Ohio college giving free classes to union members causing hitch in state budget talks

Ohio subsidizing college for students from all 50 states, plus U.S. territories, DeWine admin says

In just a few short years, Eastern Gateway Community College more than quadrupled its enrollment by marketing free online college classes to union members across the nation.

The funding of that program is now a sticking point in budget negotiations between the Ohio House and Senate.

Gov. Mike DeWine’s budget would close a loophole used by Eastern Gateway to use state share of instruction – SSI – to help fund these online classes. The House removed that language. The Senate wants to add it back into the budget bill.

State Rep. Ryan Smith, R-Bidwell, the former speaker of the House, got shut down when he tried to amend the budget on the House floor to remove the loophole. He argued that SSI funding at community colleges should only be used for in-state students – not those from California, Hawaii or elsewhere.

“I don’t think our taxpayers want us to fund (out of state students’) education. If they want to move here and work here, we’d love to have them,” Smith argued.

Eastern Gateway President Jimmie Bruce boasted during testimony on the budget bill that the college, with campuses in Stuebenville and Youngstown, attracted 14,000 online students. Eastern Gateway’s total enrollment was 2,095 a decade ago.

DeWine Press Secretary Dan Tierney noted that the EGCC online program has students enrolled from all 50 states and U.S. territories in the South Pacific. “The governor didn’t feel it was fair for Ohio taxpayers to subsidize the education of students that have no connection to the state of Ohio — folks who don’t live here or work here,” Tierney said. DeWine still supports language to close the loophole, he said.

In June 2017, Eastern Gateway partnered with Student Resources Center, based in Rhode Island, to help design online courses and market them to members of state and national unions, according to a state audit.

The more students Eastern Gateway enrolls and the more benchmarks it hits, the more SSI money it receives. That means there is less in the SSI pie for the other 23 community colleges to split.

“It’s a PacMan of the state share of instruction because of the growth they’re seeing,” Smith said.

Senate Finance Chairman Matt Dolan, R-Chagrin Falls, expressed the same concerns.

Ohio Association of Community Colleges President Jack Hershey told lawmakers that “Unless this loophole is closed, students in New York City, Tacoma, San Francisco and Honolulu could take an online class without ever stepping foot in this state, and Ohio taxpayers would be on the hook to help subsidize their education.”

He noted that in-state students taking online classes would remain eligible for SSI funding under DeWine’s budget.

Sinclair Community College Vice President for Advancement Adam Murka said SCC supports the Ohio Association of Community Colleges position and wants to make sure education resources are available for Ohioans.

Eastern Gateway Community College President Jimmie Bruce said in testimony on the budget bill that online education has shattered traditional boundaries and his institution has become the fastest growing college in the country serving those students.

Bruce noted that a small portion of SSI is awarded based on expanded enrollment — so Eastern Gateway has seen a $1 million bump, which has been used to hire Ohio faculty and staff.

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