While it has been supplanted as the city’s foundational education institution, Puebloans will never lose their love and reverence for what once was a young person’s original first option for college in the region. Beginning in 1933, Southern Colorado Junior College was the first rung on the ladder of higher education for young Puebloans as well as for countless other southern Coloradans.
The school, now known as Pueblo Community College (PCC), has come a long way in the ensuing years. While its Orman Avenue campus remains its base, it now operates satellite campuses across southern Colorado, including Bayfield, Cañon City, Cortez and Durango. Enrollment is nearly 7,000 students. There are now nearly 80 course offerings. “Rather than saying ‘this is what we have,” said PCC President Patty Erjavec, “we say, ‘this is what the times are calling for.’”
The formula, said Erjavec, has proven successful. “PCC has enjoyed increased enrollment for the fifth straight year,” she said. Its nursing program is just one gem in its educational treasure chest. As a result of a legislative change, the two-year school can now “offer four-year degrees as long as they don’t compete with other institutions.” It also has first class options in dental hygiene, advanced paramedic medicine and secured software development.
Despite having Colorado State University-Pueblo, a four-year institution, just across town from PCC, the two-year option still makes a lot of sense for many graduating high school seniors or older students wanting to refine their skills or retrain altogether in a new field, said Erjavec, now in her tenth year at the helm.
“The thing that differentiates us from CSU-Pueblo is the culture,” Erjavec said. “We are looked at as a smaller institution but that just means smaller class sizes, one-on-one attention and providing students with resources with help and support.”
There are countless numbers of reasons for students choosing PCC out of high school rather than a traditional college option, said the Pueblo native. “A lot of our students are first-generation,” she said. Many others are from under-represented populations. A more sedate and caring environment might be a smarter option for them, she said. PCC offers a place where a student “can get a wonderful education at half the cost.”
The school also offers concurrent enrollment for high school students. They can earn college credits while in high school. “We have 1,800 students (doing this) in all of our locations. This is saving the family money.”
Beyond saving money, satellite campuses just make sense, especially for students who live in rural communities, including Cortez and Durango. With a ‘campus’ in their community they are allowed to remain at home rather than leave for college. “It’s a challenge for our students,” said Erjavec. It would be a seven-or-eight-hour drive across two mountain passes for those students to get to Pueblo, she said. Erjavec has made the drive enough times to know the challenge on a personal level. PCC’s educational model of delivering education to a rural population is a 21st century answer to an age-old problem.
Erjavec has also overseen an evolution or revolution in the traditional college academic calendar. “We have gone from the 16-week semester to 8-week programs and Friday-only courses,” she said. Students can also attend class on-line. “We continually look at what we need to do to provide access and affordability.”
While PCC’s enrollment hovers around 7,000, Erjavec said the economy dictates its ebbs and flows. “I came in right when enrollment was very high,” she said. Her 2010 appointment coincided with an economy just beginning to recover from a crippling economic downturn. “I wasn’t able to enjoy much of that ride,” she recalled. Enrollment was high because a lot of students were impacted by the recession and looking to retrain.
While the school, whose mascot is the Panther, offers no intercollegiate athletics that was not always the case. PCC, then Pueblo Junior College (PJC), won Colorado’s first national championship in any sport. In 1961, PJC was the best junior college hoops team in the nation. It finished the year with a 34-2 record. The team had the player of the year and the coach of the year. It also had All-America and future NBA players.
The next horizon for PCC could be more ephemeral. “We’re thinking about adding e-sports,” said Erjavec. E-sports are exactly what they sound like. Big and small schools are now competing nationally on the electronic playing field with video games. Watch this space.
But athletics is not what sells PCC to companies considering Pueblo for relocation. “It’s the quality of the product coming out of PCC,” said Rod Slyhoff, President of the Greater Pueblo Chamber of Commerce. “We tell everyone about it,” he said. “It’s one of our greatest assets.”