BENNINGTON -- After almost two years on probation, Southern Vermont College’s nursing program is in serious danger of losing accreditation.
A visiting team from the National League of Nursing Accrediting Commission advised the college following an October site visit it planned to recommend that the NLNAC Commission not renew the school’s accreditation for both the associate’s degree for nursing (ADN) and bachelor’s of science in nursing (BSN) programs.
The NLNAC has until early December to issue a formal written report to the college, and SVC’s acting President James Beckwith said there is always a chance the report will not include the recommendation. If opinions have not changed, however, that recommendation then goes to the NLNAC Commission, which will meet in the spring to decide whether or not to renew the college’s accreditation, effective next summer.
SVC’s two nursing programs are accredited separately under different standards, and Beckwith believes the changes that need to be made to the BSN program may be in place prior to the spring. The deficiencies found in the ADN program may take longer to fix.
The college is not expected to lose its approval from the Vermont State Board of Nursing, which is necessary for students in the program to take the national exam required to become a licensed nurse.
However, loss of accreditation could still be detrimental to the program. Even with a nursing license, a degree from an unaccredited institution would prevent graduates from finding employment from any government agency and many private organizations.
If the NLNAC Commission does not renew the accreditation of SVC’s programs, the college has the right to appeal the decision to an independent board. The process, Beckwith said, could go on for another year and will not affect students who graduate next spring.
"Our current class, no matter what happens, will graduate from an accredited program. Because we will be accredited on the date of their graduation," Beckwith said.
One outcome from two years ago, when NLNAC placed the college on probation, was the development of a new curriculum that better aligned the associate’s and bachelor’s programs. After spending one year developing that curriculum, the college implemented the changes this school year for first-year nursing students. Students who began the nursing program prior to this year remained studying the former curriculum, which Beckwith said may have caused some confusion with the NLNAC team during their site visit.
"There was a little bit of a mix-up, we believe ... with the site visitors as to which one they were looking at and the overlap," Beckwith said.
The new curriculum in the ADN program also fails to meet some standards, the NLNAC team stated in their exit interview. "We needed to upgrade some syllabi for outcome standards and things like that," Beckwith said.
Beckwith said the college is hopeful it can make the curriculum align with the standards prior to next spring if the NLNAC report includes the same explanation the visiting team gave of where the program falls short.
"We believe within the curriculum that if what we heard is what they write, we can fix the curriculum. We think we can give them what they wanted; we think we have what they wanted. It just wasn’t presented to them in the right fashion," Beckwith said.
A bigger problem for the ADN program’s accreditation status may be that NLNAC takes into account outcome relationships of programs. Because no students have gone through the new curriculum yet there is little the college has to show for outcomes.
"That’s where we’re going to have a bigger problem because the curriculum hasn’t been in existence long enough to determine what it’s outcomes are," Beckwith said. "We did what they asked us to do, we just haven’t had enough time to see whether or not it works."
"I don’t want to beat up the NLNAC here, but it’s one of their issues with their bylaws that once you’re on probation you’re either up or out. There’s no continuation."
With the possibility the ADN program will not be accredited next fall, Beckwith said the college is preparing for the worst and has a recommendation that is expected to go before the board of trustees at its meeting next week.
"We’re looking at what we do with our ADN program. If it’s not accredited, do we go back and file for re-accreditation? What do we do with it if something happens? That’s the board discussion next week," Beckwith said. "I think no matter what happens, there is going to be a change in our curriculum for nursing."
No matter the outcome, Beckwith said SVC has no intention of dumping its nursing program.
There is greater optimism the BSN completion program will not lose its accreditation.
One of the most significant accreditation deficiencies in the BSN program is the lack of a faculty member with a doctorate in a qualifying area.
"We have a Ph.D. They didn’t like the area the Ph.D. was in. So for us, that’s an easy fix. All we have to do is hire somebody with a Ph.D. in the areas they wanted it to be in," Beckwith said. "We have been interviewing people for the spring semester that would replace the current person."
There may be other areas that need improvement in the BSN program as well, but Beckwith said he expects any concerns that are raised will be able to be resolved prior to the commission meeting in the spring.
"Once we get the letter we will fix what needs to be fixed for the BSN, and that will be part of our response package back to them," Beckwith said. "If the BSN completer is an easy tweak to fix, they may accredit the BSN but not accredit the ADN."
In addition to full-time SVC students, Beckwith said the BSN program is important to the community from a work force development standpoint, as a number of employees from Southwestern Vermont Medical Center and other hospitals who have associate’s degrees are asked by their employers to get their bachelor’s degree. "It’s not only for our current students, but it’s also for the work force out there. So that is a program we will always have."
Both Beckwith and Provost Albert DeCiccio have met with all of the students already enrolled in the nursing programs as well as pre-nursing students. The 60-plus students who have the most to lose are first-year nursing students who face the risk of completing the associate’s program next year when SVC is not an accredited school. Unlike many academic programs, nursing classes do not transfer credits easily so those students would have to start over if they transferred to a new college, Beckwith said.
If the ADN program does lose accreditation, it is likely many pre-nursing students would transfer by the end of the academic year so they can start in an accredited program.
Beckwith said that as yet there has not been a exodus of students, but there is concern and anxiety being felt among nursing students, particularly those in the first year of the program.
If the ADN program were the only one to lose accreditation, students could complete it, take the national exam, and then enroll in the completion program to receive a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college.
Beckwith, who is filling in for President Karen Gross during a one-year leave to work for the U.S. Department of Education until January, said the college is taking the risk of losing accreditation very seriously. It is already contracting with consultants to work on better aligning the programs with standards and a legal team to help in the process with the NLNAC.
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