Can a Title III grant help higher ed institutions close the equity gap?

January 4, 2024 Watermark Insights

The face of America is changing. And yet, in higher education, there are systems and practices that are entrenched with the false notion that “equality” means “equity.” Treating students equally does not mean that all students have equitable access to a higher education.

Equity in education is finding its way forward given the shifting dynamic of the student population in higher education institutions. In a 2020 report, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) introduced its findings by stating, “Expanding access to quality education is key to making opportunity real for all. It is key to closing America’s deepening divides, strengthening the middle class, and ensuring our nation’s vitality. Yet at all levels of U.S. education, there are entrenched practices that reinforce inequities—and that lead to vastly different outcomes for low-income students and for students of color. We are failing the very students who must become our future leaders.”

The AACU’s report found that while the majority of college enrollees still tend to be white, the number of students of color who are enrolled in college is steadily increasing - especially those of Latino descent. In one 2012 study, the immediate college-going rate (attending college within one year of high school graduation) found that Latino students had a rate of college enrollment of 69% whereas white students had a rate of 67%. African American high school graduates had an immediate college-going rate of 62% and Asian students 84%.

Given the challenges that learning institutions face in creating equity for their students, program grants, such as the U.S. Department of Education’s Title III, can help.

What is Title III?

The National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition (NCELA) defines Title III as such: “Title III is a part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), as amended by the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 (ESSA). The purpose of Title III is to help ensure that English learners (ELs) attain English language proficiency and meet state academic standards. Federal funding is provided through various grant programs to assist state education agencies (SEAs) and local education agencies (LEAs) in accomplishing this. Some funds are offered to entities other than SEAs and LEAs, and SEAs and LEAs also offer subgrants to other entities.”

A subset of the grant program, the Title III, Part A program, “helps eligible IHEs Institutes of Higher Education to become self-sufficient and expand their capacity to serve low-income students by providing funds to improve and strengthen the academic quality, institutional management, and fiscal stability of eligible institutions.”

Grant recipients of the Part A program may use grant funds in a variety of ways:

  • Planning, faculty development, and establishing endowment funds.

  • Administrative management and the development and improvement of academic programs. 

  • Joint use of instructional facilities, construction, and maintenance.

  • Student service programs designed to improve academic success, including innovative, customized, instruction courses designed to help retain students and move the students rapidly into core courses and through program completion. These may include remedial education and English language instruction.

Implementing Title III funds for student retention and success

Many higher education and technical education institutions experience student retention and success challenges due to a lack of clear communication and best practices. Learning institutions need a comprehensive program that will help administrations, guidance staff, and success coaches better understand students’ individual needs and challenges and give them the ability to respond to student setbacks proactively rather than reactively.

Central Carolina Community College, using Title III funding, partnered with Watermark to establish predictive data that would help identify student risks sooner and provide hands-on coaching to respond to and reverse student attrition based on the data feedback. After 36 months of using Watermark Student Success & Engagement, Central Carolina Community College saw a dramatic student retention rate increase of 17%.

Since implementation, the successful partnership between Central Carolina and Watermark has resulted in a “cultural mind shift” that has led to renewed core business practices and has empowered employees to take a much more active role in ongoing success initiatives.

Former Central Carolina VP of Student Learning, Brian Merritt, praised the partnership with Watermark, stating, “We knew our model wasn’t working, but we didn’t know where we were falling short. Watermark was able to develop a finely tuned plan for us to move forward together.”

As a result of Central Carolina’s success, additional North Carolina community colleges implemented Watermark Student Success & Engagement, funded in part by a U.S. Department of Education First in the World (FITW) grant established to validate the impact of success coaching in the region. Today, Watermark supports nearly 70 percent of the state’s community college institutions.

Creating a Title III program within a learning institution

Marion Technical College (MTC), in Marion, Ohio, submitted an application for the competitive Title III grant in 2017 and again in 2019 in partnership with Columbus State Community College, both to no avail. Planning to submit again in 2021, MTC was notified in late September 2020 that as program funding had been “freed up” and they had been awarded Title III funding to the tune of $2.2 million over five years.

MTC had already partnered with Watermark to train faculty and staff in implementing communication systems and technology to better track students and connect at-risk students to available resources.

With the Title III funding, MTC prioritized a whole new set of goals, including increasing the number of students who earn a degree, certificate or transfer to a 4-year institution, increasing the number of students earning 15 college credits in their first year of college, increasing the number of full-time students who persist from their first year to their second year, increasing the number of part-time students who persist from their first year to their second year, and more.

Additionally, with their Title III funds, MTC has added to their priority list: implementing a new CRM for more targeted outreach to students through the inquiry, application, and enrollment process, redesigning their orientation program to help create intentional connections to student resources, launching a student one-stop-center hub for academic services and support, creating a connection center to provide resources for students facing non-academic challenges called the MTC Connection Center, and implementing a comprehensive professional development program for faculty and staff.

In spite of having just recently received Title III funding, MTC has already been hard at work to close the equity gap. Craig Sohl, Director of Title III, stated that in working with Watermark, “a lot of work has been done these past couple years to train faculty and advisors on best practices in utilizing the notes, tasks and referral features to develop those early interventions and connect students to resources based on their specific needs. We have also made it a priority to ensure every new student has a degree completion plan in a guided pathway and continue to revise those plans as needed.”

