Many students choosing a college often look at the cost, the location and the amount of student aid available.
But another question they should be asking, when it comes to certain specialized majors, is whether the program is accredited. And perhaps even more important, especially in the case of nursing programs, is the school on the approved list of programs by the state board that oversees that profession.
For students in certain majors, accreditation matters. Without it, graduates may not be able to attend many graduate schools, could face a tough time being hired and will find it difficult transferring credits to another university.
Mary Ann Merrigan, associate dean of the school of nursing at Wilkes University, said it’s likely that less than half of high school students searching for colleges ask about accreditation.
But it’s not the only thing to look for.
The recent history of pass rates of the National Council Licensure Examination could be an indication of a solid program or of one that is potentially at risk of losing accreditation. Program scores in Pennsylvania can be found by going to www.portal.state.pa.us and followng the link.
Sometimes students do their due diligence and apply to a school with an accredited program with improving test scores, only to see that status change while they’re enrolled. Marywood University in Scranton is a case in point.
In fall 2009, its nursing program was riding high. Less than four years later, the program finds itself unaccredited and its 117 nursing students are facing an uncertain future.
Repeated efforts to contact the National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission Inc. in Atlanta to learn why Marywood lost its accreditation were not returned.
First-time pass rates for those taking the National Council Licensure Examination in recent years are likely partly to blame.
After 88 percent of Marywood nursing students taking the licensure exam for the first time passed it in the 2008-09 cycle, the program was able to boast it trailed only the University of Scranton’s 92.86 percent.
After three more testing cycles in which the school saw pass rates of 76, 72.73 and 77.78 percent, Marywood finds its nursing program no longer accredited and with lots of questions about the status of the program and the future of its students.
In light of what’s happened at Marywood, Merrigan said the percentage of students asking nursing schools about their accreditation status will likely rise.
“I know it’s opened some students’ eyes,” she said.
Dana Clark, provost and vice president of academic affairs at Luzerne County Community College, said she feels for the Marywood students.
“There’s no way a student would know this would happen when they applied,” Clark said.
She said checking on test scores can help but they don’t always paint a clear picture. Curriculum changes, a low number of test takers and other factors all impact pass rates annually.
Standards set in 2010
Starting in 2010, by state law, a nursing program must have a pass rate of at least 80 percent.
Marywood has been below that threshold for three straight exam years. As it simultaneously appeals the National League of Nursing Accreditation Commission decision and reapplies for accreditation, it has also applied for accreditation to the Commission on Collegiate Nursing in Education, which is an arm of the American Association of Colleges of Nursing.
Three of the other five local nursing programs — Misericordia University in Dallas Township, The University of Scranton, and Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre — are accredited by that body. The other two, LCCC in Nanticoke and Penn State Worthington Scranton in Dunmore, are accredited by the National League of Nursing Accreditation.
Jennifer Butlin, executive director of the Commission on Collegiate Nursing in Education in New York, confirmed Marywood has made initial contact about applying for accreditation but has not formally filed a request to start the review process.
Students currently in the Marywood nursing program are in a wait-and-see pattern, though officials at other area nursing schools, including Wilkes, Penn State Worthington Scranton and Misericordia, confirm that they’ve had many inquiries from Marywood students or their parents about transferring.
Marywood and the University of Scranton last week announced an agreement that will provide 25 current third-year Marywood nursing students the opportunity to complete their nursing degree with the University of Scranton.
“Our primary concern is our students,” said Marywood President Sister Anne Munley. “We are most grateful to the president of the University of Scranton and to key administrators and nursing faculty for forging this partnership in the best interest of our students.”
Through the agreement, third-year nursing students in good standing at Marywood can apply for transfer to U of Scranton’s nursing program based on an evaluation. Those accepted will be able to graduate in May or August of 2014.
As for the remaining students in lower grades, they can either stay at Marywood and hope accreditation is regained, switch majors or transfer to another college. Staying put is a risk, but it could work out.
Ron Ruman, the spokesman for the state Department of State, said Marywood is still approved — albeit under a provisional status — by the state board of nursing, which means, accreditation or not, graduates from the school who pass the state nursing test can become licensed nurses in the state.
Continued test pass rates below the 80 percent plateau and the loss of accreditation are things that could lead to a review by the state board. If the board removes a school from the approved list , then graduates would not be eligible to become licensed nurses in the state.
Not a sudden thing
Mary Jane Hansen, a nursing professor at University of Scranton, said probation could be an indication of future problems but not always. Programs might look great when a student applies but take a turn for the worse in just a matter of a year or two.
“It’s rare for a program to lose its accreditation,” Hansen said, adding she doubts Marywood students could have predicted this course of action. But there were some signs of trouble.
Marywood’s nursing program has been on probation in recent years because of low test scores recorded in the National Council Licensure Examination exams. It increased test scores last year but still fell short of the 80 percent plateau.