According to the U.S. Department of Education, Jackson College (JC), in Jackson, Michigan, has a poor graduation rate: 13 percent, compared with 20 percent nationally. But that graduation rate considers only first-time, full-time, degree- or certificate-seeking students who complete in three years. Looking at graduation from this perspective ignores the reality of community colleges, from which many students transfer, and where they take classes for personal enrichment or study part-time over four or more years.
“You cannot lump a research institution with a community college,” says JC President Daniel Phelan. “We have a different covenant with our students.”
JC was one of the early beta sites for the Voluntary Framework of Accountability (VFA), which uses a different set of data points. VFA criteria — for example, including students who earn a professional certificate or who transfer to another college — are more relevant to community colleges. Nine outcomes measured over a six-year period are used to assess success.
Under the VFA, JC has a success rate of 59 percent. That still leaves room for improvement, but it is a better indicator of the complex situations that community colleges face and allows more meaningful comparison to other two-year colleges.
“It was designed for community colleges, created by community colleges,” Phelan says. “We know who we are. We know our whole structure. We worked hard for a long time to make metrics and data points that make sense to us.”
Using data to inform decisions
As part of the process, Phelan says, JC uses the VFA to make sure that the institution is improving; the framework also informs decision-making. For example, the college analyzed its VFA data and other metrics to discover that its student intake needed an upgrade. Historically, JC students largely self-advised, taking the courses that most appealed to them. This fall, JC will shift from a transactional model to one that uses a team of student-success navigators, who will have multiple contacts with students to help ensure that their courses put them on track to completion.
“For community colleges, VFA is the best indicator of performance of our institutions and for success of our students,” Phelan says. “That’s not to say that Clearinghouse or Benchmark or ATD don’t have their benefits, because they do. Taken together, they reinforce or validate.”
Phelan says that the cost of the VFA is the biggest objection among his colleagues. In the near future, VFA participation will be free. “VFA is designed to put the data out there. It will give you access to a robust dataset,” he says. “That’s significant for those with limited resources.”
Does your school use the VFA? In the comments below, share your experiences about how it is shaping decision-making on your campus.