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Eastern Gateway Community College

Kevin Stringham is a welder and a student government leader at Eastern Gateway Community College in Ohio—which he attends for free and online from his home in east Texas. He is also a member of the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters union, and one of tens of thousands of union members to benefit from an unusual partnership between the college and an online program management company that offers union members and their families a free education at Eastern Gateway.

What Stringham laconically refers to as a “good deal” has become so popular that Eastern Gateway’s enrollment surged from 3,000 students in 2015 to more than 46,000—a majority of whom are attending online—this year. As far as the college’s accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission, is concerned, the “good deal” students like Stringham may think they’re getting is anything but, and that’s why the commission placed the college on a two-year probation this week. The commission determined that Eastern Gateway’s partnership with the online program management company Student Resource Center (SRC) has led to dramatic revenue gains for the college—without any evidence that students get a good education in return.

Most of the enrollment surge is due to what Eastern Gateway calls its Union Free College Benefit program. Eastern Gateway currently has 46,606 enrolled students, 43,890 of whom are union members attending for free thanks to the largess of their unions, who help pay their tuition.

In a scorching rebuke of Eastern Gateway leadership, HLC president Barbara Gellman-Danley wrote in a letter to the college released Monday that there is no evidence Eastern Gateway’s free-college-for-union-members business model provides a high-quality education. She listed several areas of concern, including the paltry number of full-time faculty, poor lead faculty–to–adjunct faculty ratios, student dissatisfaction with the quality of advising and engagement with adjunct faculty, and low long-term completion rates, among other failings.

In addition to being put on probation, Eastern Gateway must supply evidence by February 2023 that it has addressed the commission’s concerns. The commission’s letter said the institution must host peer reviewers who will conduct a comprehensive evaluation, no later than April 2023, to determine whether the college has adequately addressed the problems flagged by the commission. The commission will announce in November 2023 whether Eastern Gateway will be taken off probation or further punished, including by potentially losing its accreditation.

Stringham, who is majoring in business at Eastern Gateway, decided to enroll because he never went to college and wanted to take advantage of the free tuition offer to better himself. He said he makes about $160,000 a year as a union welder and learned about the option to attend college for free when his union hall sent out a letter recruiting members to attend Eastern Gateway—and even extended the offer to family members. Stringham, 38, is now trying to convince his sister to attend the institution using his union benefit.

He said attending the college is “just something to do with my free time,” but he is displeased nonetheless with the quality of the teaching.

“I felt like the teachers didn’t know as much about the course material as I do,” Stringham said. “If you’re teaching a programming class, you ought to be able to answer the questions.”

Stringham has enjoyed his time on the student government, which he said includes other union members. The group meets over Zoom a few times a month, with members connecting from locations as far-flung as Arizona, California, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York and Washington.

While most states limit public college subsidies to in-state students, because they prioritize serving taxpayers in their home states, Eastern Gateway can offer its online programs in any state. That’s in part because Ohio participates in the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (SARA) and Eastern Gateway is a SARA member, according to Amanda Wurst, an Eastern Gateway spokesperson.

All but 3,491 of the 46,606 students enrolled at the college take classes exclusively online. These students typically qualify for federal Pell Grants, Wurst said, and the unions make up much of the balance of the costs, with Eastern Gateway kicking in “last-dollar” scholarships. More than 10,000 of the currently enrolled students are members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Many other unions, including the Service Employees International Union, the Fraternal Order of Police and the Teamsters, participate in the Union Free College Benefit program offered by Eastern Gateway, but AFSCME members are more than double the next-largest union membership to attend. AFSCME did not return a call seeking comment.

Wurst said Eastern Gateway’s leaders are disappointed by the sanctions imposed by the Higher Learning Commission but intend to work hard to improve over the next two years while on probation.

“No one wants to be out of compliance with their regulator,” Wurst said. “We will ensure that over the next two years we’re not only meeting their … core criteria but exceeding them.”

Wurst said the accreditor’s “very specific feedback” will be helpful to the college’s administrators as they implement changes. She noted that course credits can still be transferred, the institution can still confer degrees and students can still receive financial aid while the college is on probation.

Since 2017, when SRC, the online program manager (OPM) that works with the college, first entered into an agreement with the college to help run AFSCME’s Free College Benefit program, SRC has taken 50 percent of the net operating income from the arrangement, Wurst said. She said SRC facilitates communication with unions and creates marketing materials for them to give to members. SRC also supports enrollment services and even provides academic advising.

The accreditor found many shortcomings in Eastern Gateway’s advising, noting that the “ability for students to receive adequate, timely advising has been uneven.” The accreditor cited the fact that online students are only able to meet with their academic advisers prior to any transcript evaluation, which “makes it difficult to plan because they do not know what courses will be accepted as transfer credit.”

Students aren’t assigned an adviser and must instead schedule appointments to receive time with an adviser, the accreditor’s letter said. The commission also noted that 16,303 appointments were scheduled in August 2020, but only 13,480 appointments were available. According to the most recent filing by Eastern Gateway to the commission, the college had just 67 full-time and 1,223 part-time faculty for what was then 38,613 students.

Wurst said the college hired three new full-time faculty in recent months and plans to add five more before June, with the intention of increasing total full-time faculty to 100 within three years. She said that the institution has been able to sustain such dramatic growth in recent years thanks to the “scalability” of part-time adjunct faculty.

“They are the executors of the curriculum that has been prepared by our full-time faculty,” she said.

The Higher Learning Commission letter said the student-to-faculty ratio reported by Eastern Gateway is now 46 to one and that nine academic programs did not have full-time faculty assigned.

“It is not clear who is responsible for completing a thorough review of course quality and academic program review,” Gellman-Danley wrote. “No evidence has been presented indicating that part-time faculty are available to meet with students beyond responses posted in the learning management system.”

Gellman-Danley said that each lead faculty member for online courses is assigned to review 30 to 50 sections taught by online adjunct faculty members.

Wurst said that while Eastern Gateway administrators intend to address the accreditor’s concerns and improve their standing, there is no plan to discontinue the Union Free College Benefit, which has fueled the explosive enrollment growth.

“I would invite anyone from outside our organization who has criticisms or concerns about our business model to attend our graduation ceremony,” Wurst said. “We had people from as far away as Alaska fly to Youngstown … Our first graduate across the stage needed assistance, she was so overcome by emotion.”

Wurst recalled a mother who is a union member and who couldn’t attend college decades ago because she was pregnant, who graduated alongside her now-grown daughter, who attended Eastern Gateway for free thanks to her mother’s union membership.

“When you look at landscape of higher ed right now, community college and four-year university are seeing enrollment declines, and we are seeing growth,” Wurst said. “We are bucking the trends, and that stands out, of course.”

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