Eastern Gateway Closure Will Leave Void

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The man with an Eastern Gateway Community College building in downtown Youngstown named for him worries the closure of the college will harm the local economy.

Others’ perspectives range from concerned to hopeful.

“I’m very disappointed where it’s sitting at this point,” says Thomas Humphries, former longtime CEO of the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber. He worked to bring a community college to the Mahoning Valley.

College trustees voted March 20 to begin the process to dissolve the school June 30 barring an influx of sufficient additional funding by May 31.

Eastern Gateway, based in Steubenville, and formerly known as Jefferson County Community College and Jefferson County Technical College, expanded to the Mahoning Valley in 2009, changing its name to reflect the larger service area. It served Mahoning, Columbiana and Trumbull counties in addition to Jefferson. Eastern Gateway formerly operated a campus in downtown Warren, but it closed a few years ago.

In Youngstown, Eastern Gateway operates in the former Harshman building as well as the parking deck at Boardman and Champion streets. The latter, which includes classrooms and a bookstore, was named Thomas Humphries Hall in 2019 in recognition of Humphries’ work to bring the community college to the area.

Now, he worries about the damage its closure will do to the local economy. Community colleges offer two-year degrees and certificate programs that align with manufacturing and the skilled trades, he says.

“The university system didn’t look very favorably on associate degree programs” at the time Eastern Gateway expanded to the Valley, he says. “…The whole system gets challenged above a high school diploma and below a bachelor’s degree and we’re going to have that void again.”

Youngstown State University plans to have a campus in Steubenville although it hasn’t announced an exact location. The YSU Academic Senate in early March approved 32 associate degrees and certificate programs. The certificates are in sustainable environments, welding, advanced welding, IT professional – essential, IT professional – networking, IT professional – Linux and security, programmable logic controllers and wastewater online. The additional programs aim to facilitate Eastern Gateway students completing their degrees at YSU.

But Rebecca Rose, a YSU spokeswoman, says in an email that YSU may not offer all of the certificates and degrees that Eastern Gateway did. “…The faculty and academic affairs leadership are evaluating programs and determining which programs support the mission of YSU and will integrate into the existing academic portfolio,” she says. “The first step for this was the Academic Senate’s approval of 32 associate and certificates at their last meeting. They will be reviewing additional certificates at their April meeting.”

YSU is not, however, returning to an open enrollment institution, Rose says.

Several community colleges, including Stark State, Belmont and Cuyahoga Community, as well as Kent State University, the adult program at Choffin Career and Technical Center, the Professional Development Center in Youngstown and other organizations have said they’ll work to ease the process for Eastern Gateway students to transfer.

Dubious Distinction

Dissolutions of public higher education institutions in Ohio are rare. In fact, Eastern Gateway may be the first.

“We are not aware of a public higher education institution in Ohio that has previously dissolved,” Jeff Robinson, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Higher Education, says in an email. “However, mergers, acquisitions, and closures of independent institutions (for profit and not for profit) have previously occurred in the state.”

Action’s Perspective

After Eastern Gateway announced in February that it was pausing enrollment after the spring semester, officials at Action – the Alliance for Congregational Transformation Influencing Our Neighborhoods – announced they would fight to keep a community college in the Valley. Before Eastern Gateway expanded to Youngstown, Action had campaigned, gathering 5,000 signatures, to bring a community college to the Valley.

But Rose Carter, Action executive director, says organization representatives met with YSU President Bill Johnson and the organization is happy with how YSU is working to fill the gap.

“They’re not taking over Eastern Gateway, but they’re bringing in a lot of the programs that Eastern Gateway offers,” Carter says.

Action had worried about Eastern Gateway employees losing their jobs when the school closes, too.

“We did find out that a lot of educators, employees that were at Eastern Gateway will go over to YSU as long as they qualify for the positions,” Carter says.

Johnson said March 6 that the number of employees necessary to operate in Steubenville hasn’t been determined.

When Action first took up the cause of a community college in the Valley, it approached YSU first, Carter says.

“Ten years later, we’re really getting what we asked for, what we worked for,” Carter says. “YSU is going to offer some of the things we wanted 10 years ago.”

Jefferson County View

On March 1, the YSU president attended a meeting of school superintendents with the Jefferson County Educational Service Center. He talked about YSU transitioning the College Credit Plus program from Eastern Gateway. CCP enables high school and middle school students to earn college credit before they graduate from high school.

