NEW ORLEANS — Community college leaders have long bemoaned that federal graduation rates do not adequately measure the progress and outcomes of their students. Monday, presenters here at the annual meeting of the American Association of Community Colleges updated attendees about the pilot testing of what they hope is a more appropriate measure of how well two-year institutions serve students and fulfill their multifaceted missions: the Voluntary Framework of Accountability . And though initial reports from institutions piloting the measures are positive, they also indicate that data collection remains a challenge.
The VFA, which is managed by AACC and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation for Education, unveiled stage one of its measurement framework  in January. Since then, 72 community colleges have been testing the VFA — measuring college readiness, completion of classes attempted, student outcomes in non-credit courses, successful transfers to four-year institutions and much more.
Bernadette Farrelly, VFA project manager at AACC, said initial feedback suggests that “there is no aversion to the framework” and that officials at the pilot colleges “are seeing the utility behind it.” She has also encouraged officials from institutions that are not official pilot sites but are attempting to implement the VFA measures on their own to submit comments and criticisms to VFA leaders as well.
By mid-May, pilot institutions will submit VFA data sets and feedback to AACC. Then, by mid-summer, AACC plans to compile and share this information with the public. After this, the third and final phase of the VFA rollout aims to make the measurement tools available to all institutions by early 2012.
Joe May, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System and member of the VFA steering committee, said four institutions within his system are piloting the VFA. He cited numerous benefits to their participation.
“We’ve been unable to tell our story in a meaningful way that will align with our mission,” May said of community colleges. “We know we’re great at what we do … but we’ve never had the data to tell that story, and we’ve been unable to come to an agreement as to what that looks like. Are we really making transformations to people’s lives that add value and make a difference? We need to weigh how to compare ourselves … and that will help us tell our story more accurately than we’ve ever done before.”
Laura Meeks, president of Eastern Gateway Community College, in Ohio, and a member of the VFA’s student learning outcomes working group, said she is particularly pleased with how the VFA assesses career and technical education at her institution.
“Non-credit is a huge part of what we do,” Meeks said. “We need accountability factors. We need to prove to America that non-credit counts."
The VFA measures non-credit workforce enrollment at an institution, the number of state- and industry-recognized credentials it produces annually and the number of students who transfer from non-credit coursework to credit coursework.
May concurred with Meeks, noting that VFA measures of non-credit coursework will be helpful in lobbying legislators.
“In a lot of policy makers’ minds, non-credit means non-value,” May said. “We need to attach value to it.... We know people get salary increases, they get promotions, they gets jobs [from taking non-credit courses] … but accountability measures just don’t exist. This is a move that takes front and center a very important part of our mission and about the value we add through workforce development and non-credit courses.”
Keith Miller, president of Greenville Technical College, in South Carolina, and chair of the VFA steering committee, encouraged more institutions to consider future participation in the VFA, adding that he hopes the project will influence federal policy makers as they consider new assessments for community colleges.
Still, "it’s a messy process right now,” Miller said, adding that some colleges are having a hard time juggling VFA with other projects, like Achieving the Dream , that also require massive data collection. “Hopefully everything will come together and get integrated.”
Teri Walker, director of institutional research and planning for the Dallas County Community College District, told VFA officials during a question-and-answer session that institutions with small information technology and institutional research offices simply “don’t have the resources to complete” initiatives like these. She described some of the data collection of these competing projects as being “stressful for some institutions.”
Others in attendance, however, argued that the positives of this kind of accountability through data collection far outweigh the negatives.
“You may not be enthralled with everything you see, but there’s great power in numbers,” said Greg Smith, president of Central Community College, in Nebraska. “I encourage all of you to participate in VFA when that opportunity is afforded to you because it will help all of us.”