Notes from the President

Chris Gray, Ph.D. | Founding President, Erie County Community College of Pennslyvania

In the world of higher education, community colleges are often dismissed as the school of last resort. Because we are open-access institutions, we take all who want to attend and offer them the opportunity to pursue their educational goals. We accept students who have struggled academically and help to get them back on track. We accept students whose financial situation disqualifies them from attending more expensive schools. We accept students who have returned to school just as we accept those who have never been to college. We accept students who don’t yet know where they want to go in life but have a suspicion that a college education can help get them there. In common parlance, we accept and welcome all — from those who have nowhere else to go to those who have a clear plan — and we embrace them rather than begrudge them when they enter our doors.

But in some quarters, there still exists the belief that community colleges are somehow less than four-year institutions. There exists the belief that community colleges are mere extensions of high school. There exists the belief that the education provided in community colleges is somehow less valuable. There exists the belief that what we offer isn’t as good. And there exists a fundamental misunderstanding of the community college mission: access for everyone.

In recent years, there have been some indications that these misconceptions are beginning to wane, though. As more attention turns to the career pathways increasingly offered in the nation’s community colleges, we are seeing more students than ever choosing these schools as their first choice, and we embrace this fully. We hope that this trend continues, and we are optimistic that it will. We offer options, and we offer chances. We offer them to everyone.

We realize here at EC3 that life is complicated, that circumstances differ, and that there can be no one-size-fits-all model of education. We realize that every student has a story, and we believe that story matters. We want to hear that story and help our students find their place — both here at EC3PA and after.

This week, we are seeing the first eight-week classes of the Fall 2022 semester wind down. We are seeing what a difference the opportunity to improve themselves has made to these students as they finish up what is for many of them their first college courses. We see a difference that is palpable, a confidence that comes from doing something that is challenging but muscling through and pushing hard. We see students who were unsure at first but who have begun to believe in themselves. We see the difference that access makes to our students.

As we get ready to welcome the second eight-week students, we work to keep at the forefront of our minds the reality for many of these students: they will be stepping into a college classroom for the first time next week. It’s all too easy to fall into the rhythm of the semester as the days grow incrementally shorter and brisk autumn winds lift crimson, orange, and gold leaves from the trees. It’s easy to move past midterms and just push toward that December finish line, which is looming large in the distance. But we can’t forget the students who will come to us next week as uncertain as their compatriots did in August. And we won’t.

The reasons that students might not begin their educational journey until October are myriad. They could have moved to the area recently. They could have gotten a new job. They could have begun coursework in August and withdrawn for a host of reasons. They could be reverse transfers who found that a four-year school was not a good fit. We want to know the story, and we welcome them to EC3. We want to help them reach their goals, and we will help them formulate a plan to do so.

Every new semester always fills me with hope and excitement. It’s easy to forget the exhilaration and fear that accompany the undertaking of something new. But I’ve seen it countless times in our students’ faces, and next week, I’ll get to see it again. I love that students are coming to us as their college of choice, and I believe that we will see this continue as word gets out about just how much we believe in our students. We offer them empowerment, and they are embracing it. We are living our mission.