Eastern Gateway Community College is based in Steubenville where it started in the 1960s, serving Jefferson County.

Chuck Kokiko, superintendent of the Jefferson County ESC, says representatives of other community colleges and universities also attended.

“We have 800 students for the fall semester and taking advantage of the College Credit Plus. So it’s a big deal,” Kokiko says. It’s been part of districts’ emphasis to save families money on their children’s post-secondary education.

Other institutions also assured superintendents that they would serve CCP students.

Member superintendents were also concerned about the high school teachers that work as adjunct Eastern Gateway professors to teach CCP.

“We are in the process of getting all of those teachers adjunct status at each of the colleges we’re working with,” Kokiko says.

Eric Timmons, a Jefferson County commissioner, attended the March 1 meeting too. He says the county will feel the impact of the closure of the school.

“It’s a big effect,” he says. Besides the loss of tax revenue, Timmons worries about people losing their jobs. “The employees – my heart goes out to them – we’re fighting to build our economy and to have this happen, my heart goes out to them. It really does, and to the students.”

Jefferson County property owners pay a property tax for the school and county lawyers are researching the effect of the closure on that levy. But Timmons has more immediate concerns as well.

“Jefferson County wants to keep young talent in our area,” he says. “This is something else that could stop them from staying here that we’re going to have to overcome.”

His community needs institutions of higher learning to serve residents and fuel the economy.

“It’s vital that we have some kind of higher ed here,” Timmons says, adding that Franciscan University of Steubenville does a great job. But he’s concerned it may not serve all of the students who attend Eastern Gateway. The community needs workforce education, he says.

Eastern Gateway Woes

Eastern Gateway has faced a bevy of challenges over the last few years and much of the problem can be traced to its free college benefit program. That program offered free college to union members through a contract with an outside provider, Student Resource Center. Enrollment grew to more than 40,000 students from across the country, most of whom attended online classes. Enrollment before the program was about 4,000.

In November 2021, the Higher Learning Commission, an accrediting body, placed the college on probation, citing a litany of issues. The commission kept that designation in place in November 2023. College trustees voted March 20 to voluntarily withdraw from HLC accreditation, effective Nov. 1. That will allow students graduating in May to do so from an accredited college.

In August 2022, the U.S. Department of Education placed Eastern Gateway on Heightened Cash Monitoring 2, meaning the college had to use its own resources to credit student accounts and wait for federal student aid reimbursements from the federal department.

Also in 2022, U.S. DOE ordered the college to end the free college program, saying that Eastern Gateway was charging students who received Pell grants more than those who didn’t.

The college sued the department. The two sides settled the case in August 2023, and the free college program ended. Enrollment this semester is 8,859, down more than 63% compared with a year ago. Eastern Gateway awaits a final report from a U.S. DOE review.

The college received advancements of state subsidies in August and December 2023 as well as this March to help fund its operations including to meet payroll.

On March 8, Ohio Chancellor Mike Duffey declared Eastern Gateway to be in fiscal watch, citing its advance of state subsidy, failure to make payments to vendors, its heightened cash monitoring status with the U.S. Department of Education and its projected deficit.

Valley Void

Humphries expects an educational chasm in the Mahoning Valley in the wake of the Eastern Gateway closure. Looking at northeastern Ohio, every county with a population of at least 100,000 has a community college, except Mahoning and Trumbull, he says.

“That was one of the driving forces in bringing the college here,” he says. “We needed that college and we needed it for our employers.”

Humphries is concerned the distance to the closest community college makes attending them difficult for a lot of Eastern Gateway students.

“They’ll have to travel and in most cases, they’re not able to travel and raise a family and everything else,” he says.

When he was championing the need for a community college in the Valley, the initial thinking was that YSU would be the logical option, Humphries says.

“But the consensus at that time from the state was that YSU couldn’t or shouldn’t be the entity to do that,” he says, explaining that the consensus was of the then-governor and board of regents.

About 78% of the Valley population doesn’t need a bachelor’s degree for their career, but they do need education beyond high school, Humphries says.

“The best place to do that is at a community college,” the retired chamber CEO  explains. “I’m concerned we still need that desperately here. I’m disappointed in the current situation. I wish the state would step up and provide some assistance. And from what I’ve seen, they’ve really stood on the sidelines.”

Pictured at top: An Eastern Gateway Community College building was named for Thomas Humphries, former Regional Chamber CEO.