Popular American management consultant Peter Drucker is credited with arguably one of the most important quotes in modern business management: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.”
But for community colleges, existing accountability measures in higher education have not adequately measured their unique mission or the diverse students they serve. Much like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, they just don’t fit.
Take, for instance, first-year retention and graduation rates published by the National Center for Education Statistics. Those statistics only take into account first-time, full-time, degree-seeking undergraduates. But those measures exclude part-time students and students in noncredit career and technical education programs, who represent a key part of the community college mission.
“Some students might not be degree-seeking, but rather are getting job training or satisfying continuing education credits,” said Erin Volk, director of institutional research development at Western Iowa Tech Community College. “It might take a part-time student four years to get a two-year degree, and that is missed in the federal measures. And federal measures don’t look at developmental education (a.k.a. remedial courses) at all.”
In theory, the solution sounded easy – devise different metrics that better align with community college outcomes. In reality, it took years of blood, sweat and tears.
“In order to benchmark and compare measures, we needed everyone to use the same set of metrics,” said Jeremy Varner, the Iowa Department of Education’s (Department) administrator for the Division of Community Colleges and Workforce Preparation.
But that was easier said than done.
“It was definitely a data challenge,” Volk said. “We had a lot of focused conversations about the data. We all had to come to consensus and come to terms on the definitions to ensure consistency.”
The Department partnered with the Iowa Association of Community College Presidents to develop appropriate success measures and implement an accountability framework that would work for all 15 of Iowa’s community colleges. They ultimately selected the Voluntary Framework for Accountability (VFA), a system designed by the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).
The VFA is the first-ever national accountability system to measure how two-year colleges perform in serving their more than 13 million students nationwide. The metrics included in the VFA were developed through 18 months of intensive research and testing by community college presidents, institutional researchers and trustees/governing boards. Currently, 210 community colleges across the nation participate in the VFA, with more anticipated to come on board in the future.
Western Iowa Tech Community College was one of 40 community colleges nationwide to pilot the VFA back in 2011.
“VFA was formally adopted statewide in Iowa in 2013,” Volk said. “Our college president, Dr. Terry Murrell, took the lead and shared our experiences with the other community college presidents. VFA provides a way for us to benchmark and compare our outcomes with other community colleges across the state and nation.”
A steering committee consisting of Varner, community college presidents, institutional researchers, and chief academic officers was formed to create an implementation plan and to guide the work.
“Coming to consensus among community colleges was just the first step,” Varner said. “But then the real work began – setting data definitions, implementing a process for data submission, analyzing the numbers. It definitely wasn’t an overnight process.”
In fact, the majority of this work started in 2014, with an analysis of metrics and data collection. By 2017, a comprehensive set of metrics provided a new look into developmental education and its impact on retention and success, while the inclusion of noncredit programs in the career and technical education (CTE) cohort provided a first look at educational and employment outcomes for these experiences. Prior to the VFA system, neither of these metrics was available for national benchmarking purposes.
2018 is a pinnacle year for the VFA implementation, with all 15 Iowa community colleges reporting data for a six-year cohort.
“This is a big turning point for us because we have a lot of data in the VFA system now,” said Stacy Mentzer, interim vice president of instruction at Iowa Central Community College.
With six years of data available for credit, noncredit and adult basic education programs, Iowa’s community colleges can make more informed decisions to better serve students and improve programs at the local level.
“VFA is changing the way that we look at data,” Mentzer said. “Now we can take students’ goals into consideration. We can better identify where students are succeeding and where they aren’t and make more student-centered changes.”
Volk agrees that 2018 is a significant year for Iowa’s community colleges.
“It is really helpful to have the full six-year picture,” Volk said. “Some of our students will transfer before completing a credential. Others will take longer to earn a credential. Before now, there was no way to demonstrate that type of success. Now we can take a more comprehensive look at our programs and make informed decisions to improve student outcomes.”
More information about the VFA initiative and timeline is available on the Department's website.