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Eastern Gateway faculty wonder what's next for the troubled community college

The front of Eastern Gateway Community College's Youngstown campus. The financially troubled community college has "paused" all enrollment and its students will need to enroll at other colleges to continue their education for the time being.
Karen S. Kastner
The front of Eastern Gateway Community College's Youngstown campus. The financially troubled community college has "paused" all enrollment and its students will need to enroll at other colleges to continue their education for the time being.

Eastern Gateway Community College has been a presence in Steubenville for more than 60 years, but with Wednesday's announcement that the college, which also has a campus in Youngstown, will be "pausing" enrollment for the foreseeable future, many are now wondering how much longer it can stay afloat.

Jim Corrin, president of Eastern Gateway Community College Education Association, along with the Ohio Education Association, called for answers in a press release Thursday, in which he said, many of the school's roughly 400 staff and 9,000 students were blindsided by the news. He said faculty texted him in droves, trying to figure out what will happen to their students.

"Our healthcare students are going to start clinicals this summer. What do we tell them?" Corrin said. "Where are they going to go? You know, we got students that have two classes left to graduate. You know, what do we do?"

The Ohio Department of Education said in its announcement Wednesday that students not set to graduate will need to register for summer or fall semester classes at other colleges. The department described the reason for the pause as a needed "opportunity for Eastern Gateway to evaluate options to resolve ongoing financial difficulties partly due to delayed federal funding."

Corrin's other main question is, what happens to faculty and staff, after 2,000 students graduate this semester, and the other 7,000 students enroll at other universities?

"So the question is, why would you come in and close the doors this week?" Corrin said. "So that's really the biggest question. You know, who's responsible for this? Why did it happen? Is it, you know, the the Ohio Department of Higher Ed? Is it our board of trustees? So just a lot of unanswered questions as to why that took place."

The Ohio Auditor and law enforcement agencies executed a search warrant at the college - which has locations in Youngstown and Steubenville - in January over alleged financial irregularities. The college's former president, Jimmie Bruce, and former vice president James Miller were indicted last summer over allegations they stole thousands of dollars from the college, although those charges were dismissed "without prejudice" in January, meaning they can be re-filed again.

The college was ordered to halt enrollment temporarily last year over possible violation of federal law, in connection with how it handled student scholarships through its "Free College Benefit Program,"which has since been cancelled. Students were able to attend the college for free if they or a family member were a member of a union.

Corrin said enrollment dropped significantly after that program was cancelled.

"This program was life changing to some of these students," he said. "It gave students the opportunity that never had a chance to go to college before because of financial reasons."

Tammy Graham, director of the dental assisting program at Eastern Gateway, has worked at the school for 21 years. She noted many students are attending Eastern Gateway because it's affordable and close to home. She said enrolling at other colleges isn't a good solution for many, considering how far away they are and the cost of tuition.

"I can tell you a lot of these classes (courses) aren't going to be accepted at these other colleges and they're going to make money off of these kids," she said. "And some kids will just quit because of the struggle of going to another institution."

She said many are worried Eastern Gateway is going to close permanently. The college already laid off about 40 people in January due to the downturn in enrollment.

"This this is going to be an economic disaster for a lot of these families," she said.

John Crooks, interim president of Eastern Gateway, notified students and faculty of the news of the pause in enrollment the morning after the Ohio Department of Higher Education announcement. He said the college is working with the state to keep the college running.

"We are working with the Ohio Department of Education to not only preserve Eastern Gateway, the public institution of higher education, but also to help our dedicated faculty and staff as we pause enrollment," he wrote. "I wish I had more information to share with you. I will tell you that I have as many questions as you have, and I’m working to get answers for all of us. This is very difficult for all of us because we are a family at Eastern Gateway and we care about each other deeply."

Carrie Wallace, an Eastern Gateway alumna from Adena, said she loved her experience with her teachers at the community college. She took classes with Graham, and got her degree to became a dental assistant without incurring as much student debt as others might have.

"I saved so much money by going to the community college and utilizing it to my best advantage," she explained. "It's a shame that other students won't even have that opportunity to get prerequisites done there and then transfer out elsewhere to save a little bit of money. And in this economy, you need that just starting out."

Graham said the college and its staff and students have done a lot to benefit the region. She's also director of a dental clinic that students and local dentists volunteer at, providing free dental care to area residents.

"This is a community college," she said. "It's for the people in the community. And if they take it away, that's they're doing a disservice to the public."

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.