Thursday, October 8, 2009

2009 ACCT Leadership Congress: As Conversation Shifts to Accountability, New Frameworks Emerge

The $12 billion earmarked for community colleges by the Obama administration through its American Graduation Initiative represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity -- but only if institutions are willing to demonstrate progress towards specific goals, speakers at the 2009 ACCT Leadership Congress said Thursday.

“A new paradigm is emerging for community colleges,” ACCT President and CEO J. Noah Brown told Congress attendees. While “access has been the promise since the inception of the community college movement... now increasing emphasis is being placed on student success and achievement.” In short, community colleges are being called on to “balance access with success,” Brown said.

Keynote speaker Jamie P. Merisotis, President and CEO of the Lumina Foundation for Education, stressed that the AGI, which seeks to increase the number of Americans who earn degrees or certificates by 5 million over the next decade, represents both “a prize and a challenge, a reward and a down payment.”

The AGI closely mirrors the Lumina Foundation’s own goal of having 60 percent of Americans hold high-quality college degrees or credentials by 2025, and both initiatives reflect one simple fact, according to Merisotis: “There’s simply no way for the nation to return to a global position of leadership in attainment unless community colleges lead the way,” he said. “Because of your expertise in creating workforce development programs... and the decades you have spent perfecting cost-effective ways of providing higher education... you can show the way to reshaping higher education that benefits us all.”

Merisotis urged trustees to invest part of the billions in new funding from AGI and other initiatives in involving local stakeholders ranging from K-12 systems to businesses, bolstering developmental programs, and creating new structures “geared towards student success.” He also urged community college leaders to focus on developing measures that “clearly define high-quality outcomes and track student performance.”

One such program is the Voluntary Framework of Accountability. Developed by ACCT and the American Association of Community Colleges, the VFA has been awarded $1 million in grants from the Lumina Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, it was announced on Oct. 7. The grants will fund pilot projects at eight community colleges, with 20 additional institutions expected to join the project by 2011.

The VSA has the potential to address two common issues in developing a common framework allowing community colleges to collect data and benchmark their metrics against other institutions, Brown said. “We don’t have a common language, and we don’t have a vocabulary rich enough to express what we do in those communities across the country [with] our different missions and constituencies.”

Pointing to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s earlier comments about the importance of workforce education, Brown added that the greatest area of deficiency is on non-credit students. “We can’t describe accurately to policymakers the phenomenal things that go on [with vocational training and education] and how life-changing this is for many people.”

Ronald Williams, vice president of the College Board in Washington, D.C., stressed a key goal of developing such metrics. “Knowing more so you can change the institution is... precisely the point of getting the data.”

Accountability will become an increasingly large issue at the local, state, and federal levels, Congress speakers said. Acknowledging the growing federal role in accreditation issues, keynote speaker Judith S. Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation in Washington, D.C., urged trustees to balance such external approaches by developing a complementary “approach to accountability that is community-led and reflective of our core academic values... of mission, independence, and academic freedom.”

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