Community colleges have long argued they are fundamentally different from four-year institutions and should be judged by different yardsticks. Now the sector has created what it says are fair measures of its members' performance, with the release Wednesday of the Voluntary Framework of Accountability from the American Association of Community Colleges.
The accountability standards  are a starting point for a “common language” on what works at community colleges, said Kent Phillippe, associate vice president for research and student success at the association. But to be effective, he said they also need to show where colleges are falling short.
“They have to be rigorous,” he said.
The standards arrive as community colleges face increasing pressure to improve graduation rates and to be more open about their performance. Nationwide, only about 19 percent of students  earn an associate degrees after four years. Many community colleges are also struggling with flat or slashed state budget contributions, as well as more scrutiny from lawmakers about how they use taxpayer money.
The association developed the voluntary framework over 18 months, vetting it with administrators, researchers and governing boards. The standards were also tested as a pilot project at 58 community colleges before being released in a 48-page “Metrics Manual,” which is available here .
To participate, colleges will need to track two different student cohorts, with start dates in 2005 and 2009. Breakout categories within those cohorts include ethnicity, Pell status and whether students require remedial coursework. The standards measure career and technical offerings, as well as noncredit workforce coursework. Participants will also identify students who enroll in adult basic education and GED courses.
Phillippe said the next phase of the accountability project would be helping colleges sign onto the standards. The association will develop centrally-housed data collection and publishing tools, which it hopes to have in place by the end of 2012.
Also eyeing improved measures of student success at community colleges is a federal task force that earlier this week urged  changes to how the Education Department tracks graduation rates for the sector, among other recommendations.
The two releases were somewhat related, in that the community college association had described its voluntary standards to the task force. And both groups recommend including student transfers in graduation rates, which would give a more flattering picture of the sector’s performance -- and a more accurate one, colleges say, given the large number of community college students who transfer to other institutions.
However, there are differences in the two efforts. For example, the association's guidelines do not suggest that lateral transfers – from one community college to another – should be included in graduation rates, while the task force did.
Early returns on the new standards have been positive. Community college leaders and observers of the sector say they have real teeth, and that participating colleges should be able to effectively track and publicly report on student progress, graduation rates and workforce development, among other areas.
In fact, some community college presidents have worried  that the standards are substantial enough that participating in the voluntary accountability project will be labor-intensive and expensive.
Alex Johnson, president of the Community College of Allegheny County, was on the framework’s steering committee, and his college was one of the pilot project sites. He said worries persist at some colleges about the costs of joining the effort, for good reason.
“This will be a challenging process, initially,” Johnson said, citing the potential costs of collecting and reporting all the required data points. But participation will be worth it, he said, both in helping to understand and improve how community colleges operate and in the signal it will send to lawmakers and the general public about accountability.
“We really have to do this,” said Johnson.
Josh Wyner, executive director of the Aspen College Excellence Program, praised the voluntary standards, which he called thoughtful and well-defined.
“This is a huge step forward,” said Wyner, whose program is also attempting to measure  community college performance and student outcomes, with the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence. “They’ve done a really good job on the completion side.”
For example, he said the standards wisely break down data among various student groups, which will make it easier to track achievement gaps. Wyner also was impressed that the framework calls for the reporting of both two- and six-year graduation rates. As a result, colleges will be able to see how many students get through quickly and over the longer haul.
“Time matters,” Wyner said.
The framework does not have firm recommendations for measuring student learning outcomes, calling that area a “work in progress.” That’s understandable, observers said, given how hard it to measure what students actually learn, particularly at institutions with large numbers of students who are unprepared for college-level work.
Phillippe said the framework does address student learning measures, such as through encouraging colleges to publicly report more of what they’re already collecting.
“There’s a lot more being done out there than people are aware of,” he said.
The standards provide a starting point on learning outcomes, Phillippe said, adding that the initiative's leadership is studying the Lumina Foundation’s “Degree Profile ” report, which the foundation describes as helping to define the “learning and quality that college degrees should signify.”
Association officials said the standards are designed for use by individual colleges as well as larger systems. Statewide community college organizations in Pennsylvania and Arizona are already interested in adopting them, as are the State University of New York and the City University of New York.
Eduardo J. Marti, vice chancellor for community colleges at CUNY, agreed with Johnson that participation will be challenging.
"Some will not like the results because transparency will show the good and the ugly," Marti said via e-mail. "But by using common metrics we will advance the public's understanding and appreciation of the excellence that exists at many of our colleges."
The association will present to the Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges about the framework in January, said Johnson, who is also the commission’s president. Signing on would be a big help for the loosely-grouped system, he said.
“This is a way to ensure that we have some overall measures about success,” Johnson said. “For us this is a no-brainer.”