III SIP grants, though, TRIO grantees can literally receive continual funding for decades without a waiting period between grant applications, and, for most programs, previous grantees are awarded an additional 15 points for prior experience in the competitive grant cycle. The additional points which previous grantees receive make it even more challenging for new and innovative programs to obtain enough points to be funded.


The TRIO programs’ goal of helping institutions serve segments of the population that may need additional support to accomplish educational goals is, of course, a worthy goal. Title III SIP grant competition is fierce, but equitable, as no organization automatically receives points for prior award status. SIP awardees are held accountable for resolving identified issues with a specified time frame in a manner that is sustainable without continual federal funding. No other DOE grant program is designed specifically to support under-resourced institutions (defined by the institution’s educational and general expenditures compared to a national mean for its sector) serving low-income students while ensuring institutional efficiency and sustainability within a 5-year period. Title III SIP remains a unique and transformational investment in our educational system.

Beyond Getting the Grant: The Project Evaluation Process

Receiving grant funding comes with a serious responsibility to manage funds appropriately and demonstrate how the funded project is meeting defined goals and objectives. A comprehensive and carefully crafted project evaluation plan allows grantees to fulfill this responsibility more efficiently and to make any adjustments to the project that may be needed to achieve desired outcomes. Increasingly, grant applicants are incorporating external evaluation into their project design as a means of fulfilling this serious project monitoring and evaluation responsibility. Whether an institution is utilizing the services of an external evaluator or managing evaluation reporting internally, JCCI Resource Development Services recommends following these guidelines when designing a project evaluation plan.


Evaluation starts with the grant application. Formulating a basic plan for evaluating project success and achievement of project milestones and objectives when developing the grant project and writing the grant application ensures that stakeholders are aware of evaluation responsibilities before any work on the project ever begins. Each project and each grantee is unique and will require different evaluation methods; however, there are three standard evaluation tactics that are especially helpful in defining and outlining evaluation needs:


  • Michael Quinn Patton developed the Utilization-Focused Evaluation (UFE) approach that emphasizes engaging real and specific end users of the evaluation results and ensuring that evaluation reports are drafted with these users in mind. Patton advises continuously collecting, analyzing, and reporting quantitative and qualitative information to facilitate data-driven decision making. Using the UFE approach entails examining the evaluation process itself to make sure the process contributes valid and reliable information to end users and stakeholders in a timely manner. The evaluation must be meaningful.


  • Logic models are simplified visual representations of an identified need, a vision for fulfilling the need, and the strategy to accomplish the vision. Logic models use a linear format of inputs, activities, outputs, and outcomes to ensure all aspects of a program are measured against established benchmarks. Logic models can also serve as a map to show where participants and processes should be to ensure long-term project success. Several organizations such as The W. K. Kellogg Foundation, REL Pacific, and ERIC provide helpful information about developing logic models as well as sample logic models.


  • A participatory evaluation approach requires that those with “boots on the ground” rather than those in the “ivory tower” guide evaluation efforts. A participatory evaluation approach has the distinct advantage of gaining especially useful insights based on firsthand experience; project staff participation in the evaluation process is a key component of any successful evaluation effort. This approach can be time consuming, though, and requires a great deal of coordination. MEERA, a group formed to help environmental educators with evaluations, provides a good overview of the participatory evaluation approach’s pros and cons as well as examples of when this methodology would be appropriate.


In addition to determining the best evaluation practice or combination of approaches that suit a particular project and institutional goals, a good plan will also outline the type of evaluation the institution will use. The two main types of evaluation are formative and summative, and subcategories within those two types of evaluation include process, impact, and outcome evaluations.


Formative evaluations are common in many business operations and are commonly referred to as continuous quality improvement (CQI) efforts because they are ongoing rather than a one-time review. Summative evaluations, on the other hand, are reviews of project or program successes and outcomes typically performed at the end of specific time frames or at the end of the entire . Robert Stake, highly regarded for his influential development of program evaluation theory and practice, distinguished these two types of evaluation with his now-famous metaphor: When the cook tastes the soup, that’s formative; when the guests taste the soup, that’s summative.


