No Set Time Frame for Eastern Gateway Pause

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The interim president of Eastern Gateway Community College hopes the pause on enrollment and registration may be lifted by fall semester, but it’s not definitive.

“That would be the hope,” John Crooks said.

How long the pause lasts will be determined by college trustees, the Ohio Department of Higher Education and the governor’s office, he said.

The pause will enable a determination of the viability of Eastern Gateway, Crooks said.

College trustees voted at a special meeting Wednesday to pause enrollment and registration beyond the current semester. The pause is designed to provide an opportunity for Eastern Gateway Community College to evaluate options as a result of ongoing financial difficulties partly due to delayed federal funding.

The pause “needs to be as short as possible,” Crooks said.

Youngstown State University and community colleges in the region are stepping up to help Eastern Gateway students continue their education.

Plans also call for YSU to offer in-person classes in Steubenville.

Eastern Gateway is “working with YSU and the Ohio Department of Higher Education to make sure there are options that should work for each and every one of our students,” Crooks said.

Jeff Robinson, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Higher Education, said in an email that Eastern Gateway trustees decided to pause enrollment as the board determines that to be the most responsible course of action while it evaluates options to resolve its financial difficulties.

“A precise time frame for the pause is not known at this time but will be dictated by whatever the board determines to be the best way to move forward,” he said in the email. “Collaborating with Youngstown State University and area community colleges during this pause provides continuity to ensure that students can continue their studies as seamlessly as possible.”

He also said in the email that “how long an institution of higher education retains that status if it is not enrolling students, that would be determined by regulatory entities including the Higher Learning Commission and U.S. Department of Education and would be dependent on a number of factors that will evolve over time.”

A U.S. Department of Education spokesman said via email that Eastern Gateway’s decision to pause enrollments has no immediate effect on the school’s status as a participant in the Federal Student Aid programs.

Eastern Gateway has been under Heightened Cash Monitoring 2 by the U.S. Department of Education since August 2022. That means the college had to use its own resources to credit student accounts and wait for federal student aid reimbursements from the federal department.

The college received a letter Jan. 12 directing that reimbursements from the department to the college be placed in escrow. That led to the decision to pause enrollment and registration.

Crooks said the college is working with the Ohio Department of Higher Education and the governor’s office to determine how the pause affects employees. He recognizes that employees want answers “sooner rather than later.”

The college will return March 4 to the Ohio Controlling Board to request a third advance on its state share of instruction funding. That follows a $3 million advance in August to sustain the college cash flow and a $6 million advance in December.

With the December advance, the ODHE attached a list of conditions that the college had to meet, including development of a financial recovery plan, review of the college’s organizational structure, review and elimination of nonessential expenses and enactment of internal expense controls.

Also as part of the conditions, by March 1, “a determination shall be made regarding opening for the summer/fall semesters, based on the anticipated financial viability of the institution in the long term.”

The college has faced a series of problems over the past few years. Besides the Heightened Cash Monitoring 2 status, the Higher Learning Commission, an accrediting body, placed Eastern Gateway on probation in November 2021, citing several issues.

Some of those issues have been resolved, but last November, HLC determined that the probation designation should stand. The accrediting agency is expected to visit campus again this spring and determine the college’s accreditation status late this year.

In December, state and federal agents and officers searched offices at the main campus in Steubenville. Cuts including employee layoffs have been enacted. 

Many of the issues can be traced to the Free College Benefit program through which union members from across the country took classes and earned degrees at no cost to them. That program was offered through a partnership with a third-party for-profit company, Student Resource Center.

During the program, enrollment swelled to more than 40,000, up from about 4,000.

But the U.S. Department of Education ordered an end to the program in 2022, charging that students who received Pell grants were paying more than those who didn’t. Eastern Gateway sued, but through a settlement, the free college program ended last year.

Enrollment this spring is down more than 63% from where it was a year ago.

Eastern Gateway ended its contract with SRC, and the company sued the college. That case is still pending. Another company bought SRC and sued its former owners. That case also is ongoing.

Despite its challenges, Crooks points to the importance of the college to the area. It started in Steubenville as Jefferson Community College and expanded its service area to the Mahoning Valley in 2009, changing its name to Eastern Gateway.

“Eastern Gateway Community College has been in the Mahoning Valley and the Ohio Valley for over 50 years,” he said. “It’s been very important to the regional economy, and our goal is to make sure that the people of our service district – Jefferson, Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties – will continue to have that educational opportunity.”

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.