Controversial Online-Program Manager Loses Another College Partner

An online “free college” program geared to union workers has lost another university partner, amid scrutiny from accreditors and the federal government.

Ohio’s Central State University told The Chronicle on Thursday that “the free program is no longer accepting new applicants.”

The university’s decision to step away from the partnership, first reported by the Dayton Daily News, casts further doubt on the future of the program, which is run by the Student Resource Center, a for-profit online-program-management company.

Online-program-management companies, sometimes known as OPMs, have negotiated partnerships with universities nationwide, including at some of America’s most-prestigious institutions. But the arrangements are often controversial, and colleges have been criticized for poorly performing programs, or for ceding too much control to the OPM company.

The free-college program at Central State, known as Career Plus, enrolls union workers from across the country. Unions participating in the program include the AFL-CIO and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.

As recently as this past fall semester, Central State enrolled more than 3,500 free online students, and the program represented the vast majority of its online enrollment. The university also has roughly 1,800 in-person students.

No additional students will be admitted into the free program, but university officials said that currently enrolled students could remain at Central State, although they would now have to pay standard tuition and fees.

“CSU will continue providing high-quality and affordable online education,” said the university’s general counsel, Laura Wilson, in a written statement. “Students will be able to continue to attend CSU in the traditional online program and will be eligible to apply for scholarships, grants, and standard financial-aid assistance.”

The university’s annual tuition and fees are $7,596 for in-state students and $9,596 for out-of-state students.

Another College’s Experience

Last summer the U.S. Department of Education ordered another Ohio institution, Eastern Gateway Community College, to immediately halt its free-college program, which was also operated by the Student Resource Center.

The federal officials demanded the program shut down because, they said, it was improperly using Pell Grants and state financial aid from students to finance its “free” offerings, while waiving all tuition costs for students who didn’t qualify for financial aid.

Essentially, the Education Department said, the students eligible for federal and state aid were footing the bill for everyone, because the college collected money only from them.

That’s illegal, according to the department, which declined to comment on Thursday.

Eastern Gateway enrolled tens of thousands of union members in the online program, but that rapid growth also prompted scrutiny by its accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission. The accreditor placed the college on probation in 2021.

Eastern Gateway’s president, Michael J. Geoghegan, declined to comment on Central State’s decision to exit the program.

“We are engaged in conversations with the Department of Education on our program, so are unable to comment further at this time,” Geoghegan wrote in an email.

Central State officials made their decision after discussions with the Education Department. The university has the same accreditor as Eastern Gateway, and Central State is up for reaccreditation in March.

The Student Resource Center, in a statement to The Chronicle, wrote: “Shortly after receiving DOE guidance that the free online college program, as originally implemented, may no longer be viable, the Student Resource Center and Central State University mutually agreed to end their working relationship.”

“The Student Resource Center,” the company wrote, “remains committed to providing union members and their families affordable higher education options that address past challenges and current regulatory guidelines.”

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