Notes from the President

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

I’m aging myself, but I’m old enough to remember the bad ole’ days of college course registration. It used to be the ultimate hassle: you’d look through the courses you wanted in a book, write them out on a paper schedule, and then complete the registration process in person. This meant going to a giant room — usually a gym or some kind of large campus meeting space — at your assigned time to find all the departments arrayed behind folding tables. The room embodied chaos, was full of panicked people and felt incredibly confusing to the uninitiated. You’d find the correct department, wait in line for each individual class you wanted, and if there were open seats, you’d receive a signature allowing you to register. Then, once you obtained all the signatures for all your chosen classes, you’d take your signed card to a magical person who would finish the enrollment process and make sure that you received a bill in the mail. It usually took several hours, but you were finished with the registration process at that point and only had to do it twice per year unless you were taking summer classes.

This manual registration process was exhausting, and as you can guess, it rarely went smoothly. If one class that you wanted to take was full, it could throw your whole schedule into disarray. You’d have to go back to the drawing board, wait in different lines, and start the whole process all over again. This could go on for some hours. If you were savvy, you’d have multiple schedule scenarios in your head before you started all the running around so that, if Option # 1 wasn’t available, you’d have backup options. Most of the time, you needed backup options. Sometimes, you’d have to start over right there on the fly. The result, naturally, was that it was rare for anyone to get the perfect schedule — particularly freshmen and sophomores. You see, this system also allowed upper-level students to register first, with registration being tiered such that those closest to graduation got priority. They sometimes got to register weeks earlier, and many classes would be closed before your day of registration even arrived. I remember setting my alarm to wake up early on my designated day so that I was ON IT and got the classes that I needed when I wanted them. And most of the time, I still didn’t succeed until I was a junior or a senior.

As times have changed, the process has likewise evolved to some degree, with a phone, waiting list, and internet options replacing all the paper cards and running around nonsense; however, the idea that those closest to graduation should have the first pick of classes has stuck with us for decades. It also incentivized students to pay their bills and return their library books so that there were no holds on their ability to get into their desired classes before they filled up. Students wanted to be sure that they got their spot at the front of the line, so priority registration (or “pri reg” as kids today would say) was the ultimate reward for doing all the correct student things. This only makes sense, right?

Well, yes and no.

We still have priority registration systems, and they, theoretically, function the same way they did all those years ago; however, students rarely use them. As with everything, there are exceptions — usually in classes with low enrollment caps like welding or nursing and its prerequisites — but these are few and far between. Instead, it’s becoming increasingly challenging for us as college administrators to light any sort of fire of expediency under students. Their sense of urgency is utterly gone. Rather, they register when they think about it, and they expect that there will be classes available when they get around to registering. And it’s our job to make it such that this expectation is correct.

I’m calling this the Amazon Prime-edification effect, which is likely not an original name or an original idea. But hear me out: we live in a world in which I can wake up, search for any of a million things, and have them delivered to my front porch — often on the same day. That toaster oven that I used to have to go to the appliance store to pick up or wait weeks to receive after ordering now comes to my house within hours — again, often on the same day. I’ve become very used to this convenience, and I almost can’t remember a time before. We as a modern American society just don’t want to wait for things, and with this year’s supply chain disruptions being hugely anomalous, we generally don’t have to. The great toilet paper shortage of 2020 showed all of us how accustomed we are to a just-in-time economy. We want things that we want when we want them. And so do our students.

This causes us to think very differently about priority registration and the idea that students will feel called en masse to register months in advance for a course. While some certainly do, we increasingly see enrollment trends that creep up slowly over months and then suddenly lurch upward in what we call the “hockey stick” pattern a few weeks before the semester begins. Students are either consciously waiting to enroll until much closer to the new semester or else just not realizing or caring about early enrollment options like our time-honored pre-reg. And yet, when they do want to register, we want to have the courses available to meet their needs. This can present challenges from a staffing and facilities standpoint, but it meets students where they are. Furthermore, as I’ve explained in previous blogs, we also offer late-start sections of many courses to accommodate students who arrive even later. It’s a definite change to the way academia has traditionally thought about serving students, but it’s an important evolution that really does put the student at the fore.

As we get ready to start registration events here at EC3PA, I’m grateful to be the founding president of an institution that builds its processes around students and acknowledges the reality of a world that is ever-changing. It should go without saying that we want to make sure that there are no barriers to students’ ability to register for their desired courses. This is yet another commitment that EC3PA is making to its students, one that helps them realize their educational goals.