Education

A College Found Explosive Growth Through Its Online Programs. Now Its Accreditor Has Put It on Probation.

Eastern Gateway Community College spent the past few years riding a tidal wave of enrollment growth, but its rapid rise has now put the college’s accreditation at risk.

This week, in a blistering 10-page letter, the Higher Learning Commission announced that it had placed the eastern Ohio college on probation, with the college’s accreditation to be further reviewed two years from now.

The accreditor faulted Eastern Gateway for unchecked growth — while lacking a strong commitment to maintaining academic standards.

“The institution presented no evidence to support that the present business model provides a high-quality educational experience for students,” Barbara Gellman-Danley, president of the accrediting commission, wrote. “Concerns have been raised about faculty and staff hiring and development; the number of full-time faculty for several academic programs; lead faculty to adjunct faculty ratios; student dissatisfaction with the quality of advising and engagement with adjunct faculty; lack of ongoing, consistent review of learning outcomes; and low long-term completion rates.”

College officials say they have already responded to many of the accreditor’s criticisms, and are taking corrective action. For example, the college hired five full-time faculty members this year, with 10 additional full-time positions budgeted for next year.

In staff meetings this week, President Michael J. Geoghegan of Eastern Gateway complained to employees that the college has been treated unfairly by its accreditor, according to witnesses.

Nevertheless, Geoghegan reassured his staff that the college would emerge from this setback “better and stronger than ever.”

Eastern Gateway’s meteoric rise in enrollments can be traced to a free-college program that it offers to members of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees-AFL-CIO, a large public-employee trade union.

The sales pitch is simple: Union members, and their families, can get a community-college degree with no debt, as long as they apply for federal financial aid. Many of these employees qualify for federal Pell Grants, so those grants absorb much of the tuition cost. The union also offers tuition assistance to its members, and if there is any money due after that, Eastern Gateway waives the remaining balance.

“It’s innovative, it’s very different,” Amanda Wurst, a senior vice president of communications at the college, told The Chronicle in an interview. “It’s something that we’re hearing in the national dialogue all the time. How to do free college?”

Exponential Growth

In 2015, the college enrolled roughly 3,000 students. By last year, its student headcount had mushroomed to over 40,000 students — almost entirely online.

Eastern Gateway hired an online-program-management company, the Student Resource Center, to help run the free-online-college program. The company splits the profits from the program with the college.

Last year, the college expanded its free-college offer to local students from the surrounding four-county area as well.

An official from the public employees’ union did not return an email on Wednesday seeking comment. College officials say the union is still supportive of the free-college program following the Higher Learning Commission’s probation decision.

But from the beginning of Eastern Gateway’s online expansion, some employees have expressed concern that growing exponentially would ultimately hurt academic quality. Eastern Gateway’s admissions recruiters had enrollment targets to hit, and the pressure surfaced early on to streamline the admissions process so that union members could enroll quicker.

In an email sent to then-President Jimmie Bruce, in 2015, a vice president with the online-program-management company suggested that some certified police officers “should be given the option to register without the college transcripts.”

“I’m willing to look at policy,” the president wrote back. “Data are promising.”

That email was one of many obtained by Americans for Fair Treatment, a nonprofit that is skeptical of unions and believes “all public-sector employees should have the freedom to choose to join a union or to abstain from joining a government union.” The group shared its email records from Eastern Gateway with The Chronicle.

Flash forward to today, and students in the online free-college program are able to enroll without taking academic placement tests. Traditional on-campus students from the community still have to take those same placement tests.

HLC, the accreditor, cited the uneven admissions standards in its probation decision.

“The policy regarding placement testing only for on-campus students creates barriers for the population,” the accreditor wrote.

Vanessa Birney, the college’s vice president for institutional effectiveness,said Eastern Gateway has maintained its academic integrity throughout its expansion, and, for prospective students, “our enrollment process is the same, the steps are the same … with the exception of completing the placement test.”

Birney acknowledged that, while on probation, Eastern Gateway will face an uphill battle when it comes to adding new programs, as any new academic offerings must be approved by HLC, which might be hesitant under the current circumstances.

Still, administrators say they are confident that new students will continue to choose the college, and that the current issues will be resolved.

“We are accredited, financial aid is not impacted,” Wurst said. “This is a two-year process where we work through the feedback and get into compliance with HLC. There are next steps.”


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