What Do Six Strengthening Institutions Program Grantees Tell Us about How to Improve Federally-Funded Programs?

March 1, 2023


Very few institutions of higher education have billions of dollars in endowment or are well-funded by their states. Not many have picturesque campuses with Victorian buildings, beautifully mown lawns, state-of-the-art amenities, and accept only a tiny fraction of students who apply. In fact, many colleges struggle financially, accept most students, and serve a significant number of low-income students and students of color. These institutions can be public—like community colleges or regional state colleges and universities—or private—like many minority serving institutions or small colleges with negligible endowments. They need more resources to operate efficiently and to help their students stay in and complete college.

Congress has long tried to help these colleges and universities. In fact, the Higher Education Act (HEA), since its inception, has established several programs to support colleges with scarce resources. The Strengthening Institutions Program (SIP), authorized under HEA Title III-part A, provides competitive grants to colleges that are under-resourced and serve a high percentage of low-income students so that these institutions can improve their academic quality, fiscal stability, and institutional management. In fiscal year (FY) 2023, Congress appropriated more than $122 million to the program, making it one of the largest federal aid programs for colleges.

While SIP has been around for nearly 60 years, not a lot of work has been done to understand its effectiveness. In 2007, the U.S. Department of Education released a performance report that examined several SIP outcomes and found that grantees increased their enrollment, graduation rates, and cost efficiencies per degree between the 2004 and 2005 fiscal years. In 2009, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a report that showed shortcomings in the way the Department of Education monitored and supported SIP grantees.

Understanding how colleges have been implementing SIP and how the program impacts student outcomes is critical, as the lessons from SIP not only help improve the program itself, but also inform the implementation of other federal programs that provide aid to colleges.

Lessons from SIP are even more relevant now, as the Education Department puts into effect the Postsecondary Student Success Program (PSSG), a competitive grant program Congress created last year that supports the implementation and expansion of evidence-based practices that improve student persistence and completion. PSSG is currently the only federal investment that focuses solely on the issue of low completion rate in higher education, and with a priority for evidence-based and data-driven practices, it has the potential to make a significant impact on college outcomes nationwide.

SIP and PSSG overlap in many areas, since institutions eligible for SIP are also eligible for PSSG, and many SIP grantees have also been using the fund to improve student outcomes. This brief presents findings from six interviews with 2018 SIP grantees—all with a focus on retention and completion—to learn about their experiences with the program and their ideas for making the program more effective.

Overview of the Strengthening Institutions Program (SIP)

Which Colleges Are Eligible?

Congress created Title III in the Higher Education Act of 1965 to improve the academic quality of public and private nonprofit institutions that “for financial and other reasons are struggling for survival and are isolated from the main current of academic life.” The program aimed to improve colleges’ quality through faculty development, partnerships with other colleges in activities such as faculty and student exchanges, joint use of facilities, and curriculum development.

The SIP program we know today took shape in the 1980s. As part of HEA reauthorization in 1980, Congress revamped the program to focus on helping colleges that served a significant number of low-income students, an eligibility requirement the original program did not have. The legislation stated that colleges with scarce resources that enroll a large share of low-income students “play an important role in the American system of higher education, and there is a strong national interest in assisting them in solving their problems and in stabilizing their management and fiscal operations.”

In 1986, Congress expanded eligibility for Title III aid to institutions that serve a significant number of students of color, creating a separate part (Part B) that focused on strengthening historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). The reauthorization of HEA in 1986 acknowledged that without a focus on HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions, Title III programs could not meet the needs of minority and low-income students, stating that “there is a particular national interest in aiding those institutions of higher education that have historically served students who have been denied access to postsecondary education because of race or national origin.”

Subsequent reauthorizations of HEA created additional programs within Title III that target specific minority serving institutions (MSIs), like American Indian Tribally controlled colleges and universities, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian-serving institutions, and Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-serving institutions. Furthermore, the reauthorization of HEA in 1998 created Title V that provides grants to Hispanic-serving institutions in order to improve their capacity to serve Hispanic and other low-income students.

SIP is the only program under Title III that is available to colleges that serve a large share of low-income students, regardless of minority-serving status. To be eligible, institutions must be legally authorized by their states to award bachelor’s degrees or associate degrees at junior or community colleges. These colleges must be accredited by an accrediting agency recognized by the Department of Education. They must also show that they have lower educational and general expenditure than other similar institutions, and that at least 50 percent of their students receive federal need-based student aid.

