Notes from the President

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

November 11th. Originally named Armistice Day in recognition of the end of World War I, it is now a day where we pause, come together as Americans, and express our deep gratitude to those who have served our country and defended our freedoms. I remain deeply thankful to my grandfathers who led by example, to my uncles and cousins who continue to serve, and to the fine employees and students of EC3PA who have selflessly volunteered for the various branches of our armed forces. These men and women have risked their lives, sacrificed time from their families and loved ones, and put their commitment to country ahead of all else in order to protect and defend the very ideals that define America. To our board members Ron and Kay, our staff Andrew and Robert, and the numerous EC3PA students who have thus served, I wish to say thank you.

Here in the United States, our veterans have also played an important role in the evolution of higher education. After WWII, thousands of veterans returned to the US and used the GI Bill to obtain college degrees. The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act sent over two million veterans to college campuses. Not only did this result in a massive enrollment surge, but it also opened the doors of higher education to those from all socioeconomic backgrounds. In fact, over seven million veterans used their benefits for training or college programs. Unfortunately, some unscrupulous “pop-up” training centers capitalized on the access to federal dollars and provided poor education — or no actual education at all — which then led the federal government to create the accreditation system still in use today.

I will attempt to briefly explain the incredibly bureaucratic process of accreditation so that we can then look at what that means for EC3PA specifically. In short, the US Department of Education formed the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) to create a system to accredit, or license, colleges, and universities and to verify the quality of the education being offered at these various institutions. In turn, CHEA formed seven regional accrediting bodies based on geography. The Middle States Council of Higher Education (MSCHE) is the regional accrediting body that serves Pennsylvania colleges. MSCHE sets the standards for initial accreditation and has a complex evaluation process designed to ensure continued accreditation; this process requires that colleges regularly show continued evidence of their ability to meet those standards of accreditation. At the highest level, the college is expected to submit annual reports (primarily financial), prepare a major self-study every five years, and host a team of accreditors every ten years. The entire accreditation system relies on peer reviewers. Those that determine whether the college has met the standards required for continued accreditors are its peers, higher education professionals at other institutions.

Typically, peer reviewers are assigned by type of institution as well as by institutional context and culture. This can be challenging because colleges vary widely. For example, a tribal college operates much differently than a comprehensive community college, which likewise operates much differently than a research institution. In addition to the variety of institutions out there, other factors like geography, students served, and mission all combine to mandate that peer reviewers evaluate institutions within the standards of accreditation while simultaneously being aware of the institution’s unique context. As a peer reviewer myself, I am assigned almost exclusively to associate degree-granting institutions as that is where my area of expertise in higher education is most robust.

The process to obtain accreditation is even more complex. The process takes many years and requires a pre-application, application, multiple site visits, and hundreds of submissions of documents. Some of the evidence required includes outcomes data on student learning objectives, audited financial reports, and assurance that the College acts independently; in addition, there is a slew of interviews with students, community partners, and college personnel about the institution itself. It takes time to build a strong evidentiary argument, but a portfolio of evidence makes the case for accreditation. Typically, colleges must graduate a class of students before responding to the application, so EC3PA is submitting our pre-application on December 1, 2021. We expect the commission will ask for additional evidence before granting our pre-application, but this begins the official process on our end.

So, given all the work and time involved, why would EC3PA jump through all of these hoops? The answer is simple:  our students. Without accreditation, our students would not be eligible to receive federal or state benefits — grants and loans for example — as those funds can only be dispersed to students attending accredited institutions. Without accreditation, our students would have had to pay out of pocket for their coursework. Our County Government came to the rescue, however, to prevent this from happening! County Executive Dahlkemper and the County Council have graciously allocated American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds to cover tuition! These funds allow anyone who has been a resident of Erie County for at least one year to have tuition waived. We hope that we will have these funds available for students for a few years and potentially until the time at which we earn our accreditation. Students are responsible for paying any course fees, but there is assistance available for students who show financial need. As you’ve heard me say before, paying for college should not be a barrier! We want to make sure that those who join us on our founding journey have help and support. 

On Veterans Day and every day, we as a country owe so much to those who have served to defend our freedoms. One of those freedoms is the right to self-determination — to decide who and what we want to be in life. A college education is one vehicle available in that self-determination journey. As EC3PA begins its own journey through the accreditation process, we are very mindful of those whose service and sacrifice have helped to make this opportunity available to us all.