YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – Eastern Gateway Community College (EGCC) has announced it will suspend the Free College Benefit program once again.

According to a press release from EGCC, after a thorough discussion with college legal counsel and the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, the college has decided that it’s in the best interest of EGCC to move forward with an abundance of caution.

President Michael Geoghegan said the school was permitted to keep administering grants on a call with the department on July 25 but when Geoghegan followed up the next day, he was told it could not continue.

Though enrollment is down 18% this fall, there are about 400 students who enrolled after July 18 that are affected by the decision.

A meeting that was supposed to happen on Wednesday between EGCC and the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) to address their cease and desist letter was postponed by DOE. The DOE requested more time to meet internally in order to respond to the college’s questions sent to them Wednesday.

This comes after the college announced on July 20 that it would have to cease the Free College Benefit program, then on July 26 saying it would continue offering it.

“We understand that this is a frustrating change of direction for our students, our staff, and the EGCC community. However, we know with certainty that this path will align with the most conservative elements of guidance received to date from DOE, and therefore it will avoid further scrutiny or potential misinterpretation while DOE works to provide us with answers. This serves to preserve the integrity of the College and leave zero doubt as to whether we are being compliant with DOE’s current directives,” explained Geoghegan.

EGCC students who have enrolled for fall 2022 courses on or before July 18, 2022, will be able to attend in the fall and use Title IV aid and/or the Free College Benefit. Students who enrolled for fall 2022 courses on or after July 19, 2022, at this time are not eligible for the Free College Benefit and may not utilize Title IV aid.

The release says that the college is diligently working on an alternative funding plan for these students before the fall start and that the college will continue to work with DOE regarding all changes they seek for the Free College Benefit program and will vigorously pursue prompt guidance to move forward quickly and compliantly.

Geoghegan said they’re searching for alternative funding so those students can head off to class on Aug. 15.

The decision comes after a department analysis showed the school is inappropriately assessing charges to beneficiaries of the program — something the school disagrees with.

The cease-and-desist 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.”

When he sent a list of questions to the department asking how best to get in compliance with the program, he said the meeting was canceled.

Here are the questions:

  • What are the options for redesign of the Free College Benefit Program?
  • Is it FSA’s position that last-dollar scholarships must be covered exclusively by outside funding sources, or can institutional funds ever be used to pay all or some of the last-dollar scholarships? If a related entity (e.g., Foundation) is set up, would funding through that entity be considered an “outside” source?
  • Is it FSA’s position that tuition waivers that are applied after an eligible student’s federal financial aid always results in assessing charges to Title IV recipients that are higher than those charges assessed to non-Title IV recipients? Please provide examples, if any, in which tuition waivers do not impact cost of attendance or can allowably be applied after Pell.
  • What financial benchmarks would the college have to document to alleviate concerns about the financial impact of the scholarships?

Geoghegan said he’s received no guidance from the department on the upcoming spring semester — which opens enrollment in Oct.

He said the program lets so many students attend college and he wants to keep offering it in the spring.

One of the many students EGCC surveyed said, “This decision to stop the Free College Benefit program is possibly the most damaging to the determination that I was finally experiencing. Finally, I was able to do something for myself after devoting 16 years to just my three boys and husband. I am tired of just having a job and I finally took the leap to become something, to become someone other than a mom or wife. Without this amazing opportunity, I cannot proceed with college.”

There is no new meeting date set with the department of education.