(WJET/WFXP/YourErie.com) — Erie County Community College has begun a new academic year, bringing more students than ever into its classrooms.

On Aug. 24, college president Dr. Chris Gray reported that about 350 students had enrolled for classes, taking almost 35,000 credit hours combined.

“That’s a huge growth from last year,” Gray said. The welding program is full, as is the criminal justice program. Not every student in the program will go on to become a welder or a police officer (in fact, many police officer positions do not require a criminal justice degree), but the classes are a start to whatever career they may eventually embark on. “We’re happy to help the students figure out where they want to go.”

It’s been consistent growth. In February, the college reported having about 250 students enrolled. When the college offered its first classes in the fall of 2021, there were about 200 students.

Beginning this academic year, Erie County Community College has teamed up with Erie’s Public Schools to offer a dual degree program. High school juniors will begin taking college courses, and by they time they graduate, they will have earned a high school diploma and two years of college. That’s two years of college at no cost to them.

So far, the college has about 10 students enrolled in the dual degree program.

Another partnership has bloomed this academic year between UPMC and Erie County Community College. UPMC came to the college saying they needed surgical technicians, Gray said, but the college didn’t have the facilities to train technicians. UPMC offered its facilities. The community college then teamed with the University of Pittsburgh to bring in technical training while the community college works to get accreditation.

“(The accreditation) is a five to seven year process, and we’re well on our journey toward it, but not there yet,” Gray said.

Last year at this time, Erie County Community College was launching its first class ever at a new school. The teachers were new, just like the students. Now, incoming students have second-year students to learn from. And enthusiasm has never waned with the community college’s faculty and staff.

“They understand the work we do and the lives we’re trying to change,” Gray said. The community college has nine full-time faculty members and another 20 part-time faculty members.

The commonwealth has funded the school with about $3.5 million this year. And currently, all Erie County residents can take classes at Erie County Community College for free.

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“It’s still free at this point, although that funding is running low,” Gray said. “Classes start all the time with us. Now’s the time while we’ve got (financial) support for them.”