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WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration on Thursday formally unveiled a new program its officials hope will spur innovation, improve college access and completion, and cut student costs. Yes, that's all it aims to do.

The First in the World competition, as the administration calls the $75 million effort to which it invited applications in today's Federal Register, will award grants of up to several million dollars to institutions (or consortiums of them) to implement or scale up ideas that might advance President Obama's goal of increasing the proportion of Americans with postsecondary credentials. Up to $20 million of the total will be set aside for colleges that meet the federal definition of "minority-serving institution."

President Obama first proposed the program in 2011, but it was funded for the first time as part of the omnibus spending bill that Congress passed this winter. It will be administered by the Education Department's Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education.

“President Obama and I believe that many colleges are doing innovative work and testing creative ideas to help their students,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a prepared statement. “The president is asking for the most innovative thinking that the field has to offer to spark some real creativity and innovation across higher education in order to achieve better outcomes for our students.”

To be funded, proposals must address one of the program's five "absolute priorities": increasing access and completion for underrepresented, underprepared or low-income students; increasing community college transfer rates for underrepresented, underprepared, or low-income students; increasing enrollment and completion of underrepresented or low-income students in science and technology programs; reducing time to completion, especially for underrepresented or underprepared students; or improving college affordability, especially for underprepared or low-income students.

The grants carry with them an expectation that institutions will rigorously assess how well their ideas are working, and the program's goal (assuming it survives in future years) is to reward with more funds those initiatives that produce the best results.

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