Fueling Innovation through First in the World

Last August, President Obama outlined an ambitious plan to increase value and affordability in higher education and help the U.S. once again lead the world in college attainment rates.  Among his priorities, which include developing a college ratings system and ensuring that student debt is manageable, innovation remains a central theme.  The President called on the Department of Education to spur innovation, foster constructive competition, and remove barriers to empower college and universities in developing and testing new strategies to enroll and graduate more students.

In response to the President’s call, the Department announced a new $75 million grant competition called First in the World that will provide funding for innovative strategies and approaches to improve college attainment and make higher education more affordable for students and families.  The program will invite colleges and universities across the country to submit innovative proposals to help students – particularly underprepared, underrepresented, or low-income students – to access, persist in, and complete higher education.

We know that innovation to improve student outcomes can take many forms, from new educational programming and resources on campuses to technological innovations that enhance learning and student supports.  For example, some institutions are developing programs of study using competency-based education, which allows students to progress based on student mastery of learning.  Other institutions are working to improve student learning and student supports through adaptive learning and personalization.  The President is calling on all institutions to provide us with their best thinking on how to make college more accessible and affordable for all students, and through the First in the World program, the Department welcomes a wide range of promising, creative ideas to help more students affordably access and graduate from college.

In addition to stimulating innovation, another key goal of the FITW program is to increase the evidence we have about what works in higher education.  As part of their applications, FITW applicants must describe their programs and the theory of change they seek to enact, and will be awarded additional points for providing supplemental evidence of promise around the project they are proposing. Additional, institutions receiving funding will be required to implement a robust evaluation that will provide evidence of its effectiveness so that other colleges and universities can learn from successful strategies and scale them up to reach more students.

The Department hopes to receive applications from an array of colleges and universities that serve a diverse range of students, and up to $20 million of the $75 million available in FY2014 will be set aside to fund innovations at Minority Serving Institutions.  This funding will build on the important work that institutions all across the country are engaged in to continue to expand and evaluate promising practices for serving underprepared, underrepresented, and low-income students and empowering their success. The Notice Inviting Applications, which contains additional details about the competition, is available on the Federal Register website and the Department will host webinars for potential applicants on the FY2014 FITW competition in the coming weeks.

The First in the World program gets its name from the goal that President Obama set for the nation early on in his Administration – that by the year 2020, the United States will again be first in the world in college completion. With this vision, we are excited to ask colleges and universities nationwide for their most promising ideas to improve college attainment and affordability, and we look forward to unleashing a new wave of innovation when awards are announced this fall.

Mary Wall and David Soo are both senior policy advisors in the Office of the Undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Education.


  1. I work with poor white, Hispanic and African students in an area of the midwest known as “little Appalachia” We will be very grateful for anything to add to the resources available to help our kids. We don’t have the luxury of cynical pontificating, our students deserve a chance to have a choice about their future. This funding gives them hope and that is priceless…

  2. I doubt that this program will have either much value or much success. This program attempts to redefine college success as increased access, increased attainment, and increased affordability. Are those really the qualities that would allow our higher education institutions to continue to be the best in the world? I think the purpose of our colleges should be to provide an education.

    What exactly does this mean? According to Harvard University, it means a student should leave school with a deep understanding of themselves and how they fit into the world, and have learned what some call “soft skills” – complex problem-solving, creativity, entrepreneurship, the ability to manage themselves, and the ability to be lifelong learners. A program that focuses on attainment (which is measured by completion) does the opposite of those. This continues a trend where our institutions focus on what they can do for their students, where schools and teachers are responsible for student learning and not the students themselves. This is exactly backward. It means we develop programs that provide immediate gratification when what we need are programs that develop persistence and delayed gratification.

    This is a problem I see beginning early in public schools. Classes have to be interesting to motivate students to pay attention and learn, and this develops a “will this be on the test” mentality, a “I will never use this, I don’t need it, so I am not going to put any effort into learning it” mentality. We allow this at a point in time where students do not have the maturity to understand what is important and what is valuable for their future. This has lead to students who enroll in college without the foundation skills necessary for success, without the study skills, the reading skills, the writing skills. We allow superficial learning. We allow students to be lazy. I contend that a focus on attainment, a focus on completion is making this problem worse.

    We will become first in the world in completion at about the same time we become last in the world in knowledge and ability.

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