Crafting Your Student Services Grant Application
By: Samantha Cook
There are more federal dollars available now than ever before, so it’s a great time to help you navigate that process to get those funds working to support your students.
We know. Money is tight these days. The pandemic threw us all for a loop and the CARES Funding that was received was often put into the general operating budget. With everything that has been happening over the past couple of years students need our help now more than ever. Luckily there are still generous organizations wanting to help, if you could only figure out how to craft an application for that funding.
While each grant will have its own regulations listed to help guide you through the application process, we’ve compiled suggestions that will help make your application shine. Think of this as step zero when starting to look at funding sources.
We’ll touch on the following areas of advice, tailored from things I learned overseeing a grant on campus, and some mistakes I would not want to make again.
- Define Your Niche
- Find Opportunities
- Gather Your Team
- Identify Stakeholders and Capacity
- Tailor Your Submission
- Track the Data You Have
Let’s get started!
Define Your Niche
There are so many students who need our help. It can be hard to pick a subset or initiative without feeling you are overlooking another area. Add the fact that oftentimes we know students are struggling, but not where they need the help most. So why not ask them?
Focus groups are a great way to figure out what students need. The challenge: you’ll need a wide range of different students. Most times they won’t be the ones coming into your office asking for help. Try posting the opportunity publicly on signs around campus. Offering remote, online, quick options for involvement may boost interest for both on-campus and commuter students in participating on their schedule. You may be surprised by what you learn! Make it easy, make it short, and make it count for students to share.
As you start refining your research topic it can also be helpful to ask yourself: am I hoping to find a problem, solve it, or both? The majority of grants for student services tend to be focused on solving a known issue, or closing a gap or deficit between different subsets of students. If your grant is more discovery research rather than a hypothesized solution, you may need to collect more data on campus first to prove a problem exists before submitting for funding.
Once you’ve found your topic, it’s time to look for grant opportunities and submit.
Some potential places to look for funding include:
- Title III Part A — Strengthening Institutions, Department of Education
- Title V – Developing Hispanic-Serving Institutions, Department of Education
- College Success or Career Readiness, ECMC Foundation
- Racial Justice and Equity, State Policy, or Adult Community College Enrollment, The Lumina Foundation
- Mental Health, Michigan Health Endowment Fund
There are likely additional state and local agencies providing funding in your area. Looking at regional funding sources will lower the number of competitors for the grant, but it may also lower the total funding available. Keep in mind that you can submit to multiple sources. If you’re able to win a smaller local grant you can use that win to apply for larger awards from national agencies to grow or extend the grant. Grants don’t have to be one and done; if you can show progress you can always apply for additional funding from other sources.
Gather Your Team
When writing your grant submission we recommend having 3+ primary contacts who read and sign the grant as official representatives of the institution. Now, the grant may limit the official number of signers, but even if they can’t sign, 3+ is a great number to have involved in crafting the grant. A larger number of authors ensures you’re not operating in a bubble, and that there are others on campus who know about the grant submission and can help complete it in case of job changes, medical leave, or other unforeseen circumstances.
If you’re submitting a cross-functional initiative as a grant, having co-authors from the other areas of campus will also help strengthen both the submission and the later implementation of the project, should you receive funding.
If, for example, you are submitting a grant regarding literacy improvement among FTIC students, it might be helpful to have individuals from the Writing Center, Library, and First Year Seminar participating in the grant writing.
When I was on campus there was a team of individuals who submitted a grant together, but it was a cross-functional grant and the submitters were all in the same department. Imagine the headache once they received funding and had to move forward with a grant that other areas had not yet bought into or even made aware of. They made it work, but there were some pretty angry conversations. Getting the buy-in from others beforehand can greatly reduce your workload when you go to implement and launch the grant.
Identify Stakeholders and Capacity
One key thing to think about as you design your grant is the various areas that will play a part in it, either working with students or behind the scenes. It is important to both identify the stakeholders and ensure capacity to assist prior to submitting the grant, in order to avoid any hiccups or delays along the way. For example: if you are going to be utilizing student information and need content integrated into a new system by IT, it is wise to make sure they understand what you are looking to accomplish and feel able to assist. I have worked with some schools before where IT had a six month waitlist for projects. If you don’t know that ahead of time it could seriously delay your launch.
When submitting your grant the granting body will likely care less about how the internal processes work step-by-step at your institution and more about the fact that you have everyone needed to support the initiatives and report on the findings.
Keep in mind that just because someone is a campus or community stakeholder in the project does not mean they’ll automatically be on the team actively implementing it. People can be affected by your grant and rely on the work being done without actively managing the program daily. You will likely have many more stakeholders than the three individuals listed on the grant (in the “gather your team” section above). Identifying them before submitting can help avoid unnecessary delays attempting to get buy-in later.
Tailor Your Submission
If you plan on applying for multiple grants, the same principle that applies to resume and cover letter writing applies here. You shouldn’t send the same application to every place. Tailor your submission to the specifics for each grant with a focus on how you and your institution can best support the requirements outlined and fulfill the mission of the funding organization. You may also want to edit the budget structure for the grant. If you know an organization cares more about providing physical resources to students, it will not be your best bet in asking for a staff heavy grant.
Track the Data You Have
So often we get tunnel vision. Let’s say I’ve created a grant for FTIC student retention in STEM programs; all I need to know is the retention results of those students against a pre-grant baseline cohort, right? You could do that, but you’d be living in a bit of a data bubble. There may be other factors affecting performance of those students year-to-year that you’re not considering. The baseline cohort you pick may also be an anomaly year; 2020 would be, for sure! Try looking at a baseline average of several years and comparing it to your success over several years as well. You may also want to see how the STEM group you assist compares to performance across other area majors.
If you have access to additional data, it doesn’t hurt to use it. If we break those same students down by sex, commuter vs on-campus, ethnicity, etc., we might get a clearer picture of overall trends and how they vary. You’ll be able to paint a more detailed image of what is happening and help support subsets of students based on their performance results.
In this vein, you want to track the data you have, not the results you think you’re going to get. Be wary of drawing conclusions until you’ve seen the results. You may find nuances you weren’t expecting, such as part-time females showing a higher usage of after hours tutoring, regardless of STEM major or other major. If you were just looking at STEM students as a whole and anticipating an improvement, that subset would go unnoticed and unassisted.
The granting body will want to know how you can tell if the grant is successful. In our application we were seeking a 5% improvement in three different areas (retention, completion, and success). However, we broke the reporting in those areas down further by sex and ethnicity as well, so that we met the goal in some areas and not in others. If you’re at a loss for what detailed data reporting would even look like, we have an anonymized Retention Impact Study (RIS) that you can download HERE. This is the kind of data Upswing tracks on a daily basis that tells us if we’re being successful in our efforts on campus and how much revenue we estimate we’re saving partner institutions.
Grant applications can seem incredibly daunting, but if you slow down and break it into manageable chunks I believe you can be successful in your application, and hopeful awarding, of a grant.
For more detailed grant submission information and sample budgeting layouts, we recommend checking out the following articles: