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Introduction

America’s higher educational institutions are the birthplace of innovation. Colleges are where the next generation is reared, dreams are realized, and academic advancements are made. But the next big leap in medicine, mathematics, technology, or the arts often comes back to one common obstacle: resources. To move forward, educators, departments, and institutions often must turn outward. Grants provide much-needed capital to fund investments in technology, classroom materials, and research. 

Grant seeking and grant management is changing, and grantees must change with it. In the following pages, we outline the major forces at play and how to prepare your organization for what’s to come. The choices your organization makes today will impact funding sources tomorrow. Make sure yours is the one that can make that next great leap.

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Compliance and Grant Dollars 

Recipients and sub-recipients alike must prioritize compliance if they intend to remain competitive for public funds in the years ahead. Below are the top reforms making waves in grant management.

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Uniform Grant Guidance (UGG)

“Aims to reduce the administrative burden on award recipients and, at the same time, guard against the risk of waste and misuse of Federal funds.” (grants.gov)

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Digital Accountability and Transparency (DATA) Act

“The nation’s first open data law. It requires the U.S. federal government to transform its spending information into open data.” (datacoalition.org)

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Treasury “Do Not Pay” Initiative

“The purpose of this order was to reduce improper payments by intensifying efforts to eliminate payment error, waste, fraud, and abuse in the major programs administered by the Federal Government, while continuing to ensure that Federal programs serve and provide access to their intended beneficiaries.” (fiscal.treasury.gov)

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Grant Reporting Efficiency and Assistance Transparency (GREAT) Act

“The proposed law will transform federal grant reporting from disconnected documents into open data by directing the executive branch to adopt a standardized data structure for the information grantees must report to agencies.” (datacoalition.org)

The Department of Education (ED) is a massive source of college grant funds, its reach spanning across the country. 

Whether your institution receives funds directly or passed through a prime recipient, federal reforms are changing how awards are won, administered, and reported. 

Challenges and Solutions to Grant Management Within Higher Education

Grants are about as familiar in education as textbooks. They allow educators to test new pedagogical methods, fund academic studies, and support operational costs that make college affordable to students. But challenges along the grant lifecycle are making awards harder to secure and manage. 

Specifically, educational institutions note that the most common challenges when it comes to grants management are listed below.

Understanding what these challenges entail as well as potential solutions to these setbacks is the first step to standardizing your state’s grant management.

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1. Heightened Competition 

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the U.S. has been outpaced internationally in higher education. Since 2000, the percentage rate of postsecondary degree attainment in the U.S. has dropped, the country now ranking fourth in the world as of 2017. 

Also, the ED awarded $67.9 billion in discretionary appropriations in 2018 and requested to drop that number by 12 percent for fiscal year 2019, according to the ED. Other public and private funds are also available to colleges, but as the stakes rise, so does the competition for dollars. Educational institutions must rise to the challenge by better positioning themselves for grantor requirements. 

Solution

Consider the SMART goals framework (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Timely) when applying for an award. Make strong connections back to this goal throughout your proposal. 

If possible, let data tell your story. Grantmaking is moving toward results-based funding distribution. Clearly align grant funds with program objectives, then collect ample data to be used in your next application. 

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2. Siloed Data 

Once funds are awarded, time and effort, expenses, and program activities must be tracked against the grantor’s requirements. This often requires the tedious coordination of emails, documents, and spreadsheets. Critical information is stored in different formats and scattered across various files, making it challenging to view grant programs’ progress. Colleagues are unable to collaborate on grant management; inefficiencies drain internal resources and hamper program execution. Further, data is vulnerable to corruption or damage. 

Solution

Instead of using disparate systems, consolidate your information on one system to keep everyone from your team on the same page. So rather than relying on dry erase boards, sticky notes, and Excel spreadsheets, consider investing in one simple portal for grant management and reporting that your employees can access from any device, from any location. 

One university even noted that by switching to a cloud-based, centralized solution they were able to decrease their internal review time by nearly 60 percent.

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3. Lost Drawdown

Grants often require that funds be drawn down in stages as needed. Without easy access to real-time data on expenses and time and effort, award data is muddied. It becomes harder to see what remaining funds are available and what more can be drawn down. If expenditure reports are incomplete or inaccurate, or deadlines are missed, the grantor may be forced to withhold the remaining funds. This can cut your budget and threaten critical programs. 

Solution

Transparency leads to accuracy. When the grant management process is more transparent, there is more oversight and, in turn, less mismanagement. 

As Michael Wood, former Executive Director of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, stated, most of maintaining accurate reports is making sure your books and accounts are in order. 

Therefore, maintaining proper progress reports is all about having a strong understanding of your reporting standards and building your record-keeping processes around those.

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4. Inefficient Reporting 

As reporting deadlines near, files and data points must be aggregated for compliance and possible audit. When grant funds are shared across departments or institutions, inconsistent files, formats, and processes must be reconciled for grant management and reporting. Or maybe a multi-year research study funded by a handful of grants that all require different data, reporting formats, and filing deadlines. The result is a cumbersome and inefficient process that is a drain on resources and draws staff time away from more important responsibilities. 

Solution

More than many industries, higher education grants are based on performance, that’s why accurate reports are so important. Choose a tool or software that lets you track goals and objectives and subsequently present the information in a meaningful way to your stakeholders. For instance, one university needed to better report on budget to actuals, and the adoption of a purpose-built tool allowed them to do just that. 

Also, learn how to create clear visuals of where your grant money is being spent and how you are meeting your programmatic goals. 

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Success for Higher Educational Grant Management 

To lay the groundwork for future awarded funds and compliance with federal grants, colleges and universities should focus on future-proofing their grant management. This includes a standardized grant management process centered on consistent data elements. See below for specific strategies to win awards, maximize fund drawdown, ensure compliance and simplify reporting. 

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Track expenses in real time. 

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Keep time and effort reports up-to-date. 

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Set reminders for drawdown deadlines. 

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Clarify roles and responsibilities. 

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Foster shared data and open communication. 

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Increase opportunities for collaboration. 

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Increase focus on performance. 

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Improve spending transparency. 

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Align processes with post-award reporting. 

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Standardize business processes and data. 

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Eliminate silos.   

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Adopt grant management software.

Next Steps for Higher Education Grant Management Improvement

As colleges plan for the years ahead, they must invest in the adoption of new processes and technology to support the move toward spending transparency and open data. Doing so will position your college to be more competitive for grant funds, and performance- and data-driven to produce better student and research outcomes. 

Grant management software is often one piece of the puzzle. It allows organizations to: 

Understand grant requirements when evaluating your grant funding for the next year. For example, some federal grants require your municipality or county to match funds. Ensure that your precinct is equipped to meet these expectations.

Capture all elements as data throughout the entire grant ecosystem. 

Create, assign and track goals. 

Track budget and performance for fund distributions. 

Configure standard and custom reports, output reports to screen, PDF and Excel. 

Manage and account for all activity down to the sub-recipient level. 

Fill out our grant management software readiness checklist to see if evaluating software options is the right next step for improving grant management.