Notes from the President

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

At just about three-quarters of the way through the semester, something starts to change among many students — particularly those who are brand new to college. Overwhelm and exhaustion set in; panic sometimes erupts; complaints to administration increase; and the parking lots start to thin out. This is also the time, unfortunately, during which the number of class withdrawals ratchets up because there are not enough weeks left in the semester to make up for missed classes and missed assignments. There’s more course time behind students than ahead of them, and something shifts. The change is palpable.

Week # 12 is a sort of crucible through which some students pass successfully while others simply fade away. Around 80% of the way through the semester, the “Last Day to Withdraw” deadline looms large, and students take stock of their progress relative to their goals. If they are falling short in any of their classes, they often choose this day to take the “W” on their transcript rather than allow a failing grade to damage their grade point average. And many times, thereafter, we lose them. It’s our job as educators to do all that we can to prevent this from happening.

In academic speak, the return of students from Fall to Spring semester is called “retention”; we retain those students who register for classes again in the Spring semester following a Fall semester in which they have also registered for classes. Every time students take the “W” on their transcript, however, rather than persisting and completing a course, it makes retention less likely. An academic withdrawal pushes back the time to certificate or degree completion and often throws students’ future schedules out of whack. A major recalculation has to occur, and that can be an insurmountable barrier to overcome. But at the same time from an administrative standpoint, retention is immensely challenging because not all students come to us ready to undertake the rigors that college-level coursework entails. As I’ve mentioned before, this can be difficult to detect, increasing the challenge facing us as we try to catch these students before it’s too late. That’s exactly what we must do — the labyrinth that it’s our duty to navigate.

To back up momentarily, let me just mention that one of the ways that we at EC3PA are hoping to help boost student retention is through the implementation of a variety of systematic early-intervention techniques. By finding out early in the semester when students are struggling — and HOW they are struggling — we can step in and get them the help they need before the opportunity for success closes. For the student who has fallen behind in coursework, for example, we can provide supplemental instruction and tutoring services or accommodations for documented learning disabilities. For the student who suddenly needs childcare to continue attending classes, we can provide referral services. For students whose work schedules change unexpectedly, we can offer late-start sections so that these students don’t lose a full semester’s worth of work and find themselves back at the starting line. These are but three examples of the kinds of students who need our support so that they don’t become part of the Week # 12 washout. As with most things, however, it’s easier said than done.

Permit me a digression here: the Great Resignation of 2021 has shown us that there is a movement afoot in our country to leave situations that are difficult or challenging in favor of something else, even if that something else is but an amorphous idea not yet fully rendered. A subset of this movement consists of those whose current ethos does not admit space for work or tasks that are difficult. If it’s hard, in other words, these folks are taking a hard pass.

It would be easy for us as the nation’s newest community college to just say “HARD PASS” on the retention issue because it’s among the most if not THE most difficult challenge facing higher education today. But that’s not who we are. As John F. Kennedy said with regard to the race to the moon, “We choose to … do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone.” We choose to focus on this thing — the retention of our students — not because it is easy but because it is hard, and it’s the thing that will enable us to do all the other things and because this goal will definitely measure our skills against the benchmark of excellence that we’ve set for ourselves.

Specifically, here at EC3PA, our Student Services department has been working to find better ways to bring new students onboard and to set them off on the right foot. Some proactive strategies that we are contemplating include the following:

  • Sending a written letter to students via postal mail because we recognize how easy it is for electronic messaging to get lost in the bevy of texts and junk e-mails flooding everyone’s inbox
  • Scheduling “Next Steps” sessions conducted at all EC3PA sites that host classes to help orient students to their surroundings and begin to feel at home in their new educational home
  • Teaching students to navigate the EC3PA and Blackboard apps and familiarize them with college technology expectations before they have to submit assignments
  • Offering information sessions for students both on major programs of study as well as general education advising
  • Including and training of faculty so that they can become involved partners in the advising process
  • Sharing in-person registration and advising “need to know” information with faculty for distribution to current students

I would love to get to the end of Week # 12 with near-to-full parking lots, and I firmly believe that we can build student support structures here that aid students on their journey so that we can, indeed, retain them. This is the greatest challenge facing institutions of higher education, but it’s one that is well worth our attention and effort.