The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), in collaboration with the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT) and the College Board, has been working since 2008 to develop a voluntary accountability system for community colleges nationwide. The project, which is currently in its second phase, is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation for Education. AACC leaders presented the system at their annual conference this week as part of an ongoing campaign to gather support for the initiative among college officials.
The Voluntary Framework of Accountability (VFA) offers benchmarks for community colleges to track student progress and completion data against peer institutions. The hope is that this system will help schools boost student achievement while holding them accountable to funding sources, local governments and the general public. The VFA will be similar to the Voluntary System of Accountability (VSA) developed for public 4-year institutions by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.
A Broad Scope
The VFA will provide a set of standards designed to be applied to community colleges across the country, regardless of size or location. During the conference, AACC members noted that the measures must also be applicable to all students, be 'reasonable in scope and size' and make sense to people outside of the community college system.
Working groups in the current phase of the initiative have been developing standards in two areas: student learning outcomes and workforce training. The first group is focusing on student persistence and completion, including metrics of student retention, transfer to 4-year institutions and graduation. They will also explore new ways to track student progress, such as developing credit milestones for students to reach during their time in school. Other learning outcome measures may include:
- How students arrive at a community college and how prepared entering students are for college-level work.
- Successful completion of college-level courses (as opposed to developmental courses).
- Completion of certificate or degree programs.
- 'Overall success indicators' that will track students' purposes for enrolling and whether or not they achieved their goals.
The group is still working on what information should be collected and shared about transfer students. The goal is to measure students' success in transferring to 4-year institutions and their performance once enrolled.
The initiative also plans to encourage colleges to break down learning outcomes results by student subgroup in order to explore whether success levels are different for first generation students, minorities, low-income students and other underrepresented groups.
The second working group is focusing on workforce, economic and community development. Unfortunately, not many 2-year institutions have collected thorough data in this area. Noting that job training is a core function of the American community college system, the initiative hopes that including related standards will encourage schools to collect and report on workforce metrics.
Fewer details have been worked out for workforce standards, but they do plan to measure certificates and degrees awarded in vocational fields as well as success in continuing education and adult basic skills courses.
Fears of 'Nationalization'
These standards are arriving during a major national push for greater accountability in higher education. As an affordable and increasingly popular alternative to expensive and crowded 4-year institutions, community colleges in particular are coming under greater scrutiny. They've taken in an unprecedented number of students since the recession began - the AACC estimates that there has been a 17% growth in enrollment at 2-year colleges in the last two years. Some are so full that they've even been forced to turn away applicants. Early data shows that California had to turn away 200,000 prospective community college students last year and Florida was forced to deny 30,000.
The surge in enrollment has made the need for better data and accountability measures that much more urgent. Many schools are struggling to improve completion and transfer rates, and the Voluntary Framework for Accountability could help institutions share best practices, strengthen student achievement and become more accountable to the public.
Yet, as with other recent pushes for nationwide standards, critics have expressed concern that no single accountability system could accommodate the diversity of 2-year institutions in the United States. Some fear that not only would the system fail to account for the unique circumstances of different colleges, it would force curricula to become more homogenous.
Faculty tend to see national accountability systems as code for 'national standardization' that simply leads to 'teaching to the test.' One college dean pointed out that putting the word 'voluntary' in the system's name won't do much to reassure them, asking 'How do you frame this to dispel those kinds of suspicions?'
One committee member pointed out that there's a difference between national accountability and federal requirements. The VFA is designed to allow nationwide comparisons between schools, not to impose top-down regulations. The standards leave plenty of room for schools to individualize the ways that they meet benchmarks in order to accommodate the needs of their students.
Another committee member pointed out that the growing national interest in 2-year institutions means an accountability system may be inevitable. If community colleges develop one themselves they'll be able to define the terms, rather than having standards imposed upon them.
Existing programs support the idea that better data collection would have a positive impact on the quality of education at 2-year institutions. 'Achieving the Dream: Community Colleges Count' is a six-year-old national program that uses student achievement data to develop creative ways to raise transfer and graduation rates at community colleges.
The program, which is currently in place at over 100 institutions in 22 states, has shown great promise at a diverse range of schools. College officials report higher retention rates, improved student grades, lower drop-out rates and narrower achievement gaps. The number of students required to take remedial, or developmental, courses has also declined at participating institutions.
Achieving the Dream schools indicate that these improvements are the result of the thorough collection and analysis of information. Data-driven decision making has allowed these schools to make, track and refine major changes with very positive results.
Implementing a system like the Voluntary Framework for Accountability would make it easier for community colleges across the country to replicate these achievements. And, as one committee member pointed out, it might actually mollify federal regulators, giving schools more freedom to adapt to their students' needs.