Five years ago, when this region was introduced to a new multi-county, public two-year college, expectations were low, to say the least. Indeed, Eric Fingerhut, Ohio’s chancellor of higher education at the time, made it clear that any talk of establishing a single location for Eastern Gateway Community College was premature, and that it would take at least a decade for a central campus to become a reality.
But Fingerhut, along with many area residents, misjudged the determination and commitment of Dr. Laura Meeks, president of EGCC, and the board of trustees to not only put down roots, but to set the two-year institution on a fast-growth path.
As a result of their determination, the community college’s Mahoning County branch is now permanently housed in the Valley Center in downtown Youngstown. EGCC’s private-sector financial backer, Higher Education Partners, bought the Plaza Place building on the east end of downtown earlier this year and intends for it to be in use for at least 20 years.
In Trumbull County this summer, the college is making the former Mickey’s Army and Navy store in downtown Warren its permanent location.
The two-year institution also has a presence in Columbiana County.
The flagship campus for the multi-county operation is in Jefferson County. It has an enrollment of almost 2,000.
In the Mahoning Valley, the number of students has grown to 1,200, from the initial 170 in the tri-county area.
Dr. Meeks, whose main office is on the Jefferson campus, spends at least three days a week in the Valley.
She is bullish about the college’s future here and rightly believes the combination of low tuition (70 percent of students qualify for some form of financial aid), a variety of course offerings and convenience is a winning formula.
EGCC is attracting students who, for whatever reason, are unable to attend Youngstown State University or other four-year institutions but are looking to bolster their academic credentials to make themselves more marketable.
It is telling that one of Meeks’ key initiatives is the development of job-training courses that are specifically designed to meet the needs of employers in the Mahoning Valley.
In that regard, Eastern Gateway has set its sights on what could only be described as an audacious move: It has applied for a $9 million federal grant to establish a manufacturing college in this region.
Meeks has met with the Mahoning Valley Manufacturing Coalition, the Youngstown- Warren Regional Chamber and with local business leaders to determine the employment needs of the region and to come up with programs that will help create an employee pool.
“Manufacturing needs a community college,” Meeks told Vindicator writers recently in revealing the latest initiative.
But as Eastern Gateway pursues its upward swing — it is one of the fastest growing colleges in Ohio — the president insists her institution is not competing with YSU for students. After earning an associate degree, community- college graduates are encouraged to continue their higher education at Youngstown State.
That said, Meeks made no secret of her desire to have a “capture rate” of 30 percent of high school students going to community college.
Given what has taken place over the past years, it’s a goal that can be achieved.