The Voluntary System of Accountability was created in 2006-07 during the George W. Bush administration as the Commission of the Future of Higher Education, convened by then-Secretary Margaret Spellings, brought national attention to the need for more comparable and transparent information about institutions of higher education – including the measurement and reporting of student learning outcomes. The Spellings Commission (as it was commonly called) brought together policymakers, business leaders, researchers, and academic leaders to develop a comprehensive national strategy for postsecondary education and to ensure that “college was accessible, affordable and prepared students to compete in the global economy.” (Commission on the Future of Higher Education, 2006)
During that time, there was substantial concern within the higher education community that the federal government would mandate a single set of data and metrics that must be used by all institutions – regardless of institutional mission or the students served – to demonstrate institutional affordability, quality and accountability.
The VSA concept was introduced by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) as a counterweight to the more rigid mandates recommended by the Spellings Commission. Based on the premise of offering straightforward, flexible, comparable information on the undergraduate experience, including the reporting of student learning outcomes, the College Portrait website launched in 2008. Eighty university representatives from 70 public universities led the development of the College Portrait with input from the larger higher education community.
The VSA remains an important program within the portfolio of APLU and AASCU, under the guidance of the VSA Oversight Board. Originally created and supported with funding from the Lumina Foundation, the VSA transitioned to a financially self-sustaining program through nominal participant dues in 2010. Traffic to the College Portrait website has steadily grown to over 750,000 visitors and 3 million page views annually.
The VSA has three primary goals:
With recent national conversations focusing more sharply on college affordability and value, the VSA is effectively positioned to contribute to and influence national policy discussions. The new VSA Vision, approved by the VSA Oversight Board in 2016, will create increased flexibility for the VSA to meet the needs of member institutions by creating a series of national institution-level datasets for benchmarking and comparison on key data reported to the National Center for Education Statistics, the National Science Foundation, Federal Student Aid, national college guidebook and search publishers, and the Student Achievement Measure.
The VSA has contributed several innovations to higher education accountability that are of particular note – the student success and progress rate and the net price calculator. In particular, the success and progress rate provides a more complete picture of student progress through the higher education system rather than focusing on the graduation rate from only one institution. It also serves as the foundation for another national initiative – The Student Achievement Measure.
The VSA remains the only national accountability initiative that requires participants to report evidence of student learning Institutions describe how student learning outcomes are measured and how the results are applied to enhance learning by using the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment Transparency Framework.
The Transparency Framework is designed to help institutions communicate their evidence of student accomplishment to external audiences, making it an ideal fit with the purposes of the College Portrait. There are six components to the Transparency Framework that together tell a complete story about learning outcomes assessment on a campus.
The Excellence in Assessment (EIA) program, created in Fall 2015, is a national recognition for institutions that intentionally integrate learning outcomes assessment campus-wide. The EIA designations focus on campus processes and uses of assessment outcomes, rather than on student performance or accomplishment. Building on the foundation of reporting both student learning outcomes assessment results and processes established in the Voluntary System of Accountability (VSA) College Portrait, the EIA designation evaluation process is directly and intentionally built from NILOA's Transparency Framework.
Like the Carnegie Community Engagement Classification, EIA provides a systematic and nationally recognized evaluation of colleges and universities intended to reveal best practices in campus-wide assessment. The EIA program views campus-level assessment as building up from the work of faculty assessment of student learning, as an integrated component designed to serve as a “tip of the iceberg” indicator for the depth and breadth of student learning happening on our campuses. As increased attention has been paid to campus-level assessment outcomes as an indicator for campus accountability, the pressure has increased on campuses to simply report results to meet external demands. The purpose of the EIA designations is to recognize the work of those campuses that are engaging in the full breadth and depth of vertically and horizontally integrated student learning outcomes assessment.
In keeping with the VSA Vision approved in 2016, the VSA is also working to secure external funding to support the creation of several professional development communities to enhance institutional capacity for evidence-based decision-making. Communities are expected to focus on fostering data literacy and expertise for both senior campus leaders and institutional research and evaluation staff, promote effective use of data in internal and external communications and advocacy work, and the integration of student learning outcomes assessment horizontally and vertically across campus.
For additional information on some of the key features of the VSA and College Portrait and related projects, please see the Resouces page.