BENNINGTON -- Two of Southern Vermont College’s nursing programs will retain accreditation for the current academic year, but changes are in the works regarding their future.
The college learned on Aug. 30 that its two- and four-year nursing degree programs will maintain accreditation from the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing, formerly known as National League of Nursing Accrediting Commission.
"We are pleased to say we’ve reached a resolution," said SVC President Karen Gross of the agreement the college reached with the agency.
"The ACEN has reviewed our materials and has reiterated that our accreditation is in place now and will continue to be in place through graduation in May 2014," Bobbe Ann Gray, interim chair and curriculum consultant, SVC Division of Nursing, wrote in an emailed statement to nursing students earlier this month.
"This means all of our students past and present in NLNAC accredited programs will have graduated from an accredited program," Gross added.
The college’s two-year associate degree in nursing (ADN) program will be ending with the class of 2014. SVC has already notified the Vermont State Board and the New England Association of Schools and Colleges -- SVC’s main accrediting agency -- that it will be "teaching out" that program (not accepting any new students this fall) as of the end of this academic year.
She added, "For me, that’s a statement about the fact that our program is worthy and deserving and that our students are entitled to the benefits of voluntary accreditation." Beyond May, that program will no longer be offered at SVC.
Similarly, the ACEN-accredited "completer" degree program SVC offers to elevate nurses with associate’s RN degrees to bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) may be discontinued in May in favor of a newer RN to BSN program. The "old" program has a limited number of students in it currently, as most have transitioned into the newer programs, Gross said. But for those few students set to graduate from the "old" RN to BSN program, the opportunity to graduate from an accredited program remains in place.
"Accreditation is a big deal for nursing because of the fact that it’s difficult to progress in the educational field without it," Gray said.
The ACEN website defines accreditation as "a voluntary, self-regulatory process by which non-governmental associations recognize educational institutions or programs that have been found to meet or exceed standards and criteria for educational quality."
Nursing students at SVC have reacted very positively to the recent announcement, according to Gray, who is "on loan" to SVC from the College of Nursing & Health at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, where she is an associate professor.
"The faculty have noticed a significant decrease in student anxiety" following the Aug. 30 announcement, Gray said. "The lack of turmoil has been very positive in the first week of school. The students have been able to buckle down with their studies."
SVC’s first day of classes was Sept. 5. According to Gray, there are 150 students in the nursing program -- one of five undergraduate concentrations offered at SVC. The others are business, humanities, science & technology and social sciences (which includes biology and radiologic sciences), per svc.edu.
An October 2012 site visit from the ACEN’s predecessor, the NLNAC, resulted in a recommendation that the SVC nursing program accreditation not be renewed.
Immediately after that recommendation, SVC began the process of getting the NLNAC to revisit that decision.
At the time of the site visit, Gross was in Washington, D.C. for the year, serving as a senior policy adviser to the U.S. Department of Education. She believes part of the problem was that the site team that was dispatched was "accustomed to community colleges, not four-year institutions."
"I always believed in our programs and that we had done what was necessary," she said. "A number of things happened at that visit that suggested the NLNAC had not complied with their own regulations. At the end, they said they’d recommend that our site accreditation would not be renewed."
SVC countered the NLNAC’s report on the site visit with a list of 40 supposed factual errors found therein. "That’s virtually one per page," Gross said.
That list went to the NLNAC, but ultimately the organization accepted only six of the 40 changes recommended by the college.
Gross said she attended a peer evaluation review panel hearing in Atlanta, where the NLNAC (now ACEN) is headquartered with then-chair of the SVC Division of Nursing Karen Clement-O’Brien and an attorney with hopes of obtaining a change in the site team’s decision. However, Gross said she was not permitted to be heard until after the panel’s vote was taken.
"In Atlanta, I asked them to come back and do another site visit. I was confident this program would’ve been approved. What we asked for was not that the rules change or the standards be lowered," but that they return to SVC for another evaluation.
The goal was to resolve the issue without an appeal, but that didn’t happen.
"It was not a shock the NLNAC as a whole commission voted to deny continuing accreditation to both the ADN and BSN programs," Gross said. SVC had the opportunity to appeal the decision within 30 days, which it did. Every appeal costs thousands of dollars, she noted.
SVC hired an attorney who specializes in accreditation to help the college prepare for the hearing. It was an expensive process, to say the least.
"From then until the scheduled hearing we were in conversations with the NLNAC about what would happen, ways we felt the college had been wronged and the issues we were trying to appeal," Gross said.
Attempts to reach Dr. Sharon Tanner, CEO of ACEN, for comment were not successful.
No loss of accreditation
During the appeals process, the SVC nursing program never lost accreditation -- a fact that is crucial to the students in the nursing degree programs. To graduate from an accredited program is a requirement for employment in some healthcare settings, Gross said.
When a college appeals a recommendation that accreditation not be renewed, as SVC did for its nursing program, it doesn’t lose that designation.
"You do not lose accreditation because if you win (your appeal) it reverses what’s done," Gross said. In fact, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges -- SVC’s main accrediting agency -- doesn’t disclose when there’s an appeal in process because they "don’t want the institution to be hurt in the marketplace," according to Gross.
Although SVC’s nursing programs maintained accreditation throughout, the appeals process took a toll on the faculty and students, with some students choosing to drop out of the program rather than face uncertainty.
"I am deeply gratified by people who believed in the program from the beginning and stood by and encouraged us and our students," Gross said.
New accrediting agency
The ACEN accredits all ranges of nursing programs, from practical to clinical doctorate level. That organization has this year gone through significant changes, including revisions to its bylaws and the change of its name from NLNAC to ACEN. According to Gross, the bulk of institutions the ACEN gives accreditation to are community colleges -- institutions that have vastly different offerings than does SVC.
"We’d been thinking for a long time about moving to a different accreditation: From two-year to four-year -- associates to bachelor’s degree -- because hospitals want to hire nurses with bachelor’s degrees," Gross said. She noted that studies show nurses who have earned bachelor’s degrees perform better than those with lesser degrees.
The college has applied to the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education to be its new accrediting agency for the latter.
"To meet CCNE requirements means a different set of guidelines. Some might say CCNE is a more prestigious accrediting organization, so I’m very pleased we are seeking accreditation from them," Gross said.
She said the college has filed the initial application for accreditation through CCNE. The next step will be the completion of a self-study by SVC followed by a site visit from the organization, which has been scheduled for October 2014.
The earliest final accreditation decision will come in early 2015 and that decision relates back to the October site visit date in 2014, according to Gross.
"I think the future of SVC Nursing is bright indeed," she said.
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