(WKBN) – Eastern Gateway has announced it may be ending its Free College Benefit Program.

In a letter sent to us by a viewer, the Federal Student Aid Office of the U.S. Department of Education addressed the college over concerns with potential violations of the program.

The letter states, “this program, as currently implemented, violates the Title IV prohibition against assessing charges to Title IV recipients that are higher than those charges assessed to non-Title IV recipients.”

The letter states that a review of the college began in February, and that’s when the U.S. Department of Education obtained information on the Free College Benefit Program. The program review is still ongoing, but in the meantime, it will cease.

The letter provided a breakdown of how the program violates policy.

According to the letter, the school is supposed to use scholarships to pay for the tuition of its students. This is to be done for all students who receive the Federal Pell Grants and other state or federal grants and have a remaining balance, as well as students who don’t qualify for grants.

However, during the review, it was uncovered that no such scholarship exists, and there is no outside entity actually paying those balances, according to the letter. The balances are simply being waived and reduced to zero, with no funding being applied.

The letter states this is a direct violation of the Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended, 20 U.S.C. 1070 et seq. (Title IV) because it means students who receive grants are being charged more than those who don’t receive grants.

This policy states that a student receiving Title IV assistance cannot be assessed charges higher than a student who does not receive it.

A news release posted on Eastern Gateway Community College’s website did not specifically address the concerns in the letter, but the release does say that the college disagrees with the Department of Education’s analysis and says its Free College Benefit Program is fully compliant with federal law.

WKBN reached out to Eastern Gateway officials, but they have not called back.

“We vigorously disagree with their analysis and recommendations and have incorporated our objections and legal counsel’s analysis in a letter to the Secretary of the US Department of Education and his top deputies,” stated President Michael Geoghegan in the release. “Until this issue is resolved, which we hope will be soon, we will continue to enroll students and notify new and prospective students of the situation, which we hope will be resolved quickly.”

According to the letter, when questions were raised during this review, Eastern Gateway submitted a memo denying that the college program violates the Title IV statute. It provided four examples of scholarship programs other colleges and universities use that EGCC believes are similar to its Free College Program.

The letter states that the department reviewed those examples and determined they are not the same as EGCC’s program.

The letter states, “It should be noted that under the Free College Benefit Program, students with lower levels of need have a higher “write-off” and ultimately fewer charges that the needier Pell students.”

Moving forward, EGCC cannot disburse Pell funds to any new students enrolling in the Free College Benefit Program until it is redesigned to charge full tuition and fees to all non-Pell eligible students. This means EGCC must cease waiving the tuition fees for non-Pell students, the letter provided to WKBN states.

Senior Vice President and Chief Student Affairs Officer Christina Wanat stated in Eastern Gateway’s release that they are working to resolve the issue.

“EGCC understands that Pell Grant funding is necessary for many students to access higher education,” said Wanat. “We understand that this may cause significant difficulty and hardship for our Free College students, and we are working hard to resolve this for them.” 

The release states that more than 75,000 students participating in the Free College program have enrolled at EGCC since 2015, saving students over $175 million. It goes on to state that the college is notifying students who are enrolled in the Free College Benefit program at EGCC for the Fall 2022 semester or planning to enroll to not anticipate receiving any Pell grant funding until this matter with the Department of Education is resolved.

Eastern Gateway adds that it is seeking assistance from its congressional representatives in the matter.