How the Tennessee Board of Regents saves hundreds of hours building grant programs

From one week to one hour: Learn how the team at Tennessee Board of Regents cut down program time-to-launch with Submittable.

The Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR) oversees the community and technical college system of Tennessee. With a mission deeply rooted in accessibility and empowerment, TBR dedicates its resources to uplifting underrepresented populations of all kinds in higher education. Practically, this means providing funding and resources to programs across the state that help underrepresented populations feel more at home in the higher education system.

TBR's approach to funding is twofold, offering both upfront allocations to colleges for immediate needs and a separate pool dedicated to competitive grant programs. This pool of funding supports projects and organizations that demonstrate a promising approach to student recruitment and retention.

Josh Koller, research and assessment coordinator for TBR, is responsible for program design and reviewing applications for these TBR grant programs. One of these programs, Recruiting Hispanics to Achieve (RHiTA), is near and dear to Josh’s heart. 

“It started as a leadership program for students who maybe didn’t have access to education. And it grew into a leadership program for students on campus, including an outreach program where they would go out into the community,” he says. 

RHiTA would not exist without the grant it received from TBR in 2018.

As the Tennessee college system grew and expanded, Josh became responsible for managing a funding pool for programs at close to 40 colleges. With each college doing things slightly differently, fielding these grant applications became an administrative slog for both Josh and the applicants. 

Josh needed a tool that could make sense of all the noise so that he could get funds moving to where it was needed most.

Drowning under a flood of emails and PDFs

Reviewing applications didn’t seem that bad at first, until the TBR funding program grew. What started as a stream of applications soon swelled into a deluge that threatened to overwhelm the system. As TBR programs gained momentum and recognition, nearly doubling their application intake, existing processes began to creak under the strain.

“Our grant programs are relatively small. When there were 50 or 60 applications, it was tough, but pretty manageable. But now, we’re getting almost 100 applications for some programs. As files got too big, it became a problem.”

Josh Koller

Research and Assessment Coordinator, TBR

The heart of the issue lay in the method of managing these applications—primarily through emails and PDFs. This approach, while straightforward for smaller volumes, quickly became untenable. 

This bottleneck in the review process was not just a matter of administrative inconvenience; it had real implications for the program's mission. These delays and complications risked hindering TBR's ability to promptly distribute funds, potentially stalling the incubation of innovative programs that depended on TBR’s financial support. 

Problem #1: Too many applications limited the potential for innovation

Due to the high volume of applications TBR receives in total, the board implemented a policy limiting institutions to submitting only five applications per grant cycle. While necessary to keep the grant review process tenable from an administrative standpoint, this restriction inadvertently limited the breadth of creativity it aimed to cultivate. Colleges might have opted to submit only those applications they deemed most likely to succeed under the criteria, leaving potentially groundbreaking, but less conventional projects unexplored.

Problem #2: Hemorrhaging time and resources to admin

Josh found himself mired in the minutiae of administrative tasks, detracting from the organization's mission-driven objectives. Setting up and testing forms for each grant application became a Herculean task, consuming upwards of a week's worth of work for each grant cycle. Serving not one, but close to 40 different colleges, each with its own set of requirements and criteria, made the process that much more complicated. 

The time lost extended beyond form creation and testing. Day-to-day operations were bogged down by back-and-forth email exchanges, searching for and organizing files, adding another layer of administrative overhead. With nearly 100 applications coming in for some programs, keeping everything straight became an increasingly daunting task that Josh urgently needed freed up.

Problem #3: Lack of organization and visibility

With applications, supporting documents, and correspondences sprawling across various channels and formats, Josh found it increasingly difficult to maintain a coherent overview of each program's status. He spent a lot of time just monitoring progress, keeping track of deadlines, identifying bottlenecks, and allocating resources where they were needed. 

The situation was further aggravated by technical constraints, such as file size limits, which not only hindered the submission process but also contributed to the chaos by necessitating alternative methods of file sharing. This patchwork approach to managing applications and related documents led to an environment where crucial information could easily become misplaced or overlooked.

As applications kept flooding in, Josh identified a pressing need for an organizational overhaul that could restore clarity, efficiency, and oversight to TBR’s grant management process.

