Notes from the President

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

As I write this, we are entering into midterms week here at EC3PA, and the regular bustle of students contains an extra undercurrent of energy. We’ve reached the midpoint of the regular semester, a time of exams, papers, and lots of caffeine. Students are just about over the hump, and it’s almost time to register for next semester’s classes already. We are starting to plan for next fall’s course offerings as well. Time moves fast in academia, and it feels like a frenetic, repetitive cycle at times. So how do we figure out what classes to offer students and when to schedule them?

I’ve said before that the best way to overcome barriers to student learning is not to erect them in the first place. One of my great joys here at EC3PA is being able to design the learning experience such that we anticipate student needs well before they become insurmountable hurdles. Inflexible schedules that are not built with students in mind are among the biggest hurdles that arise to impede academic success. And yet, it’s hard to break from what’s always been done because inertia is a powerful thing. At the same time, growth and change become impossible if we always do what we have always done. So, what to do?

Academia is traditionally built on a semester model in which classes are offered in fifteen- or sixteen-week blocks starting in fall and spring with an abbreviated summer semester. Most institutions offer a brief late registration period after classes have begun, allowing students to join classes that have just begun, but that’s it. What happens, then, when students miss this short start window? And who are these students?

Most commonly, community colleges find themselves faced with two types of students needing help after the semester has begun: reverse-transfers and change-of-circumstance students. Community colleges often find themselves inundated with a flurry of reverse-transfer students a couple of weeks into the beginning of each semester. These are students who went away to a four-year school, found it to be a bad fit, withdrew, and decided to return home. Change-of-circumstance students are those who only decided to return to school as a result of a life alternation — a job loss, a move to a new city, or withdrawal from another course for which they registered. Whatever the case, the result is the same: these students need classes to continue their education. Missing the semester’s start date for any of the above reasons has traditionally meant that these students just find themselves out of luck until the next semester begins four months later. And they lose valuable time as they wait.

Not at EC3PA.

We believe that staggered start times allow us to serve students who miss that first arbitrary deadline, need to change their schedules, or just prefer a shorter course duration for any number of reasons. As a result, we’ve created twelve- and eight-week course options for many of our popular general education courses. Higher education uses these abbreviated course models in the summer with great success, so why not deploy them throughout the year? There’s no new wheel to reinvent, and it helps our students keep on track toward their chosen degree or certificate. To be clear, the course content and learning objectives are exactly the same regardless of course duration, but the individual meetings of the course are longer to satisfy seat time requirements. So, a sixteen-week course that meets for three hours per week can turn into a twelve-week course that meets for four hours per week or an eight-week course that meets for six hours per week. In other words, it’s the same content but condensed into longer sessions that convene for a shorter period of calendar time. The result is still forty-eight hours of instruction, and the students who need this option can continue to make educational progress under this model.

At EC3PA, we have the ability, staffing, and institutional will to deliver the same content in a shorter number of calendar weeks to students who need it, so why wouldn’t we offer students the chance to start their education when they want to do so? We are committed to offering staggered start times to reach those students who come to us outside of the traditional window. We believe that it’s our mission to build in this kind of scheduling flexibility with the aim of offering our students more of the options they need for their busy lives. For this reason, we incorporate regular and late-start sections of our most popular and in-demand courses to our EC3PA students. We believe that time is an incredibly valuable resource and allowing students to begin as soon as possible lets them realize their goals as quickly as possible. And that’s our job — more than that, it’s our mission.