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How to Use VFA Data Effectively

By Rebecca Scherr

AACC convention forum highlights benefits of sector-appropriate measures such as benchmarks and performance indicators.

SAN ANTONIO—The theme of measuring student and institutional progress continued to garner attention at this year’s American Association of Community Colleges’ (AACC) annual convention. Data are key to helping colleges calculate completion rates and better gauge student success. But as community colleges know all too well, not all data systems in use translate for community colleges, and data aren’t being leveraged, as it should be at the college, state and national levels.

According to forum panelists who shared their stories at the AACC convention, the Voluntary Framework of Accountability (VFA) solves the inconsistent data problem and helps advance state and national conversations. The national framework, created for community colleges, by community colleges, launched in 2013, and AACC’s landmark report Reclaiming the American Dream: Community Colleges and the Nation’s Future highlighted the need to embrace it.

With VFA metrics, colleges can compare performance at similar institutions, and the data offer student performance and demographic metrics and benchmarks that can truly tell colleges’ stories. (For a more in-depth look at data collection and displays, check out the April/May issue of Community College Journal.)

Using VFA Metrics in Michigan

Panelist Christopher Baldwin, executive director of the Michigan Center for Student Success, clearly illustrated the need for colleges to use VFA data: With the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), Michigan has a graduation rate (after three years) of about 15 percent, and on the governor’s education dashboard — which uses VFA data — the transfer and completion rate is 53 percent. “Is 53 percent good enough? Of course not,” Baldwin said. “But it’s a lot better to start a conversation at 53 percent.”

In Michigan, 25 of the 28 community colleges are using the VFA. “It’s playing out the way we hoped it would,” Baldwin said, adding that six colleges in the state beta-tested the FVA before the system went live. The presidents of those colleges talked to the other presidents in the state and said, “It’s new, and on some level, it’s not quite proven yet, but it’s worth it because we can finally tell a story that is more reflective of what we do as institutions,” Baldwin said.

Baldwin also explained that the time savings alone is reason enough for colleges and associations to use the VFA. Without this framework, he said, Michigan colleges would have had to go through a system to decide tracking metrics for cohort, time frames and other data.

“Commonality is the strong point to have so many colleges using the metrics, but also to use these metrics collectively in other venues, whether it be the governor’s education dashboard or in the context of our new statewide data system,” Baldwin said. “It also shortens the time for us to figure out what our collective move should be.”

At the institutional level, Baldwin said he has heard anecdotally that colleges are also using the VFA metrics: They have embedded the metrics into their key performance indicators on campus or have used the data to prepare for the accreditation process.

While it’s still not clear how the data will be interpreted or how it will benefit the colleges in conversations about funding, Michigan is setting up a task force that will review the state’s funding formula. The VFA will inform the state of intermediate milestones, such as retention, credit accumulation and progression out of developmental education.

“For Michigan, adopting the VFA allows us to move very quickly away from the debate of what the metrics should be to actually doing something about it,” Baldwin said.

At the national level

AACC is using VFA data in important advocacy conversations, and it needs more buy-in to support its story. Currently, AACC is using VFA data to inform the college-ratings dialogue. The association is also using VFA data to take stock of workforce and economic development.

How is your college using VFA data? Tell us in the Comments.

Rebecca Scherr

is editor of the 21st-Century Center.

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