While it is important 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 full picture of the state of postsecondary education today. There are significant differences between four-year universities and two-year community colleges that are simply 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, taking their unique student demographics and purpose into consideration. The new metrics will be tested out by 58 community colleges initially, according to a brief report in the Chronicle of Higher Education, with the hope that other schools will adopt the framework in the future.
The VFA consists of three phase initiative that will encompass 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 offer 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
It is the hope of the creators of the VFA that these metrics will effectively help college leaders define 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 a different set of benchmarks.
Some of the differences between community colleges and four-year institutions include the demographics of the student population and the overall purpose for educating them. Students at community colleges tend to be older and many have spent a number of 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 up student in fields that are currently in demand in their communities.
The VFA takes the specific needs, purposes and structures of community colleges into consideration to provide a more accurate assessment of the success of these schools. To provide an accurate assessment, 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 in order for the standards to be effective, they also need to offer measurable information about where colleges are falling short of their benchmarks, so 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 will be able to 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, as well as the 58 community colleges that participated in the pilot of the program.
“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
- Measurement 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 that is directly applicable to their unique goals and student population.