AIR Study Finds Federal Higher Ed Program Helping to Improve Postsecondary Educational Opportunities

Washington, D.C. – A federal higher education grant program designed to improve postsecondary educational opportunities, particularly for underserved populations, is meeting and sometimes exceeding its goals, according to a study of the program completed by the American Institutes for Research (AIR) for the U.S. Department of Education.

Long well regarded in the higher education community, the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), has been found by the first formal, national review of the program in two decades to have earned its favorable reputation overall. Specific areas in need of improvement, however, involve the lack of quality evaluations of effectiveness for individual FIPSE projects.

Among the highlights of the study reviewing FIPSE’s Comprehensive Program:

  • Projects become self-sustaining: About two-thirds of the projects continued full force after FIPSE funding ceased. About one-fifth continued with some reduction in scope. Only 10 percent ended after the grant was over.
  • Projects are replicated: More than one-half of the reviewed projects have been replicated to some extent.
  • Knowledge is shared: Almost all the projects engaged in dissemination activities through presentations, Web sites, articles, and colleague to colleague.
  • Need for evaluation: FIPSE did not require rigorous evaluation reports in the years AIR examined, so gauging the full effectiveness of the projects was difficult. FIPSE now places greater emphasis on formal evaluations.

Given an increasingly competitive, information-based economy, postsecondary education is viewed as more essential than ever, yet rates of attrition are high, particularly among minority and lower-income students. Financial need, inadequate academic preparation and insufficient information are just a few of the barriers blocking postsecondary opportunities for hundreds of thousands of students. FIPSE was designed to fund innovative solutions to these and other barriers to quality postsecondary education.

FIPSE awards grants to nonprofit institutions or organizations for a variety of purposes, including improving educational access for all, linking education to career paths, integrating technology, reviewing institutional missions, implementing cost-reduction procedures, developing individualized educational experiences, improving graduate education, and reforming the credentialing process for new institutions and programs.

The study found that projects are not only meeting goals, but are thriving after the grant period is over and are often replicated in other sites. Overall, projects were meeting an array of FIPSE-operating principles by being responsive to local initiatives while addressing problems felt nation-wide, and by being comprehensive in approach but also action-oriented and innovative.

The AIR study, conducted at the request of the Department of Education’s Policy and Program Studies Service, also focused on projects that utilized technology to enhance access for underserved populations, including older adults as well as on projects involving curriculum reform that will help improve retention and completion rates.

“Two distinguishing features of FIPSE are its commitment to funding innovation, one of the founding principles of the program, and the breadth and variety of the projects it supports,” said lead author, Andrea Berger, Ph.D. a senior research analyst at AIR. “We found that FIPSE supports innovative, action-oriented projects that last, even after the funding runs out.”

Under the auspices of the Office of Postsecondary Education within the U.S. Department of Education, FIPSE is a relatively small program awarding grants to postsecondary institutions and organizations to improve postsecondary education opportunities. Established in 1972, FIPSE awards approximately 90 grants annually, with grants averaging $70,000 per year.

The review used a descriptive, qualitative approach based on a sample of 60 randomly selected projects funded from 1996 through 1998. Information came from the project annual and final reports, FIPSE’s online database, project Web sites, and discussions with project staff and FIPSE program officers. Experts in relevant fields reviewed a small subset of the projects that were purposefully chosen. The review focused on five basic research questions, including: "To what extent do the funded projects fit within FIPSE’s operating principles?”

In the course of the review, AIR heard many positive comments from grantees regarding FIPSE’s staff support and personal attention and its flexibility in allowing grantees to make adjustments to projects as they encountered barriers or discovered promising new avenues.

For a copy of the study, visit News & Events at

About AIR

The American Institutes for Research, founded in 1946, is a leader in behavioral and social science research. AIR is a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization engaged in domestic and international research, development, evaluation, analysis, product development, training and technical assistance and assessment.

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