YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – At a time when public colleges and universities see declines in enrollment, Eastern Gateway Community College is posting gains in acquiring and keeping its students.
Before the pandemic, 88% of EGCC students were enrolled in online courses. Offering curriculum online proved to be “a real shot in the arm for us” in terms of enrollment during the pandemic, EGCC President Michael Geoghegan says.
“Our enrollment in fall of 2020, six months after COVID hit, was 50% higher than it was in the fall of 2019,” Geoghegan says.
Total enrollment for fall 2021 at EGCC is 47,015 on both campuses and online, which is up from 40,033 in fall 2020 and up from 25,638 in 2019. Students from the four-county district it serves, by comparison, was 3,518 in fall 2021.
Enrollment is underway for spring semester, which Geoghegan estimates will be up 5% year-over-year.
Those enrollment increases buck the national trend, which saw fall 2021 enrollment at community colleges and two-year schools drop 14% from 2019, according to U.S. News.
Geoghegan credits the success at Eastern Gateway to its virtual education infrastructure.
“Because of the investments we made internally in technology, our student information system and our learning management system, it is very easy for students to attend Eastern Gateway,” he says.
Students can access course material on their time, which is beneficial since most of the students at EGCC work full- or part-time, he says. A new phone app increases that accessibility, letting students view their schedules and current classes, access the latest campus information and even do some coursework on their phones.
Through its free college benefit program, EGCC has minimized some barriers to enrollment for students from Mahoning, Columbiana, Trumbull and Jefferson counties. The benefit covers tuition, fees or books not covered by federal or employer education grants.
After completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, students must agree to limit any loans they receive to $1,000, he says.
“Our focus is on giving students the opportunity to get a community college degree and a workforce credential,” Geoghegan says. “We don’t want them leaving with a heavy burden of debt.”
EGCC enrolls a diverse student body, 70% of whom are female and 40% are students of color. The average student age is 34. The EGCC student profile is a 36-year-old working mother of two, he says.
Now, EGCC is turning its attention toward high school students. Currently, it enrolls about 1,500 high school students through the Ohio College Credit Plus program, which allows students to simultaneously earn college and high school credits by taking EGCC courses.
Courses and instructional materials are free for the students. All College Credit Plus students are considered EGCC students and can transfer their credits to more than 1,000 Ohio colleges and universities.
In 2020, EGCC graduated 62 students from the program, who each earned a two-year degree in the process “and really never set foot on the campus,” Geoghegan says.
During one of the peaks of the pandemic in spring 2021, all in-seat courses were remote, including welding and health care programs with clinicals. EGCC was able to get students back in-person during the summer to finish the spring semester.
Since returning, online enrollment has increased to about 95% of the student body, he says. EGCC had to pull back a bit on in-seat courses because of the delta variant driving spikes in COVID cases, he says. “We’re looking for the spring to bring everybody back” to other in-seat programs.
More than half of the EGCC workforce is also working remote, he notes.
“We couldn’t have done that. We couldn’t have pivoted. We couldn’t have been as successful as we were when COVID hit if we didn’t have all of these sorts of investments in place at the time,” Geoghegan says.
Those investments have also helped EGCC to combat, to some extent, the demographic cliff that is shrinking enrollment at institutions of higher education across the United States.
EGCC recently elected its first student government association. Its president, Jeanette-Fe Rizzo, lives and works in Los Angeles.
“Our community college has to be one-of-a-kind in the country in the sense that we have students from all 50 states,” Geoghegan says.
Drawing out-of-state students with online enrollment is a financial boon to the region as well, Geoghegan says.
“The Pell [Grant] monies that they’re using come right into our service district,” he says. “It allowed us to be able to purchase our two buildings here.”
In June 2020, the Ohio Controlling Board approved EGCC’s request to buy what is now Thomas Humphries Hall at 101 E. Federal St. and the Healthcare Workforce Building at 101 E. Boardman St. for a combined $9.69 million.
In addition to enrollment, EGCC continues to improve its retention rate, says Art Daly, senior vice president for the Youngstown campus.
From fall 2019 to 2020, the retention rate collegewide was 57.1%. It has increased steadily since fall 2016 to 2017, when it was 49%.
Daly attributes those increases to the EGCC support for students to overcome various barriers to education – not just financial. Regardless of class size, faculty and adjunct faculty focus on giving each student the attention needed for successful outcomes and graduation, he says.
“Sometimes we have first-generation students that come through our institution and we have the support to make sure that we don’t lose them through the cracks,” Daly says. “We make sure our faculty are definitely engaging, because I know that can be a critical piece.”
EGCC also focuses on job placement after graduation, Daly notes.
“We were speaking with the CEO of Mercy Health and at any one time they’ve got 350 nurse openings,” Geoghegan says. “We want to help fill that pipeline.”
Eastern Gateway is working to expand its nursing programs to meet that need. The community college has 200 nursing students enrolled and another 68 coming into the program between this spring and the fall of 2022, Daly says.
“Because we know there’s an aging population, there’s a health crisis that we have for some of our older folks that are living in some of these assisted living places. And they need help and hospital settings are overburdened,” he says.
In January, the Youngstown campus will add a radiology technology program, which is already offered at the Steubenville campus.
The Youngstown campus is also promoting other programs, such as medical assisting and health-information management, all of which can be done online. Future post-graduate certifications being considered include mammography, MRI and CT scanning.
“We see the areas of opportunity and need,” Daly says. “And that’s exactly where we want to be.”
One area of expansion is establishing a badging system that will allow students to front-load their course work with focus-area classes to earn a credential while they still attend school. Another is a new program to certify technicians for electric-vehicle charging stations.
Eastern Gateway looks to have its additive manufacturing program, in collaboration with America Makes, established by fall 2022, possibly with a makerspace on campus, Daly says. Also, EGCC trains workers at Ultium Cells LLC in Lordstown on programmable logic control systems.
Ensuring students find employment after graduation is part of EGCC’s accreditation.
In early November, the Higher Learning Commission placed the community college on probation for up to two years, changing its accreditation status to “Accredited – On Probation.”
The action followed a comprehensive evaluation by the commission in November 2020.
Geoghegan dismissed the findings as related to operational issues under the former EGCC president, Jimmie Bruce, such as how it vets faculty, he says.
“We went back and forth with the accreditor because we just didn’t agree with their findings,” Geoghegan says. “But their findings are pretty autonomous.”
The probation period doesn’t affect financial aid and students will still be able to graduate or transfer, he says. He allows, however, that some private schools might not transfer their credits because of the probation status.
EGCC is scheduling listening sessions for students and updating its website at EGCC.edu with the latest information. “So far, we haven’t had a lot of concern from our students,” he says.
And Geoghegan says he’s “fully confident” Eastern Gateway is close to getting back to being fully accredited. The community college needs to complete an assurance argument based on five criteria.
A draft will be ready by next fall. It will be submitted to the commission for review in February 2023, he says.
Hiring a vice president of institutional effectiveness is one of the first steps the college has taken. That will address the internal processes for assessing and documenting student and program outcomes, he says.
“We’re having project teams set up for each of the five criteria that will be led by our vice president of institutional effectiveness,” Geoghegan says. “We hired a new assessment coordinator, who will be our academic liaison officer with the accreditor. They’re already working very well together.
“We’re not going to wait until the last minute. We’re going to make sure that we’re going to be in constant communication with our liaison officer,” he says.
Pictured: Art Daly, senior vice president for Eastern Gateway Community College Youngstown campus, and EGCC President Michael Geoghegan review the college’s strategic plan.