Innovation in Higher Education through First in the World

Innovation in higher education is key to ensuring that our nation’s colleges and universities continue to serve our nation’s students. As part of an ambitious plan to increase value and affordability in higher education, President Obama called for the First in the World (FITW) grant program to fund innovative practices at colleges and universities.

Yesterday, ED awarded $75 million in grants to 24 colleges and universities across the country to fund innovative thinking that comes from educators working every day to ensure successful outcomes for students.

All FITW projects focus on improving college success among low-income, first-generation, and underserved students. The winning projects represent diverse and exciting approaches to improving student success. Topics addressed by FITW grantees include strengthening the critical transitions from high school to college, improving remediation, and ensuring the accessibility of instructional technology for students with disabilities.

Our nation’s colleges and universities recognize the need for innovation in order to serve students more effectively and with greater efficiency. The large number of applications — more than 500 — for FITW show that there is interest in innovation and the development of supporting evidence. The efforts at the 24 colleges and universities that received grants hold enormous promise, and will help increase momentum in the field toward implementing and testing many of the other innovative ideas that emerged during this grant competition.

Here are just a few examples of how FITW grants will benefit students:

  • Southern New Hampshire University will be completely rethinking remediation by developing an online, competency-based remediation tool. It will identify gaps in students’ knowledge and provide targeted, relevant, and engaging modules to help students master competencies as they are progressing through college-level material.
  • Hampton University will launch an array of integrated supports for its students, including both technological tools and new ways of organizing on-campus programming. New online programming, using Khan Academy lectures and trainings in a technical computing program called MATLAB, will be combined with redesigned math courses in the emporium model and near-peer and faculty mentoring.
  • South Dakota State University will implement an innovative approach to ensuring a smooth transition to college. To serve its American Indian and low-income students better, the university will work with partners, including Black Hills State University and Oglala Lakota College. Their program incorporates experience on the college campus for high school students and allows them to participate in employment or undergraduate research to help pay for their education.
  • Gateway Community College in Kentucky will reshape programs for their students to provide a more flexible path to graduation. They are seeking to accelerate completion rates, using approaches such as redesigned remediation programs. Further, they are reevaluating their pedagogy and incorporating technology on campus to engage and support their students.
  • Bay Path College in Massachusetts is a two-year institution that will develop an online experience for adult students that allows for flexibility, self-pacing, and social networking. The college will incorporate learning analytics to support a wide array of services, including personalized learning and wraparound coaching.
  • University of Southern California will implement and evaluate a game-based tool that gives high school students an understanding of the college search and financing processes for use in mentoring programs.

In addition to providing resources to implement these innovative programs, FITW grants will also support robust evaluation of these practices. We expect this research to add to the growing body of defensible evidence that will guide future investments in higher education and lead to more effective practices and policies intended to support students and increase college completion rates. In addition to helping students become more informed about college, we also want to help ensure that institutions are better prepared to serve them once they arrive.

President Obama has encouraged every student to pursue postsecondary education. By investing in innovation, colleges and universities are finding new ways to increase the quality, affordability, and value of higher education.

James T. Minor is Deputy Assistant Secretary for Higher Education Programs at the U.S. Department of Education.