In FY 2023, Congress appropriated more than $122 million for SIP, making it the third-largest source of direct aid to colleges, after the programs that specifically focus on HBCUs and Hispanic-serving institutions. Funding for SIP has been pretty stable over the past 10 years. When taking inflation into account, appropriations for SIP increased by 23 percent between FY 2013 and 2023. The amount of funding dipped in 2022 but is almost back to pre-pandemic levels (see Figure 1).

Most SIP grants are five years in length and colleges can use the funds to implement a variety of authorized activities to improve “academic quality, institutional management, and fiscal stability”—SIP’s areas of focus as laid out in the HEA. Authorized activities vary. Colleges can use the funds, for example, to purchase educational materials and equipment, support faculty development, maintain and improve instructional facilities, enhance student services programs, and establish a new or improve an existing endowment fund. The GAO found, in its 2009 analysis, that SIP grantees used the funds for activities in all areas, but a majority focused on activities related to improving academic quality and student support in ways that aimed at improving retention and completion.

The fact that SIP grantees can use the fund to improve student retention and completion outcomes is an overlap it has with the new PSSG which Congress created as part of last year’s appropriations. Like SIP, PSSG is a competitive grant program for colleges that serve a significant number of low-income and minority students. But rather than supporting many areas of practices, PSSG focuses on implementing and expanding practices that have proven success in improving retention and completion outcomes. SIP also values practices that have shown evidence of success, but while PSSG makes evidence a requirement, SIP only gives preference to applications that propose these activities.

The Department of Education measures the performance of SIP and PSSG grantees using outcome data related to retention and completion. Given the similarities of the two programs, lessons learned from SIP can potentially be used not only to improve the program itself, but also to inform the implementation of PSSG.

To better understand the experience of SIP grantees, we decided to concentrate our analysis on colleges that were awarded the grant in 2018. They are an ideal cohort to examine because, while they are still grantees, their projects have progressed long enough for them to see results from grant activities.

In 2018, more than 1500 colleges were eligible to apply SIP. About 60 percent of the colleges were four-year institutions, and more than a third of those schools were private four-year colleges. The remaining 40 percent of schools were community colleges (see Figure 2).

Spending for SIP-eligible public and private four-year colleges per student was roughly 30 percent lower than ineligible colleges, even though they served more students with Pell Grants. These SIP-eligible colleges also charged students less in tuition and fees than ineligible institutions. The data shows the resource inequity among institutions of higher education: those that need more resources to support their low-income students have less to spend, while those with more resources serve a much lower share of these students (see Table 1).

The gap between SIP-eligible and ineligible colleges in the public two-year sector is narrower. SIP-eligible two-year colleges served a slightly larger percentage of Pell students than ineligible colleges, 55 and 51 percent respectively. And while SIP-eligible colleges in this sector spent less per full-time student than ineligible colleges, they charged more in both in-state and out-of-state tuition than their ineligible counterparts.

When considering outcomes, colleges eligible for SIP have considerably worse graduation rates than those ineligible for the program across all sectors. The biggest gap is among private four-year colleges, where 46 percent of students graduated within six years compared to two-thirds (64 percent) at better resourced institutions that do not qualify for the program. At public four-year universities eligible for SIP, about two in five (41 percent) students graduated within six years, compared to 53 percent at ineligible institutions. The differences are smaller at community colleges, where 27 percent of students at eligible schools graduated within three years, compared to one-third (33 percent) at ineligible schools (see Figure 3).

SIP 2018 Grantees

Fifty-nine colleges received the grant in 2018. The grantees are distributed across all sectors: 17 are private four-year, 20 are public four-year, and 22 are public two-year institutions. On average, these grantees enrolled more than 5,500 students in the fall of 2018, with half of the students receiving Pell Grants. The average graduation rate at these institutions was 36 percent in 2018.[1] In the first year of the grant, these schools received an average award of $436,000, a per-year amount that would stay roughly the same across the grant period. Grantees implemented activities across all areas: student support, academic quality, institution management, and fiscal stability—but, as found in the 2009 GAO report, the most popular activities were in student support and academic quality.

