Group Vows to Fight to Keep Eastern Gateway Open

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Members of a community group that collected signatures and rallied support to bring a community college to the Mahoning Valley 14 years ago vowed to revamp its efforts to keep Eastern Gateway Community College open.

“I’m hurt, I’m disappointed and I’m angry,” Rosetta Carter, executive director of the Alliance for Congregational Transformation Influencing Our Neighborhoods, or Action, said at a news conference Tuesday after Eastern Gateway’s decision to pause enrollment and registration after this semester.

She said the group plans to meet with college and Youngstown State University officials, legislators, elected officials and Gov. Mike DeWine in an effort to keep the college open.

Action collected signatures and met with elected and appointed officials to bring a community college to the Mahoning Valley. Eastern Gateway, formerly Jefferson Community College, expanded from Steubenville to downtown Youngstown in 2009. 

“We’re not here to stir up trouble,” Carter said. “We’re here to make a difference. That’s what Action is about.”

College trustees voted to pause enrollment and registration at a meeting last week to evaluate options to resolve ongoing financial difficulties partly due to delayed federal funding.

There’s no word on if or when Eastern Gateway will resume enrolling students.

“We will not, we will not, let Eastern Gateway go to the side,” Carter said. “We are very passionate about it.”

YSU and other Ohio community colleges are to welcome Eastern Gateway students, according to a news release last week from the Ohio Department of Higher Education.

But Action members worry that many Eastern Gateway students won’t be able to afford the higher tuition.

Rev. Jeffrey Stanford, lead organizer of Action, said the group is worried about students as well as faculty and other employees who may lose their jobs. He also disagrees that the decision to pause enrollment is about money.

“It’s not about money,” he said. “It’s about priorities. Our students, our city has to be a priority.”

Stanford said his daughter is among the last students who will earn their degrees before the enrollment pause, but he sees the pain on her face when she talks about her classmates who may have to enroll somewhere else.

He encouraged others to get involved by contacting the organization.

Rev. John-Michael Oliver, a member of the Action clergy council, said the organization is in the Mahoning Valley to encourage, galvanize and call out for those to help keep Eastern Gateway open and in Youngstown.

“If you’re a resident or a citizen of this Mahoning Valley, we ask you, come join and partner with us and do your part,” he said.

The joint news release from ODHE and Eastern Gateway last week said ODHE will coordinate with the Higher Learning Commission, the U.S. Department of Education and other academic and regulatory bodies as necessary on the implementation of the arrangement, with planned approval for YSU to offer in-person classes in Steubenville for the benefit of Jefferson County. 

The college has been wrestling with a series of problems over the past few years. It’s on probation with the Higher Learning Commission, and the U.S. DOE placed the college on Heightened Cash Monitoring 2 and ordered it to stop its Free College Benefit Program. The Heightened Cash Monitoring 2 means the college had to use its own resources to credit student accounts and wait for federal student aid reimbursements from the federal department.

In a statement, the Higher Learning Commission said, “… the HLC Board has authority to withdraw an institution’s accreditation if it ceases to operate as a higher education institution.  HLC would have to look first at what the institution’s pause entails before evaluating whether to take any kind of action. HLC’s goal is to see that students have quality options to continue their education. This is why, in particular circumstances, HLC requires institutions to work toward having a provisional plan in place that includes teach out agreements for the benefit of students.”

Much of Eastern Gateway’s trouble can be traced back to its free college benefit program, which it offered to union members and their families through a partnership with a for-profit company. Under that program, enrollment grew to more than 40,000, up from about 4,000 in an average year.

Those students lived across the country and mostly attended classes online.

In 2022 though, the DOE ordered the college to stop the program, saying students who received federal Pell grants were paying more than those who didn’t. It prohibited Eastern Gateway from dispersing Pell Grant funds, which accounts for approximately 74.5% of the college’s overall revenue.

The college sued the federal agency, saying the DOE’s actions threatened Eastern Gateway’s continued operation as a community college. The two sides settled in August 2023, and the free college program ended.

Enrollment this semester is down 63% compared with spring 2023.

Pictured at top: From left, Rev. John-Michael Oliver; Kylee Chrastina, marketing coordinator of Action; Rev. Richard Kidd; Rosetta Carter, executive director of Action; Rev. Jeffrey Stanford, lead organizer; Mike Kripchak, a candidate for U.S. Congress; and Ron Fasano and Annie Gillam participate in a news conference about the enrollment pause at Eastern Gateway Community College.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.