Lessons from a Voluntary Framework of Accountability journey

By Erin Volk

Using the Voluntary Framework of Accountability, one Iowa college is able to tell a more comprehensive community college story.

For years, Western Iowa Tech Community College (WITCC) observed, noted and raised concerns regarding the mismatch between the community college mission to impact a diverse range of students and communities, and the ill-fitting standards used to measure college efficacy. Under the existing traditional measures, the community college story is at best incomplete, and at worst inaccurate—but how could we navigate a longstanding approach? Local reporting or state-specific metrics were considered, but quickly dismissed as we recognized the limitations of measures without national context or support.

At the same time, other colleges and organizations were raising similar concerns. With the support of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), the Voluntary Framework of Accountability (VFA) was under development in response to the need for more appropriate community college measures.  In 2011, WITCC eagerly accepted the opportunity to participate in VFA as one of 40 pilot colleges.  Today, WITCC is part of a centralized state system of VFA reporting in Iowa and as we reflect back on the journey, we’re recognizing the value of not only the end product of a more comprehensive community college story, but also of the lessons learned throughout this six-year process.

There is strength (and quality!) in numbers.  Early on, WITCC recognized the benefits of VFA participation and shared this enthusiasm with in-state peers.  By 2013, the 15 Iowa Community College presidents, in collaboration with the Iowa Department of Education, agreed to adopt VFA as statewide system of measure.  Together, we built upon the existing state data collection system in Iowa to accommodate VFA requirements.  Along the way, teams of community college institutional researchers, subject matter experts, and Iowa Department of Education consultants discussed each VFA metric in detail, and from these challenging conversations, a singular approach emerged.  All Iowa community colleges include VFA data elements as part of the Management Information System (MIS) reporting to the Iowa Department of Education, where the data are processed, calculated and submitted. This approach has yielded consistent calculations across the state and has also made VFA participation feasible for all colleges in Iowa, including those who may lack the resources required to report VFA data individually.  Furthermore, this collaborative approach has created a heightened awareness of all reporting, for VFA and other purposes, which has resulted in more accurate data entering the state system.

Layer on the support.  The college has shared VFA data with both internal and external audiences to establish a foundation of support for VFA among various stakeholders.  At the local level, President Terry Murrell is engaged in the college’s data, while also participating on the state VFA Steering Committee and the national VFA Oversight Board. The WITCC Board of Directors engages with VFA data regularly and board member Rick Franck has supported the initiative by creating awareness among peers in trustee roles, both informally and at state conferences.  According to Franck, “receiving consistent reliable data enables the board to better evaluate how the institution is doing in making progress on our completion and student success goals.” Additionally, at the state level, VFA has been supported by expert committees with representatives from all Iowa community colleges, and with dedicated staff from the Iowa Department of Education. Moving forward, we will continue to build additional layers of support and maintain our commitment to VFA.

You’ve done the work, now let VFA data work for you.  WITCC and the supporting network throughout the state have invested in VFA and have confidence in the data reported.  The local, state and national engagement with VFA has elevated it to the forefront as we seek to drive change and overcome institutional challenges.  The story told through VFA data has been embedded into grant applications, considered in the development of marketing campaigns and used as a catalyst to ask deeper diving questions and support strategic direction.  We are now looking to VFA not only to identify gaps in our own efforts, but also to discern leaders in all facets of community college service, so that we may adapt and adopt these best practices to meet our own student needs.  With the semantics and mechanics of data collection and reporting nearly settled, we have reached the point where the information can come full circle and lead to better opportunities and outcomes for our students.

Erin Volk

is director of institutional research at Western Iowa Technical Community College.