For our analysis, we reached out to a select group of grantees via email. Because we wanted to understand how grantees’ experiences with SIP could inform the implementation of the new PSSG program, we sought grantees that proposed evidence-based practices for improving student retention and completion on their campuses. After the outreach period, we were able to set up interviews with individuals directly involved with managing SIP from six institutions over Zoom.[2] These institutions included two private universities, one public four-year university, and three public two-year colleges in the northeast, midwest, and west coast of the country. Pell Grant recipients accounted for nearly half of the student population at these institutions, and students of color nearly 60 percent. The average graduation rate across all six institutions was 33 percent.

Since we conducted only a handful of interviews, the findings cannot be extrapolated to all SIP grantees. But the responses can still provide a helpful reference for policymakers and Education Department officials in improving SIP and other federal programs such as PSSG.

It is worth noting that for more than half of the grant period, these grantees had to deal with COVID-19. The pandemic, which prompted hundreds of thousands of college students to stop out nationwide, had an impact on the effectiveness of the grant activities to a certain extent. And as the result of the pandemic, a planned conference sponsored by the Education Department for Title III grantees was canceled and has not been rescheduled, making it much harder for these schools to connect with each other to share best practices. It is important to keep in mind that SIP grantees might have to alter their activities to some extent as a result of the pandemic.

Findings from the Interviews

Finding #1: SIP helped colleges start student support initiatives.

The grantees we interviewed all wanted to carry out intrusive advising or success coaching, a proactive and high-touch advising model that includes interventions to engage with students and enhance their academic motivation and persistence. Students have to reach out when they are faced with difficulties in the traditional model of advising, but with intrusive advising, advisors initiate the contact, identify students who are at risk of dropping out, and use various strategies to make them feel like they belong and that the college cares for them.

One grantee wanted to reform developmental education, which describes the remedial reading, writing, and math classes that academically underprepared students need to take before taking college-level courses. The problem with developmental education is that students sometimes have to take these courses for many semesters without accumulating any credits toward a credential, prompting many to drop out before enrolling in college-level courses. This grantee wanted to shift the college into the corequisite model, in which underprepared students can enroll in college-level courses and receive additional learning support at the same time, to avoid spending time and money on courses that do not count toward a credential.

Other grant activities include redesigning curriculum for first year-students as they were struggling with retaining them; developing guided pathways (a model that provides structured plan and support for students to work towards their learning goals); purchasing a student support online platform; and developing workshops for faculty on teaching first-generation and low-income students. Most grantees tailor their efforts for a particular student population, such as freshmen or students in developmental courses, but two of the grantees we interviewed said they made the grant activities available to all students. Four out of the six were first-time grantees and said that the SIP grant allowed them to carry out these activities for the first time.

Grantees used data from their institutional research center or pulled together a working group made up of individuals with different areas of expertise to decide which areas they needed to improve and which strategies they could use to do so. Although grantees were aware of their institutions’ longtime struggles with retention and completion and had ideas for tackling these areas, they had previously lacked the resources to do so. “We were struggling. Our students were struggling,” one person said, adding, “we felt we did not have the student support services for our students, and the institution is not resource-rich.” Getting a SIP grant allowed the college to test out ideas for providing support to its students. An official with another college said that the funding let the institution hire more positions than before, such as student advisors.

Finding #2: Outcomes of SIP activities vary.

Two grantees said that it took them a while to get the proposed activities up and running, since recruiting and training staff was challenging, but all said they were able to implement all the activities that they proposed. However, not all activities were perceived as successful.

Grantees seemed most happy with the outcomes of intrusive advising or success coaching. Thanks to their grants, the colleges were able to hire more advisors, or coaches, which let them engage with and serve more students. Two grantees noted better participation rates among students, even when they did not require students to meet with their advisors. One said that students were happy with their advisors and satisfaction went up over the years of the grant. However, student satisfaction does not necessarily lead to satisfactory outcomes. While one grantee said that the activity showed results right away, others admitted that retention fell short of their expectations.

One grantee said that the pandemic disrupted the project, making it difficult for the college to achieve its retention goals. This makes sense, as the uncertainty of the pandemic has prompted students (many of whom were low-income and minority students) to drop out. Grantees said that they were able to move their grant activities, such as advising, online. However, meeting online, rather than in person, made it more challenging for the projects to create a sense of belonging among the students.

Two grantees said their projects fell short because they had difficulty engaging students. “The students who use coaching have better outcomes than the students who don’t,” one grantee said. “The difficulty is we need to get more students to use coaching. It’s essentially a volunteer thing.” Another grantee agreed that it was hard to get students engaged without making the activity a requirement, saying, “well, we’re offering this, but you don’t have to come. Then you know a lot of people will say, ‘I’m probably okay,’ or ‘I’m fine,’ and they just don’t show up.”

