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Online education is a double-edged sword

I’ve written recently about Eastern Gateway Community College and its identity crisis. On one hand, it wants to function as it always has – as a publicly funded community college. On the other hand, the lure of the deal it has made with labor unions to provide online education for their members is tearing it apart.

Before EGCC shook hands with the labor unions, it had an enrollment of about 2,100 students. That’s average for a community college. Yet thanks to The Deal, EGCC has an enrollment of nearly 47,000 students. Jefferson County itself has a population of just over 65,000 people. EGCC is situated in rural Jefferson County, OH. Thirty miles to the east is Pittsburgh. Twenty miles to the south is Wheeling, WV.

EGCC’s transformation into an online education factory has not been without its lumps, the most recent of which was delivered last week by the Higher Learning Commission. The HLC has placed EGCC on academic probation, which could lead to EGCC losing its accreditation. According to the HLC, EGCC has just two years to correct an enormous punch list that renders its online learning diplomas worthless.

(This seems to be borne out by Wallet Hub’s 2021 survey of the best and worst community colleges. EGCC ranked dead last among Ohio’s community colleges and second-worst overall in the United States. It also ranked last in the nation on per-pupil spending.)

Online education programs break the funding model

The Ohio State Legislature also had a bone to pick with EGCC. The State of Ohio used an antiquated headcount-based formula to fund its community colleges. The more students a college had, the more money it received from Columbus. That funding model rewards simple quantity over quality, so many states have moved away from it. (Michigan uses a modified version of this approach, placing “strategic” value on certain “dashboard-friendly” characteristics.)

At some point (maybe right now), the residents of Jefferson County need to ask themselves about their rationale for authorizing a community college in the first place. Local taxation is at the heart of the funding model for many community colleges, including those in Michigan. If residents are forking over tax dollars to build an institution that its leaders turn around and rent out to others outside the community, what benefit is there to the residents?

Losing accreditation is a lights-out moment for most colleges. It means that students are no longer eligible for federal financial aid. Other institutions don’t transfer credits from unaccredited institutions. Students who graduate from an unaccredited institution cannot receive professional licensure. It’s a big deal. And ironically, if EGCC loses its accreditation, it will also lose the AFSCME/AFL-CIO deal.

And it is virtually impossible to shift an institution’s culture in the space of two years. There’s a lot of work to be done and very little time in which to do it. One of the HLC’s chief complaints was the ratio of full-time faculty (67) and part-time faculty (1,223) to EGCC’s nearly 39,000 students. Fixing this isn’t as simple as hiring more teachers. Faculty hiring is governed largely as a contractual issue. Changing the terms of the faculty’s collective bargaining agreement may not even be possible until the next time the parties renegotiate the contract.

Following EGCC down the wrong road

The faculty to student ratio is only one facet of HLC’s report. EGCC has a woefully inadequate student advising capability. There is no meaningful review of academic programs. EGCC spent little more than $27,000 over three years on professional development activities. During that time, most of the part-time instructors were excluded from PD opportunities. A large percentage of the faculty do not appear to meet the HLC’s qualification requirements. EGCC also uses atypical metrics to calculate its completion rates, which have not kept pace with enrollment growth.

If the Board of Trustees were interested in preserving EGCC, Job Number One would likely be to fire the President and the Vice President of Instruction. But the Board fired the EGCC president in January 2020 for what it characterized as a dereliction of duty. According to the Board, the president failed to fill key positions at the College and skipped Cabinet meetings. It replaced the president (temporarily, then permanently) with EGCC’s CFO. Yep. The guy with the MBA is now the college’s Chief Executive. Which makes sense if you want to run a college like a business, but community colleges aren’t really businesses.

(Side note: EGCC with 46,600 students has five Vice Presidents.)

Ripple effects from EGCC’s online education plan

But it’s pretty clear that the EGCC Board isn’t interested in providing oversight. They’re focused on the “strategic plan,” which calls for EGCC to enroll 100,000 online education students by 2025. Virtually all of these will be AFSCME/AFL-CIO members. That should be worrisome for community colleges in Michigan, because some of 100,000 online education students will be Michiganders. Nationally, AFSCME has 1.4 million members right now, about 30,000 of which are in Michigan. The Michigan AFL-CIO represents more than 1,000,000 active and retired union members. In 2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that more than 15% of Michigan’s workforce belonged to a union, and that’s up from 13.6% in 2019.

Behind the AFL-CIO are nearly 60 other unions, like the UA. UA members can attend EGCC at no cost to them as part of the AFL-CIO’s relationship with EGCC. (How about that?) Instead of attending their local community colleges, these union members will attend EGCC instead. (That is, if the EGCC survives the HLC.)

Jefferson County, OH is more than 275 miles away. But Washtenaw County could face similar issues if WCC persists in selling discounted online education access to WCC to non-residents.

Washtenaw County voters will have to ask themselves who they built WCC for, and whether continued funding is warranted. If only half of WCC’s enrollment is in-district, we may no longer need a community college of WCC’s size. Do we want to build a multi-billion dollar resource, and then give it away to non-residents for next-to-nothing? Was that why we funded WCC in the first place? Is that what we intended? Has WCC exhausted its enrollment potential in Washtenaw County? And is bringing in an overwhelming volume of non-resident online education students a viable survival strategy?

Photo Credit: Jon Dawson, via Flickr