Free college program behind huge enrollment growth at Central State in peril

Central State University’s connection to a controversial free online college program brought the university thousands of students but the university shut down the program to new enrollments this semester, citing communications with the U.S. Department of Education, a Dayton Daily News investigation found.

The free online college program, Career Plus, accounted for 3,589 of CSU’s 3,633 online students in fall 2022, according to university officials and data from the Ohio Department of Higher Education. Central State’s in-person enrollment was 1,801 students last fall, according to the state.

The free college program has stopped accepting new students and will discontinue for current students after the spring 2023 semester that started this week, according to the university.

Career Plus is a collaboration with several unions, including the AFL-CIO and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The program allowed students who were either union employees or the children of union employees to combine the aid students can qualify for by filling out the FAFSA with union money to pay the full cost of tuition.

Central State in September 2022 terminated its agreement with a Rhode-Island based company called the Student Resource Center that helped run the program at least at two Ohio higher education institutions, according to records obtained by the Dayton Daily News.

The program allows students to complete an online associate degree through a program at Eastern Gateway College, a community college in Steubenville, Ohio, and finish their bachelor’s degree through another program at Central State.

The U.S. Department of Education sent a cease-and-desist letter to Eastern Gateway last fall, saying the way the program was set up unlawfully charged students with Pell Grants more than students without Pell Grants. In response, Eastern Gateway sued, saying the way the U.S. Department of Education had pushed the college to shut down the program was unlawful.

Central State terminated its partnership with the Student Resource Center in September, according to a statement on the Union Plus website and university documents. The program is no longer taking new students but students who were already enrolled can stay enrolled this semester.

“Based on recent communication from the Department of Education, Central State University will no longer be accepting new applications from students seeking admissions under the Free College Program,” the statement said. “Students remain eligible for the Free College Program who were accepted before July 18th. We are waiting to receive updated information from DOE regarding existing students in the Free College Program. We will provide updates as soon as possible.”

Central State University general counsel Laura Wilson told the Dayton Daily News this week the program will end after this semester.

“The program will not continue, however the students will be able to continue to attend CSU in the traditional online program,” Wilson said. “The students will be eligible to apply for institutional and federal aid.”

She did not respond to questions about how it will impact the university’s finances if students who were attending for free won’t pay tuition.

Former Central State President Cynthia Jackson-Hammond entered into a collaboration agreement with SRC and Eastern Gateway in November 2019, according to records obtained by the Dayton Daily News. The program grew rapidly under current CSU President Jack Thomas who took the job in February 2020.

In Thomas’ annual report to university trustees for the 2020-2021 school year, Thomas reported that online enrollment through its CSU Global initiative had grown from 28 students to more than 4,000.

“Central State Global’s partnership with Student Resource Center has yielded over 4,000 students and graduated over 130,” Thomas wrote in his annual report to trustees for the 2021-2022 academic year.

The way the free college program has worked could create issues with the Higher Learning Commission, which accredits most of the universities and colleges in Ohio.

The HLC placed Eastern Gateway on probation in November 2021, in part because the quality of the free college programs came under scrutiny.

Central State is still under accreditation with the HLC, but the university’s accreditation is coming up for renewal in March.

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