Notes from the President

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

As promised, I’m continuing my discussion of barriers faced by community college students in this post. In many ways, cognitive hurdles provide easier ways for us to intervene as educators to help our students because they appear in precisely the kind of work that higher education is well-positioned to do. We teach students how to think, how to develop skills, and how to apply theory to practice. We teach; they learn. We as educators develop means by which we assess student learning — via exams, papers, skills checks, presentations, etc. — and we have set learning outcomes or objectives for each course that we teach. We can tell, in other words, when students get it and when they struggle.

When I said above that cognitive barriers are in some ways easier, it’s because our focus is on helping students to learn, and in so doing, we learn to recognize different kinds of cognitive struggles as part of our professional experience. We can readily identify the student who struggles with reading comprehension or has difficulty converting thoughts into words. While we don’t necessarily know what specific cognitive hurdles individual students face, we know enough to identify the signs of a learning struggle and make interventions refer students to support services, provide tutoring assistance, or involve an academic advisor. In other words, we have devised ways to help identify and help these students get the support they need to overcome their cognitive barriers, which run the gamut from documented learning disabilities to lack of academic preparedness for college-level work. We have systems set up to help these students once we find them.

What about other barriers, though? Because community college students are almost always commuters, they routinely perform a balancing act that most traditional four-year school attendees don’t. Most of our students, for example, work at least one part-time job and a significant number work full-time in addition to taking classes. This barrier significantly curtails their academic progress if we as educational institutions don’t build our course offerings with working students in mind. Providing a mixture of morning, afternoon, and evening sections in addition to online and hybrid options makes it possible for students to get the education they need in the time they have available. Work, for these students, is not something done for a little extra spending money; it’s a matter of financial necessity, of providing for themselves and their families, and we at EC3PA don’t believe that students should have to choose between economic survival and their educational dreams. We offer the kinds of classes that our students need when they need these classes.

In addition, we realize that a significant number of our students come to us burdened by familial responsibilities — from caring for children and elderly parents to managing their own illnesses or those of their loved ones. In many cases, this is their primary responsibility. In other cases, they are balancing a full-time job in addition to these familial responsibilities, compounding the struggle exponentially. In addition to the same flexible course scheduling options mentioned above, we also need to build a framework of compassion and help for our students. We need to have mental health support and reliable, affordable childcare options. We need to offer quiet and/or group study space for students who may have none available once they leave our campus. We need to provide technology both in-person and online. We need to do this and more. Recognizing that our students live complex and sometimes tragic lives is absolutely necessary if we are to remove these insurmountable obstacles to student success.

In 1943, Abraham Maslow published “A Theory of Human Motivation” to try to explain how humans experience and respond to various types of need. Maslow’s theory about the hierarchy of needs posits that humans must first satisfy basic physical needs before they can move on to satisfy desires to engage in self-improvement and self-actualization. Using a pyramidal model, Maslow argues that humans cannot be concerned about any other higher-level needs unless they have satisfied needs at lower levels in his pyramid. First, humans need to have reliable sources of food, shelter, and clothing; these primitive needs form the base layer of the pyramid, and he contends that humans cannot ascend the pyramid in pursuit of the satisfaction of other needs unless this layer is firmly established. Directly above this base layer is the need for safety and security; without an ability to feel bodily safe, humans cannot worry about other, more abstract needs and desires. This model, as it applies to higher education, makes sense. Students cannot focus on their cognitive needs if they do not have food, shelter, clothing, and safety readily and consistently available to them.

Our students live complicated lives, and many are not secure in these basic needs. I mentioned students experiencing homelessness in my last post, and this is a real concern for many community college students. Food insecurity is, likewise, something that many of today’s community college students experience. If Maslow’s theory is correct, these students then cannot advance in pursuing satisfaction of their higher-level needs because those at the base remain wanting. How can students focus on studying theoretical concepts if they don’t have a roof over their heads or reliable access to food? Some students cannot feel safe; whether from domestic violence, economic insecurity, or lack of reliable transportation, these students cannot focus on improving their minds through higher education because they struggle to move out of the second layer of the pyramid. How can we help these students?

We at EC3PA want to ensure that our students are able to pursue their educational dreams, and to that end, we are hoping to implement non-academic support structures to help students address these basic needs. We will be looking to create programs to support students and to learn what non-cognitive barriers hold them back. And we need to hear from you about specific barriers you’ve seen students grappling to overcome. Please share and help us build a campus that actively supports those who most need us.