Process evaluation is a subset of formative evaluations while impact and outcome focuses are subsets of summative evaluations. Recommended best practice is to use both formative and summative evaluations for a comprehensive assessment of the grant project. With selected methods and types of evaluations, the next step in the evaluation design involves identifying specific components at the outset:

  • The organization or person responsible for the evaluation plan and reports.
  • Agreed-upon benchmarks and measurements.
  • Types of data to be collected and an agreed-upon schedule and time-frame for data collection.
  • Agreed-upon methods for analyzing, reporting, and using collected data.
  • Reporting schedule.

Ultimately, the evaluation process should inform stakeholders about progress of the funded project as well as project successes or the need for adjustments to the project plan to achieve desired outcomes. Though funders might not require an evaluation report until the end of the grant period or at the mid-point of multi-year projects, preparing draft evaluations throughout the duration of the grant project will better position the grantee to give a meaningful evaluation report. Good project evaluation reports not only fulfill the responsibility of providing a detailed accounting to funders; they can also help grantees learn from a project and use that knowledge to be more competitive in future project planning and grant applications. Evaluation reports might also guide other institutions in implementing similar projects based on the grantee’s experiences.

How Competitive is Federal Grant Funding?

It’s the question on everyone’s mind when considering applying for federal grants: what are the odds of being approved for funding? Just how competitive is federal grant funding? The question is legitimate since applying for a grant can consume both human capital and financial resources when organizations and institutions often have little of either to spare. At the same time, receiving competitive federal grant funding can be the catalyst for moving programs and even entire organizations to the next level of service. Grant funding allows nonprofit institutions to do more than they could ever do without significant capital investment, so pursuing federal grants is definitely worthwhile.


During a 2017 conference for community college grant writers, a representative from the U.S. Department of Education answered questions from conference participants about the recent Title III Strengthening Institutions (SIP) grant cycle. The questions and the answers provided during this session shed some light on the competitive nature of that particular grant, and the statistics are likely similar for many other federal grant competitions.


U.S. DOE received more than 125 applications for the 2017 Title III SIP Part A grant funding cycle. Only 10 applicants received funding. The cutoff grant application score for the Title III SIP competitive grant funding was 103 which included a perfect score on the criteria (100 points) plus utilization of a tie-breaking method to determine grantees. It often happens that the Title III SIP selection process ends in a tie and funds are not sufficient to fund all institutions. In this case, the U.S. DOE awards up to three additional points based on 1) total market value of endowment fund during a base year, 2) total expenditures for library materials during a base year, and 3) activities that the applicant proposes to carry out in the application. In the 2017 cycle, no applicant with a score below 103 received funding, and many applicants with scores of 103 did not receive funding.


The good news from this extremely competitive federal grant funding cycle is that DOE may decide to “fund down” in the following year rather than announcing a new cycle of funding for grant applicants (as they often do). To “fund down” means that the DOE will review high-scoring applicants from one year’s competition to make additional funding awards rather than asking all applicants to submit grant requests again. For the institutions with high-scoring submissions, that news is especially welcome as it means the resources put into that above-perfect scoring application might still result in federal grant funding.

Planning Ahead

Considering the competitive nature of these types of federal grants and JCCI Resource Development Services’ experience with funded proposals, we know there are some steps to take in making a grant application as competitive as possible. Planning ahead is the most effective means of writing a winning grant, and that means planning as far out as a year ahead. Many institutions who received funding in the latest DOE Title III SIP funding cycle had been outlining their needs and planning their strategies a year ahead of beginning the grant submission process. These institutions were able to gather compelling data during this time frame and were able to generate the best solutions to their problems. Waiting until the U.S. DOE announced the grant funding cycle before thinking about the best ways to serve students and gathering supporting data simply would not allow enough time to lay the groundwork for a successful proposal.


After competitive federal grant funding opportunities are announced, applicants must still research specific grant opportunities to ensure they can meet all grant criteria and that the institution’s project and needs align with specific desired grant outcomes. RFPs and FOAs will include details about the amount of funds available, the cap on award amounts, total number of awards planned, grant project timelines, evaluation and reporting requirements, restrictions on use of grant funding, and a host of other helpful details to help organizations decide whether to apply. Because federal grants are highly competitive, ensuring that organizational goals match grant funding goals is crucial to success. Planning well in advance of a grant announcement and appropriate research of grant criteria are vital for developing a grant proposal that will be competitive.