Dr. Amy Adams, VP of Planning and Advancement at MTC, said that their partnership with Watermark will enhance their Title III program goals, “One of the key elements that we knew we had in place already was Student Success & Engagement, using that for retention. One of the goals is to get students on a plan.”

In addition to working with Watermark, MTC has found success in consulting and connecting with other colleges around the country. These colleges have collaborated with each other to find success with grant writing and program implementation. After the success of working with Columbus State Community College on their Title III grant application, MTC wanted to learn more about ways to implement their goals. So, they sent a team to Amarillo College in Texas to learn about their student retention programs and what they considered best practices.

Dr. Adams recalled, “We actually sent a team down to visit Amarillo College down in Texas… and when that team came back, they had all these great ideas of things that we wanted to do…The MTC Connection Center came out of it.”

And through a connection made by Watermark, MTC also consulted with Linn-Benton Community College seeking advice on some of its program implementations. Working in collaboration with and upon advice from other colleges who are willing to share ideas and best practices can be invaluable to higher learning institutions.

“I wanted to connect with people who have been there before, to know how they're working through some of these initiatives. Watermark connected me with Melissa Williams who leads Grant Management and Student Success at Linn-Benton Community College,” said Craig Sohl, Director of Title III at Marion Technical College. “She's gone through a full year of this experience and was very helpful, sharing what they've been doing with Watermark. It's nice that people who have gone through it before can provide some ideas and have suggestions. It's been a great partnership.”

Making broad changes with Title III funding

Linn-Benton Community College in Albany, Oregon, another successful recipient of the Title III grant program, is working to strengthen their mission to provide higher education access to students, particularly low-income students who have been systematically oppressed. With their grant funding, Linn-Benton has sought systemic change.

To that end, Melissa Williams, the Title III Grant Manager, has stated that their Title III grant application was pretty broad. Using their Title III funds, Linn-Benton seeks overarching change that will impact retention and graduation rates in ways that can be sustained and supported by general funds once the Title III program funds run out.

Linn-Benton is currently using their grant funding to work with Watermark to train faculty and staff on technology implementation. In their second year of the five-year program, they also have started a student resource center where students can go to receive advice and ask questions. Linn-Benton is also establishing an early alert system, a new student ID system, and they are revamping their College 101 course to help students adjust to the campus community and environment.

Using their Title III funds, faculty and student coaches at Linn-Benton expect to see retention and graduation rates improve and to have the ability to individualize advising based on clean, accessible data.

As Melissa Williams stated, data “is the catalyst for change because it offers us the opportunity to say, ‘we know we're asking you to do your work and think about supporting students a little bit differently, but here's the tool which we are giving you to be able to do that well. And where we can not only ask you to do that, but we can show you with data over the course of time that what you're doing has an impact or not.’ And then we can shift again, because we will have the active data and it won't be like shadow tracking on a Google doc, but it's in something that is recording every part of the data, and demographic, down to what type of class.”

Williams also said that, “One of our objectives is reaching a 90% satisfaction rate by the end of the five-year grant for faculty and staff on technology implementation. Because they have to approve of that for it to be used overall.”

Improving student experience

At Cape Fear Community College (CFCC) in Wilmington, North Carolina, the overarching goal for using their granted Title III funds was to improve student success and retention. To that end, CFCC implemented success coaching for students on academic probation as well as more targeted support from Counseling for their academic warning students. With Title III, CFCC was able to hire two full-time Academic Success Coaches, one FT Project Director, one PT Grant Coordinator, and one PT Data Technician. The CFCC team makes up the Office of Student Success. The Title III grant funding also covered both their work with Watermark and the Office of Student Success.

Mary Elizabeth McIntosh, Title III Program Director, found that through their work with Watermark, “One highly useful best practice is outreach to stop-out students. Like many community colleges, we have a significant number of former students who were previously on academic warning or probation from a few years prior. With Watermark, we have set up filters to open communications via text and email to welcome these students back. Through our communications, we have found that many stop-out students are interested in returning to CFCC. Their circumstances have changed and they are ready to try again. With Success Coaches in place, we are able to provide additional support in their return to CFCC. Watermark has also been instrumental in helping to establish our care team, also known as the Sea Devil Success Team. This consists of the group of staff assigned to work with each individual student. At minimum, it includes one Counselor, one Academic Advisor, and one Financial Aid Coordinator. We have found that students truly connect with their Sea Devil Success Team members and will seek out the same person for assistance. At a larger community college, it is crucial for our students to feel connected to others on campus. Because of Title III and Watermark, they know where to find that critical guidance and support.”

In spite of factors that are out of their control, including both the pandemic and hurricanes, at the end of their funding period CFCC expects to see the needle move on overall retention from where it was prior to the grant. In fact, fall-to-fall retention rates have already started to improve with the implementation of Watermark along with the Title III Office of Student Success. Additionally, they have a better support system in place for at-risk

Watermark can help

When higher education learning institutions are able to access grant funding to focus their attention on student success and retention rates, they are able to implement the policies and procedures, technology, and know-how to help at-risk students who otherwise face many challenges that prevent them from being successful in their academic career.

The next year of Title III program grants will be in fiscal year 2021. Interested applicants should visit the Title III program website. Watermark can put you in touch with experienced Success Team members who can help you complete your applications or program planning. Contact us today!

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