New Quality Standards Coming to Community Colleges

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New Quality Standards Coming to Community Colleges
Learn about the new accountability standards specifically geared toward community colleges and the organization that created them, the American Association of Community Colleges.

While it is essential to track the progress and effectiveness of higher education in this country, current standards that apply across the board to both two and four-year institutions do not paint a complete picture of the state of postsecondary education today. There are significant differences between four-year universities and two-year community colleges that are not addressed in the standards as they are currently written. In most cases, current assessment standards do community colleges an injustice, providing an inaccurate view of how well these schools educate their students.

The AACC and the VFA

The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) is hoping to change the view of the community college system through a set of defined assessment standards designed just for them. According to the AACC website, the new Voluntary Framework of Accountability (VFA) is the first national accountability system created just for community colleges, considering their unique student demographics and purpose. The new metrics will initially be tested by 58 community colleges, according to a brief report in the Chronicle of Higher Education, with the hope that other schools will adopt the framework.

The VFA is a three-phase initiative encompassing many aspects of community college success or failure. When the framework is completed, it will include:

  • A technical manual that will offer an overview of measurement calculations
  • A college framework to guide schools in assessing student learning outcomes
  • A blueprint of data collection to provide an assessment model to participating colleges
  • Preliminary results of the pilot testing that will involve 58 community colleges nationwide
  • A strategic plan to assist community colleges interested in participating in the VFA
  • The availability of the VFA to all community colleges that wish to participate

The creators of the VFA hope that these metrics will effectively help college leaders define the performance of community colleges in terms of how they serve students and purposes.

Why New Standards?

The Voluntary Framework of Accountability was designed to fill an assessment void within the community college system. According to a report at Inside Higher Ed, community colleges have long argued that because their framework and student demographics are very different from four-year institutions, they should be judged by various benchmarks.

Some differences between community colleges and four-year institutions include the demographics of the student population and the overall purpose of educating them. Students at community colleges tend to be older, and many have spent several years in the workforce before heading to college. Those who come to community college right out of high school are often the first in their families to pursue a higher education, and many require remedial coursework before they are prepared for the rigors of college curriculum. Community colleges also have a different focus than four-year universities since they are geared to training students in fields currently in demand in their communities.

The VFA considers community colleges' specific needs, purposes, and structures to provide a more accurate assessment of their success. The benchmarks must look both at student achievement and the ability to match training programs to industry needs in the community.

These new standards offer a starting point for “common language” on what works for the community college system as a whole, Kent Phillippe, associate vice president for research and student success at the AACC, told Inside Higher Ed. Phillippe added that for the standards to be practical, they must also offer measurable information about where colleges fall short of their benchmarks. Hence, they know what they need to do to improve student outcomes.

“They have to be rigorous,” Phillippe explained.

What the VFA Includes

The new benchmarks will provide ample information to community colleges that they can use to determine what is currently working and what needs to be changed. According to a press release at PR Newswire, some of the elements of the VFA include:

  • Student progress and achievement
  • Implementation of career and technical programs
  • Transparency in reporting outcomes

To determine these elements and the standards by which they will be measured, the AACC collected input from community college leaders across the country and from the 58 community colleges that participated in the program's pilot.

“Many traditional measures of institutional effectiveness can produce an incomplete or inaccurate picture of community college performance,” Walter G. Bumphus, president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges, stated in the press release. “For example, most national assessments are pegged to full-time students, but the majority of community college students attend part time. Given the increasing reliance on our colleges to educate the growing numbers of students to keep our nation competitive, it is essential that the public and policymakers understand what we do and how well we do it.”

The AACC website lists the following goals of the VFA:

  • Measurements that will hold community colleges accountable for their performance and outcomes with data that can be used by policymakers and stakeholders
  • Measurements that are appropriate to community colleges specifically and the students served by these schools
  • Consistent definitions for benchmarks and collaboration that offer practical application to schools

With unique assessment benchmarks for their schools and public notification of the results of the VFA, community colleges can be held to a higher standard directly applicable to their unique goals and student population.

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