Northeast Wisconsin Technical College’s (NWTC) Grants Office works closely with its Institutional Research Office to create ad hoc evaluation teams in order to meet the standards of evidence required in funders’ calls for proposals. Faculty members at two-year colleges often make up the project teams that are responsible for National Science Foundation (NSF) grant project implementation. However, they often need assistance navigating among terms and concepts that are traditionally found in scientific research and social science methodology.
Federal funding agencies are now requiring more evaluative rigor in their grant proposals than simply documenting deliverables. For example, the NSF’s Scholarships in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (S-STEM) program saw dramatic changes in 2015: The program solicitation increased the amount of non-scholarship budget from 15% of the scholarship amount to 40% of the total project budget to increase supports for students and to investigate the effectiveness of those supports.
Technical colleges, in particular, face a unique challenge as solicitations change: These colleges traditionally have faculty members from business, health, and trades industries. Continuous improvement is a familiar concept to these professionals; however, they tend to have varying levels of expertise evaluating education interventions.
The following are a few best practices we have developed for assisting project teams in grant proposal development and project implementation at NWTC.
- Where possible, work with an external evaluator at the planning stage. External evaluators can provide the expertise that principal investigators and project teams might lack as external evaluators are well-versed on current evaluation methods, trends, and techniques.
- As they develop their projects, teams should meet with their Institutional Research Office to better understand data gathering and research capacity. Some data needed for evaluation plans might be readily available, whereas others might require some advanced planning to develop a system to track information. Conversations about what the data will be used for and what questions the team wants to answer will help ensure that the correct data are able to be gathered.
- After a grant is awarded, have a conversation early with all internal and external evaluative parties about clarifying data roles and responsibilities. Agreeing to reporting deadlines and identifying who will collect the data and conduct further analysis will help avoid delays.
- Create a “data dictionary” for more complicated projects and variables to ensure that everyone is on the same page about what terms mean. For example, “student persistence” can be defined term-to-term or year-to-year and all parties need to understand which data will need to be tracked.
With some planning and the right working relationships in place, two-year colleges can maintain their federal funding competitiveness even as agencies increase evaluation requirements.
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