Erie County Community College Preps for Class
Talking to President Dr. Christopher Gray on free tuition and "how to college"
At long last, the Erie County Community College (EC3PA) is set to begin classes on Wednesday. Sept.1. Less than a month ago, the EC3PA named its first president. Dr. Christopher Gray. In addition to working with community colleges for over 20 years, Dr. Gray is a community college graduate himself. Most recently, he held the position of vice president of academic affairs and workforce development at McHenry County College (MCC) in Crystal Lake, Ill. As the 15th community college in Pennsylvania readies for opening day, there's much left to be done.
Nick Warren: Can you tell me just a little bit about the news that tuition is free?
Dr. Christopher Gray: We're excited that through the generosity of donors, we are able to actually cover the tuition portion of any student fees. There are some fees with books, and because of the generosity of donors, even for those students who are experiencing economic hardship, we're going to set up a separate waiver system. For students who are experiencing economic hardship, let's try to find additional funds to cover even their books and fees. It's a finite pot of money that has been given to us with the sole purpose of encouraging folks to go explore some post-secondary credentials.
NW: Have you seen people applying already?
CG: We have indeed. We've actually far exceeded our projections in terms of applications because we've not really rolled out fully live with a marketing plan yet. With pent-up demand, once word started getting out, people have been in the process of applying. We're working kinks out of the system — we're realizing that some students are having challenges with the technology. And so we're going to be all throughout the county here shortly at different library sites to help people register. We'll have staff on the ground to help them kind of walk through that process and start learning how to use the information technology. So those will be critical skills that they'll need to be successful in their learning.
NW: How have things been with the faculty and creating this entire system from the ground up?
CG: Fun, rewarding, challenging, and crazy. Not always in that order. It's been exhausting. We only have six staff in place and at this point — we've hired a number of full-time and adjunct faculty — our faculty have been jumping in helping us create this while they're getting ready for the classes. It's been a little chaotic; we've got a lot on the list that we'll need to accomplish. But the core things are in place, and we will be there on September 1 to serve students to help them start to explore. We will continue to grow and mature as an organization. We're hoping to hire a couple more people this weekend. We're in need of some bodies on the ground as we start to do this. Our major processes are in place. But there's a lot of other things that we need to figure out and work through the details and then have staff there to serve students.
It's been exciting. Lots of my colleagues from across the nation are checking in to see how it's going. This is a very unique opportunity. I've only been aware of just a handful of community colleges starting during my entire career. So it is a very rare occurrence, and a great opportunity for Northwest Pennsylvania.
NW: What kind of experience can you draw on from your past career?
CG: What we're actually drawing on is: How do we serve students better? The system of education was set up for a certain type of person. Somebody who probably came from an upper-middle-income household. Then, about 50 years ago, community colleges started to pop up, and we challenged that system a little bit. We started doing workforce development, training the technical skills, the in-demand, high-paying jobs and started training for those. But one thing they didn't do as well as I had hoped for is to change the system to recognize that we're dealing with students who are often first-generation students. They don't have familial support, and they don't have financial support. We often say that sometimes our students don't know "how to college."
So we find that students that aren't successful; oftentimes, it's not a cognitive issue. It's a fact that they're caring for a loved one, and they don't have the time to study or they're experiencing financial hardship. Maybe somebody in the family gets laid off, so they need to go pick up another shift and take on extra work.
We're here to work hand-in-hand with you, to walk you through that process. We're going to sit down with you to try to figure out what your wants and desires are, and figure out what credits you can bring in that you may have had elsewhere. Then we're going to put you on a path to be successful.
One of the things I'm always proud of: Community college students tend to outperform other students, in terms of grade point average by their junior year, compared to almost every state university. So that means we're doing our part in getting their skills up, so that juniors are actually getting a better grade point average than someone who started at that state university.
NW: You spoke about students' challenges. Have you faced challenges from the community?
CG: Not really at all. I really think people just don't understand what the community college model is. They think we're just duplicating anything universities or NPRC do, they're not catching the fact that there's actually a lot more to us. We do technical training, we do workforce development, all of it.
NW: Is there anything you'd like incoming students to know or people that are thinking about applying or signing up?
CG: I think the number one thing is don't let the process of "how to college" be intimidating. If you've got any amount of interest, go online, start poking around, pick up the phone and call us. If somebody just wants to walk through it, hit us at one of our library sites. We're going to have classes everywhere throughout the county. So if you don't want to drive to Erie, that's fine.
That's a unique feature about community colleges, we're not going to build a Taj Mahal campus that looks like the other universities. I'm putting all of my time and energy towards helping students succeed. That's what makes us different.
You'll even see that some of the staunchest opponents of the community college are now coming around and saying, well, hey, wait a second. Okay. It's here, let's give it a chance. I think I would try to allay their fears by sharing that yes, you can study the arts, and you can study philosophy and the social sciences. But we also do training in basic nursing. We do training in automotive, welding, computer programming, artificial intelligence, robotics, CNC machining, we're all over the place. We really are a critical pipeline to get students into the workforce.
We're not using any new tax dollars. We're not using any property taxes to fund that college. We've got important work to do. You can hold us accountable by how many jobs we put into the economy, and how strong the economy is. We can't do well unless all of Erie does well. And so we are truly the community's college in that sense.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.