Chris Gray, Ph.D.

Founding President, Erie County Community College of Pennsylvania

As we launch into another year, I think it would be helpful to back up briefly and take a long view of the work that we do here in community colleges like EC3. As institutions, we serve a critical role in providing accessible and affordable higher education to a diverse range of individuals.  We are open-access institutions, which means that we serve all who want to attend. We are comprehensive institutions, which means that we offer a variety of programs in both academics and workforce development.  In layman’s terms, we wear a lot of hats as we make it our mission to cater to a wide spectrum of students, all of whom have their own unique goals, backgrounds, and circumstances.   

To use a fishing metaphor, we cast a wide net and do our best to help anyone who appears in that net when we pull it in. As EC3 continues to grow, so too does our net.  We will continue to add more degrees and certificates, and we base these offerings on data and what we learn from our community about the needs that uniquely impact our county. We are a growing institution, of course, but we are not growing randomly. Rather, we are choosing to expand with intentionality and in response to what we’ve been asked by our constituents to do. Community colleges are fortunate to be able to do this for those they serve; we are so fortunate.   

As back-to-school pictures start to flood social media feeds, I thought it would be helpful to talk a bit about our constituents, those we serve, as well. First and foremost, we here at EC3, like all community colleges, serve recent high school graduates who may not have decided on a career path or who are seeking a more affordable way to start their college education. As the cost of college tuition continues to rise, students are often seeking a more cost-effective alternative, particularly when their majors are undecided, or they want to explore career options before committing. For these students, we offer a supportive environment that allows them to explore various fields of study and discover their passions before selecting a four-year university program. Not every career path requires a four-year degree, moreover, and that’s a common misconception that we help to dispel with new college students. 

In addition, returning adult learners also benefit significantly from our offerings. It’s often the case that returning adults choose to pursue a higher education in order to acquire new skills, enhance their existing ones, or change careers. Because most of these working adults juggle work, family, and other responsibilities, we make it our mission to provide flexible class schedules, online courses, and part-time options that accommodate their needs. We recognize the unique challenges that our returning adults face, and we build our course schedules with them in mind. While many institutions of higher learning build schedules and expect students to make them work, we build schedules around the times that work for our students. It’s a different philosophy.  

For students who struggled academically in their K-12 years, community colleges like EC3 serve as bridges to access a higher education that may have felt impossible since they fell short of the admissions criteria for four-year universities. Students who struggled in high school academically or faced personal challenges can use their time with us as a stepping stone to catch up on areas where they need additional support, learn effective study skills, and improve their academic record before taking the next step in their educational career and transferring to a four-year institution. They can do this from the comfort of their home and without the hefty expenses that accompany on-campus living, and they will enjoy the benefit of smaller class sizes, more interaction with their professors, and a variety of student support services.  We make it our mission to meet our students where they are and help them move on to where they want to be.  

And finally, community colleges like EC3 offer workforce development training programs that equip students with practical and vocational skills demanded by the job market. For students who are not interested in an academic transfer degree, we offer applied degrees, which focus on specific career training. These programs serve as direct pipelines to various industries, contributing to local workforce development and economic growth while helping our students to launch into their careers as quickly as possible, armed with the technical knowledge these careers require. 

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: community colleges are a democratizing institution – open to everyone and dedicated to student success. Here at EC3, we intentionally create an array of programs tailored to diverse student needs in order to empower our students to pursue their educational dreams and career aspirations. We are in the business of making higher education attainable for anyone in Erie County, and we take that mission seriously. Our community: your college.