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Proposed student measures key step toward VFA

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Commentary
​With the proposal of definitions for student progress and outcomes measures, community college leaders working on the national Voluntary Framework of Accountability (VFA) accomplished a major step toward creating a system of indicators to help their colleges more broadly gauge effectiveness.
 
Conceptualizing and figuring out what are the most appropriate measures and definitions is an ongoing process involving dozens of college leaders and input from the sector. Community college professionals who are working on the VFA are aiming to write definitions of measures that ensure consistency and are valid for comparisons among peer institutions.
 
The VFA will result in the most appropriate measures for our institutions because definitions are being created for community colleges, by community colleges. Community college advocates are encouraged to view and comment on the proposed measures here
 
To fit community colleges' multi-faceted missions, VFA's proposed student progress and outcomes measures include an overall success rate based on the number of students who complete degrees and certificates, transfer or remain enrolled. Other preliminary measures in the VFA incl
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ude successful completion of developmental courses, successful completion of college-level courses, credit milestones and per-course success rates.
 
"There has not been an accountability framework like this before," said Daniel Bain, president of Independence Community College (Kansas), who is a member of the VFA group looking at student learning outcomes.
 
Bain describes VFA as "a proactive measure” to show federal lawmakers, policymakers and the public that community colleges are meeting their communities’ and students’ needs for higher education and workforce development.
 
Tracking the right indicators
 
The initiative is “about switching from the wrong indicators to the right indicators,” said Jeanne-Marie Boylan, a VFA steering committee member and trustee from Bunker Hill Community College (Massachusetts).
 
At a recent committee meeting, she noted VFA is taking shape to provide colleges with better measures to gauge effectiveness than the measures currently required by federal and state agencies.
 
"The VFA gives us an opportunity to compare apples to apples in important areas of student success, which the public has a right to know," said Karen Stout, president of Montgomery County Community College (Pennsylvania).

Stout, who serves on the VFA group addressing student persistence and outcomes, sees the voluntary framework  as essential for developing a "common understanding of community  colleges" among state and federal lawmakers and philanthropic organizations.
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 Without VFA, "our policymaking is impaired because there is not agreement on key measures of our success," she said.
 
Bain and Stout said that the proposed measures will more accurately capture what community colleges do without creating onerous work for institutional research staff by making better use of data already gathered for accreditation and state accountability purposes. For instance, the proposed VFA measures will track part-time students rather than just counting full-time, fall semester students as the U.S. Education Department’s current Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System does.
 
Stout noted that the goal is to develop measures that are "robust, but simple enough that a community college of any size can opt in."

"We want participation and we don't want it to be a burden," Bain added.
 
What the research shows
 
VFA working groups’ discussions were framed,  in part, by a demonstration study by Achieving the Dream and Jobs for the Future that included Connecticut, Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Texas and Virginia. The study followed student cohorts for six years to determine associate degree graduation rates and transfer rates.
 
A policy brief that summarized the outcomes of the study concluded that "modifications, such as tracking the progress of both full-time and part-time students—over a longer period, and using a broader definition of success—result in a more accurate useful assessment of community college strengths and challenges."
 
The brief—“Test Drive: Six States Pilot Better Ways to Measure and Compare Community College Performance”reported a clear link between state policies and success, such as  Texas' core curriculum and the relatively high transfer rate among community college students there, and North Carolina's historic focus on adult students and the state’s relatively high rate of nontraditional students attaining credentials.
 
This fall, data experts on VFA's Technical Definitions Committee will work on the details of the statistical inputs of the measures to ensure consistent reporting among institutions and to further define workforce development measures. 
 
The VFA Steering Committee will revise the measures based on its review of the initial technical manual, comments from the field, and feedback from the community colleges that will be selected to test the measures.  
 
Pilot test sites will be selected through a request for proposals that was issued on September 22.
 
The current phase of VFA development is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Lumina Foundation for Education.
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