Grant Profile

SIP Award Fuels Technology Initiatives at York College

Nebraska college wins a $2 million grant to overhaul its IT infrastructure and launch an iPod-based learning program

Grant writers at York College of Nebraska are giving one another big high-fives these days after netting a $2 million Title III grant through the United States Department of Education's Strengthening Institutions Program (SIP). This is the York-based school's biggest grant award ever, and the money will help the institution completely overhaul its IT infrastructure and launch new education technology initiatives.

The SIP provides grants to eligible institutions of higher education to facilitate self-sufficiency by improving and strengthening their academic quality, institutional management, and fiscal stability. Potential grant activities include, but are not limited to, renovation, faculty exchanges, academic program development, counseling, and endowment improvements. Eligible institutions have high percentages of low-income students and lower than average per-pupil expenditures.

According to Steve Eckman, York College's president, his school's application identified enhanced technology and student support services as areas critical to student success. He said the award will allow the college to purchase hardware and software that will enhance the students' ability to access electronic information and media sources. "When we're done," said Eckman, "our school will have an information management system that is truly state of the art."

Founded in 1890, York College is a private, Christian liberal arts school. The institution, which offers more than 40 undergraduate majors, pre-professional programs, and endorsements, is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools and is a member of the Nebraska Independent College Foundation (NICF).

Eckman said the 400-student college originally applied for the grant for the 2008 cycle but did not receive the award on the first attempt. Ranked high in the "second tier" of grant requests--and fortunate in that the Department of Education didn't take new applications for 2009, and instead worked with those from the prior year--York College received the award for 2009.

While the raters evaluating the grant didn't communicate directly with Eckman, he said the institution won the award based on its "commitment and participation, rather than just asking the government to completely fund our request. Also, the request is heavily weighted toward upgrading technology that will help students have success in college."

The award will be paid out in $400,000 installments over the next five years and represents the largest single grant in the history of York College. All of the money will be used for technology "in some way or another," said Eckman, whose agenda includes improving the campus' IT infrastructure, increasing Internet bandwidth, and supporting a new iPod-based program for students.

"This fall we'll be handing out iPods to all students when they arrive on campus," said Eckman. Students will use the devices to store and retrieve both academic and student life applications and information on the go. Teachers will use the devices to take attendance, administer quizzes, and hand out assignments to students. "Students are going to have that technology with them all the time as yet another way to enhance their educations," said Eckman.

York College's grant funds will also be used to create a new Student Success Center, where tutoring, academic advising, skill assessment, and math and writing instruction will be consolidated and centralized. "Our goal is to take marginally prepared students, or those who are struggling, and provide them with additional academic skills," said Eckman. "We'll do that through the center, which will be monitored and supervised by staff, but it will also be highly IT-intensive."

Eckman said the new center was temporarily on hold as the school awaited news of the award. "We didn't go too far with the student center in case we didn't get the grant," said Eckman, "but now we're evaluating the space we'll need to set that up. We're probably about a year away from actually implementing that particular initiative."

When complete, this hub will also serve as an "electronic nerve center" for the entire campus, which will come to include "smart classroom" technology over the next few years. Eckman said he credits the $2 million grant with helping the school transform its adequate IT environment into a comprehensive, state-of-the-art system.

"This is pretty significant for a school the size of ours. If we had to pass the cost of all of these technology improvements onto our students, it would have made their educations cost-prohibitive," said Eckman. "Even though we applied for the grant and needed it a year ago, the timing of this award is great because we've had time to think about where we really want to be in terms of technology."

Looking out a few years, Eckman said he expects York College to rank high on the list of technologically advanced colleges with fewer than 1,000 students. "After working with an insufficient IT infrastructure, we'll be moving over to a system that puts us well ahead of the pack in our category," he said. "The grant is a real boon in that it will not only allow us to implement campus-wide software applications and install new equipment, but it will also help us develop a completely automated approach to campus management."

To institutions looking to write successful Department of Education grants, Eckman said the best approach is to find someone who has previous success writing and administering such awards. "The guidelines for writing are fairly clear, but having someone who understands the culture and the nuance of what is expected can be invaluable," he added. "Also, have realistic goals and projections and make sure the grant ultimately serves your student population in a meaningful way."

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