Tuesday January 29, 2013

DAWSON RASPUZZI

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- Southern Vermont College officials are preparing to fight for the re-accreditation of the college's nursing programs at a hearing in Atlanta today.

National League of Nursing Accrediting Commission (NLNAC) will decide in the spring whether to extend the accreditation of SVC's associate's degree for nursing (ADN) and bachelor's of science in nursing (BSN) programs, but the uncertainty has already shown ill effects for the liberal arts college. Fear the flagship programs will lose accreditation factored into postponing the construction of a new residence hall and has likely affected enrollment in the programs, although those statistics are still being gathered.

Following a site visit in October, a NLNAC visiting team advised the college it planned to recommend not renewing accreditation for the nursing programs that have been on probation the past two years. That recommendation will be made to a group of peer evaluators at a hearing today. President Karen Gross believes she and other college officials will be given the opportunity to give testimony to the peer evaluators as well, who will then make an ultimate recommendation to the NLNAC Commission.

"The college's position at that hearing will be to defend itself to the fullest extent of the law and to argue forcefully about why we believe that the site visitors came to the wrong conclusion," Gross said in an interview Friday.

The commission is expected to make a decision in March or April. If SVC wishes to appeal that decision it may, which could drag the process into the summer.

In its report, the visiting team raised concerns regarding the new ADN curriculum that was implemented last fall, as well as concerns measuring the outcomes of the new curriculum. Regarding the BSN program, the visiting team found deficiencies with the qualifications of instructors and other concerns.

Having just returned form a one-year leave to work for the U.S. Department of Education, Gross was not allowed to involve herself with the process until she returned to the college Jan. 17. Since that time Gross has reviewed the college's self-study, the report from the site visiting team, the college's response to that report and other documents. Having done so, Gross believes both nursing programs, which are accredited separately, should be re-accredited.

Both programs were re-accredited by 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 NLNAC 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.

In her absence, Gross said the college worked diligently to align the nursing curriculum with NLNAC standards and improve the identified deficiencies.

While a decision will not be made by the NLNAC for a couple months, Gross said the fear of losing accreditation in its nursing programs, as well as some misinformation that has spread in the community, has hurt the college. SVC is in the middle an analysis to determine how many nursing and pre-nursing students left after fall semester. Spring classes just began last week so the results are not firm yet, but Gross expects more pre-nursing students transferred then usual. "That saddens me, because I feel they will have left prematurely before any final decision is made," she said. "I think many people mistook the site visitors' recommendation as the ultimate decision from NLNAC."

Postponing construction that was expected to being this spring of a 140-bed dormitory is another impact Gross said she suspects the site visit had on the college.

The primary reason for the delay was hesitancy by the college's lender because of the financial climate and uncertainty of whether SVC's enrollment can maintain the steady growth it has experienced since Gross started in 2006, when the student body was 350.

"We're not permitted to borrow for a new dorm without the bank which funded the bonds giving us permission, and the bank felt that it was premature to build that building now in spring of 2013 and it would be better to think of building it in fall of 2013 ... or spring of 2014," Gross said. "The bank knows our finances and they're not worried about our finances, but I think they looked at the economy and the enrollment numbers and I think they wanted to be more convinced that we would experience the record growth that we've been experiencing thus far."

Gross said she suspects part of the decision had to do with the "issues around the nursing program and some planned transitions related to that program left us wondering whether we could increase the nursing program with the speed with which we had planned to grow it," Gross said. "Having not been here then, I think it's wise, until we resolve the nursing issue, to be conservative before building. But, that said, I have every reason to believe that we will continue to grow and we will need added housing. The only question is when."

When the construction was announced last summer it was stated that it would be at full occupancy this fall. Without those rooms, Gross said there will be a housing shortage on campus in the fall that may slightly reduce the number of students SVC accepts in the fall. It will also likely force some upperclassman off campus.

The college is still exploring ways to deal with the shortage. "I think what we have to reflect on is whether we ourselves want to rent some places so that they're college-supported off-campus housing, or whether it's student chosen apartments that are not college run."

Contact Dawson Raspuzzi at draspuzzi@benningtonbanner.com or follow on Twitter @DawsonRaspuzzi