But while requiring students to show up can help with getting students engaged, some of the grantees also ran into difficulties persuading faculty members and departments on campus to collaborate on certain activities. A grantee whose institution wanted to redesign its courses for first-year students talked about the problems with getting faculty involved in the process. “There is no means by which to mandate that people actually take us up on the offer,” the grantee said. “So sometimes departments will say ‘No’ one year, and then ‘Yes’ another year.”

Of the grantees that were pleased with the level of student participation, one acknowledged that the process required a lot of communication with students and other stakeholders. “It took a lot of outreach, not just to get students to know that the coaches were there, but [also to get the] faculty to know that the coaches were there and then explain to faculty what the coaches did,” this person said.

Activities other than advising showed varied results. The grantee whose institution purchased an online platform to facilitate student support services said that the use of the software was a great success, as it increased use of those services. At the same time, another person whose institution tried to redesign its seminar for first-year students said that the takeup rate was not as large as expected. But all grantees said they would be able to continue providing practices that were successfully implemented, such as student advising, beyond the course of the grant. This is a significant success for SIP, since many of these grantees could not implement these activities before receiving the grant.

Finding #3: More technical assistance and support from the Department of Education would be appreciated.

One finding stood out across all the grantees we interviewed: they barely received any support from the Education Department during the course of the grant.

Grantees said they relied on their previous experience managing similar federal grants, or on guidance from other colleges with which they have relationships. One grantee said their evaluators were helpful with giving feedback and connecting their school with other institutions with experience in student success programs, but they had received little help from the program officer at the Education Department. Grantees said that they had received minimal communication from the Department. “My only contact with ED has either been in one of the two categories: I’m submitting the annual performance review, or I’m submitting a budget modification,” one said. “They were very prompt in their responses, so that’s very good. But there’s no back and forth at all. It’s very transactional.”

Grantees said that while the Department had organized a Title III conference in 2020, it was canceled because of the pandemic and has not been rescheduled. They said it would have been helpful to share experience and insights with other institutions engaged in similar activities, and this was even more true for grantees carrying out these activities for the first time. One suggested that the Department should provide more guidance on its website on grant management practices, as not all project directors have experience working on federal grants.

This finding is similar to the findings of the GAO report in 2009 which noted that the Department provided limited technical assistance to grantees. According to the report, technical assistance was available, but only “on a case-by-case basis at the discretion of the program officers” and “there are no particular criteria to determine when a program officer should provide technical assistance.” The report also found that the Department had not held regular conferences for grantees since 2006, and when the conferences were held, they were often in Washington, DC, which can make it expensive for grantees to participate. If the lack of assistance for SIP grantees has persisted for the past decade, the Department may need more prodding and resources to change this practice.

Discussion and Recommendations

Congress created SIP with a goal of helping under-resourced institutions build their capacity so that they can better support students, many of whom are low-income and minority students. There is no doubt from our interviews that SIP funding was needed at institutions that received it. Through SIP, many institutions were able to put in place activities that they identified as important for their students for the first time. Some of these activities were later institutionalized and are continued beyond the grant period. That is where the program succeeded.

However, for most of the grantees, student outcomes such as retention and completion fell short of what they had hoped to achieve. While the challenges of the pandemic affected the outcomes, the grantees’ lack of experience managing grant activities was a factor too. Grantees expressed interest in connecting with other institutions to share experiences and learn about best practices. They also wanted more help from the Education Department about grant management and project implementation. For the SIP program, and other similar federal investments such as PSSG to succeed, the Department must provide better support.

The Department can host regular workshops on grant management and continue offering networking conferences so that grantees can connect and share best practices. The Department should also create a resource center on its website that provides examples for successful strategies in grant management and implementation to which grantees can refer.

And Congress can step in to make the program stronger. Given the fact that many grantees will be implementing proposed activities for the first time, they will need technical assistance to make sure they follow the best practices that would lead to expected outcomes. Similar to the set-aside for evaluation that reserves funding from several programs authorized by HEA to conduct rigorous and independent research into the effectiveness of such programs, Congress should create a set-aside for technical support so grantees can receive more assistance from third parties during implementation.


[1] This rate is calculated as graduation within 150 percent of normal time for two-year institutions and within six years for four-year institutions.

[2] We promised these institutions anonymity and compensated them for participating in the interviews.