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Feds Offer $75M for Bright Ideas to Boost College Completion

By AACC Staff

First in the World competition will reward strategies for increased enrollment and engagement at community colleges, other higher education institutions.

President Barack Obama has made no secret of his desire to again make America the world’s No. 1 producer of college graduates. He was hardly in office a month when he challenged the nation’s colleges to double the number of college completers by 2020.

Since that time, the president has met with higher education leaders at the White House and worked with federal agencies and members of his own staff to draft a multitiered approach to potentially make college more affordable for middle-class Americans.

In April, Obama and members of his administration visited with high school and college educators, including community college leaders, to promote stronger workforce and apprenticeship programs.

Earlier this month, the president dropped by a White House meeting attended by American Association of Community Colleges president and CEO Walter Bumphus and other stakeholders to promote 100,000 Strong in the Americas, a new White House initiative to increase opportunities for U.S. and foreign exchange students.

Now, President Obama has announced a new effort designed to create more opportunities for students here at home. Called the First in the World Competition, the administration’s latest grant will dole out a total of $75 million to programs designed to put students on a successful path to a college degree.

Starting in June, colleges can apply for a piece of the grant by describing their best practices for enrollment and engagement.

“Successful applicants must demonstrate not only an innovative project design, but outline a rigorous plan for how the project will be evaluated to demonstrate its effectiveness,” states the U.S. Department of Education.

Proposals for the competition are still in the works, but some colleges are already making headway toward their completion goals.

Goals lend focus

William Rainey Harper College, in Illinois, started four years ago by setting a bold goal of its own: award 10,604 additional degrees and certificates by 2020. The effort was a direct response to President Obama’s graduation challenge says Harper College provost Judy Marwick, and the 10,604 represents Harper’s portion of that commitment.

“Everyone on campus knows that number,” says Marwick. “And whether we succeed or fall a little short, that number lends us focus.”

As of the college’s most recent progress report, administrators say they are ahead of schedule, having reached 55 percent of their goal, with six years left to go.

The college achieved these numbers by deepening relationships with area high schools and increasing collaboration efforts. It began with a pilot program that targeted students struggling in developmental math. Administrators purchased software designed to more closely monitor student progress and developed an early-warning system so that counselors and advisers could step in with interventions intended to help students get back on track.

The program was so successful that the college eventually implemented it into engagement efforts in other academic sectors, Marwick says.

“We’re going to hit it,” says Marwick, referring to the Harper’s completion number. “There’s no doubt in my mind.”

Applications for the First in the World Competition were made available online on May 16, with a cutoff of June 30. All grants will be awarded by September.

Want more ideas for types of programs that might qualify? Check out AACC’s Empowering Community College to Build the Nation’s Future: An Implementation Guide, which features dozens of promising practices for boosting student success. 

AACC Staff

contributed to this report.

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