Notes from the President

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

With the recent student loan forgiveness announcement by the Biden administration this week, there has been a lot of talk in the news about which borrowers stand to benefit, the rising cost of higher education, and the need for the maximization of value earned for the money expended. Since this topic is in the news and is likely to remain so in the foreseeable future, I thought it would be a good idea to explain a bit about how students at EC3PA pay for college.

College students generally pay for their tuition in four ways, either individually or in some combination: (1) cash flowing their tuition from one semester to the next; (2) receiving scholarships based on need, merit, or both; (3) applying for grants; and (4) taking out loans. In general, scholarships and grants do not need to be repaid, but loans always do. The US Department of Education figures heavily in the distribution of grants and loans, and is the administrator of many such programs. The idea here is to make education broadly available and accessible to everyone by offering a variety of funding options to be used by different students based on their individual circumstances and needs.  

Where do our students fit at this point? It’s important to remember that until EC3PA achieves accreditation, our students are not eligible for federal student aid funds. They can apply to us for help based on academic performance and financial need, of course, but paying for college can be incredibly challenging nonetheless. I’ve explained before how community colleges provide such great value in helping students reach their educational goals, but even community college tuition is not within reach for some. 

Therefore, we work to help the greatest number of students to begin their educational journey in a number of ways. Pathways are one such measure designed to help our students ensure that they are taking courses that advance their educational goals and that their classes satisfy the requirements of their degree or certificate program; while the use of pathways does not reduce the tuition cost of the individual courses, pathways still help students avoid unintentionally taking courses that fall outside their educational plan and thus help them save money overall. Students enroll in the courses they need for their program and avoid unnecessary classes when they follow a pathway system.

Additionally, we have streamlined our course offerings at EC3PA to enable students to progress at their own pace; we do not design our course schedules such that students need to take a set fifteen-credit load each semester.  They can take a course here and there as their schedules and finances permit, not according to what we as an institution have determined that they need to do according to our own arbitrary and predetermined timetable. To that end, we offer courses with start dates just about every four weeks throughout the year, allowing our students to take one course at a time if that makes more sense in their budget.  

Remember as well that our advisors help our students determine what courses they need in conjunction with their program requirements, their work and personal obligations, and their financial concerns. Advisors help students to create a schedule that makes sense logistically and financially so that they are able to be successful and to help them avoid withdrawing from the course, which causes students to lose the money invested in the course as well as the time spent.  

Our philosophy here is to guide our students and to help them to avoid some of the common pitfalls that could derail their academic progress. That philosophy will not change, by the way, once our students become eligible for federal student aid programs. We have pledged to build this institution around student success, and that approach was not universal with numerous institutions in the past.  In fact, much of the current student loan crisis occurred as a result of questionable institutions using predatory lending practices and illusory promises to boost enrollments, occurrences that decades ago were quite common; since the Great Recession of 2008, more oversight has been initiated to help keep these practices from recurring, but that doesn’t undo all the damage that came before. Here at EC3PA, we believe that the best way to help our students to make sound financial decisions with regard to their education is to create clear systems leading to clear outcomes.  

Education is an expensive endeavor, but it’s one that is well worth the undertaking. As we began the new semester this week, I couldn’t help but think about how different these students’ experiences will be simply because they chose us for their educational journey. They chose a community college built with their needs in mind first and foremost. It stands to reason that institutions of higher learning should put students first, especially where finances are concerned, and our continued promise of quality and value are testaments to our real and lived commitment to our students’ futures. Because we recognize the real financial sacrifice that many students undertake to better themselves when they enter our doors, we see it as an honor and a duty to help them navigate this novel terrain as cost-effectively as possible.