Solution: Create a centralized grant application system

Josh and the TBR team needed a comprehensive solution that could not only streamline the grant application and review process, but also integrate seamlessly with the diverse operational needs of their many programs. Specifically, they required a platform that could centralize the submission, review, and management of grant applications, eliminating the inefficiencies and visibility issues plaguing their existing process.

With Submittable, TBR revolutionized its grant administration process by bringing all aspects of the grant process—from application submission to review and progress tracking—into one central location. “It's a great tool to put everything all in one place,” said Josh.

Here’s how they did it:

Step 1: Lower the barrier to entry for applicants

The old TBR grant application process was complex–Josh needed to make it easier for all potential applicants to submit for funding. So, Josh set up applications that are simple to navigate and easy to fill out. 

“One of the drawbacks of our previous system: It was not very user friendly and intuitive. So to have something that is intuitive and user friendly is really great,” he says.

This shift was about more than just improving the user experience. It was about aligning with TBR’s mission to make educational funding accessible to all, regardless of background or technical prowess. 

Crucially, TBR was also able to eliminate the previous restrictions on the number of applications per institution, addressing a significant barrier that had limited the scope of proposals and potentially stifled innovation. TBR now facilitates a more vibrant and diverse submission pool, reflective of the wide-ranging creativity and potential within Tennessee's community and technical colleges.

Step 2: Leverage time-saving administrative tools

Josh also gained an arsenal of time-saving administrative tools at his disposal. Previously spending days to weeks just getting one application form live, Josh can now set up a program in only one hour

“Even if there was something complex with branching and a table or other stuff, being able to easily find all the questions and just drag to where I want it and tweak it just a little bit — that's saving a lot of time,” he says.

While Josh currently manages the form creation on his own, because Submittable is so user-friendly, he’s confident that he can delegate this task to someone else.

“It’s really easy. It’s going to save time if other folks feel like they can create forms too. Whereas, with our older solution, I didn't really feel like they could figure it out,” he says.

In addition to saving hours of time on program creation, Josh is also able to tailor each form to each of the 40-odd colleges’ unique programs and their review criteria. Each program can now have its own timeline and requirements.

By reducing the time spent on "the boring stuff,” the TBR team can dedicate more time and resources to reviewing and processing applications. Which in turn speeds up the decision-making process and allocates funds quicker and more effectively to deserving programs.

Step 3: Keep everything in one place

Josh gave all parts of the TBR grant lifecycle—from submission to final reporting—one unified home in Submittable. This transition marked a significant departure from the previous, fragmented system, where documents, communications, and data were scattered across various platforms and inboxes. 

Josh admits that previously, it was easy to lose track of files, or miss deadlines, because there he was just one person in charge of a multitude of tasks.

“I felt like I was always really inconsistent with communicating deadlines, because if I wasn't on top of it, I knew that they weren't going to be on top of it. But with the programs, now, some of that stuff is automated and does the thinking for you. I can batch everything, so I'm not having to go through and say, ‘Okay, who’s my contact person here?’” says Josh.

With everything consolidated in Submittable, the TBR team gained a clear overview of their entire grant ecosystem across nearly 40 colleges. This not only simplified the tracking and management of individual applications, but also provided a macro perspective on the grant program's overall progress and effectiveness.

Moreover, this centralized system facilitated better communication and collaboration within the TBR team and between the board and the applicant institutions. With all information and correspondence stored in one place, Josh streamlined the process of reviewing applications, providing feedback, and making funding decisions. Meanwhile, applicants benefited from clearer guidelines, quicker responses, and more transparent decision-making.

Keep the funding flowing and keep changing lives

When Josh thinks about the real-world impact that TBR’s funding can have on students’ lives, he comes back to the RHiTA program. He met some students involved in the program when TBR’s grant funded it, and those moments have stuck with him since. 

“To hear them talk about what the program means to them and how involved they are, and how they maybe wouldn’t be in college without the program, is really cool. They came to Nashville and went on a tour of the Capitol. They met with their state representative there. And to see these students in that interaction was really cool for me, to know that we had a role in funding this project,” says Josh.

This program revamp was important to keep vital funding flowing unimpeded to the places where it can make the most significant impact—like the RHiTA program. Now, TBR can continue to support educational innovation and excellence, and to change lives through education. 

The cohesive, streamlined processes empowered by Submittable helps keep resources moving towards those who are poised to make a difference, whether they're educators developing new curricula, students embarking on groundbreaking projects, or institutions pioneering programs that address urgent societal needs.

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