Owens RN program poised to regain accreditation

Review team to weigh improvements this week

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  • Nearly four years after the registered nursing program at Owens Community College lost a valuable accreditation, college officials say they are poised to regain the lost credential when a review team comes to campus this week.

    Owens Community College nursing students Jamie Swerlein, left, and Wade Niederkohr, center, work in the lab with instructor Debbie Sullivan, right.
    Owens Community College nursing students Jamie Swerlein, left, and Wade Niederkohr, center, work in the lab with instructor Debbie Sullivan, right.

    More than that, they say, Owens has a better nursing program today and a better college overall because of the debacle.

    Owens nursing students Alexa McNamee, left, and Katrina Winterfeld work in the lab on Friday. Owens is reinvigorating  its registered nursing program since losing a key accreditation in 2009.
    Owens nursing students Alexa McNamee, left, and Katrina Winterfeld work in the lab on Friday. Owens is reinvigorating its registered nursing program since losing a key accreditation in 2009.

    “We’ve been able to put systems in place that make us better,” Provost Renay Scott said.

    “I think we have a better budgeting process now than we had before. We have a better program-level accreditation monitoring process. I think we’re all a lot more sensitive about helping our students understand what accreditation is and what it is not. I think it’s improved our communication — but I’m not going to tell you I’m glad we went through it.”

    In July, 2009, the board of the National League of Nursing Accrediting Commission voted to deny accreditation to Owens after it failed to address two issues that had been identified as weaknesses two years earlier: It did not have enough faculty with master’s degrees in nursing and it did not use data to track the program’s effectiveness.

    The news, which was not communicated to students until fall, led to anger and confusion over whether the lost accreditation would damage graduates’ ability to get good nursing jobs and students’ ability to transfer their Owens credits to other colleges and universities. Lawsuits — some of which are pending in the Ohio Court of Claims and Wood County Common Pleas Court — were filed making those very claims.

    Within two months of the news breaking, Owens President Christa Adams moved up her retirement date by a year. Provost Paul Unger, who had been the target of a no-confidence vote by the Owens Faculty Association, abruptly retired. College trustees fired Cynthia Hall, who was chairman of the nursing program.

    While other area nursing programs were flooded with phone calls from Owens students, Ms. Scott said enrollment in prenursing classes dropped off by only 2 percent to 3 percent. Spots in the registered nurse program, which at the time were capped at 105 on the Toledo-area campus and 35 on the Findlay campus, remained filled.

    In the fall of 2010, Owens lowered the cap to 80 on the Toledo-area campus — something Ms. Scott attributed to changes in the job market rather than a drop in applications. The cap was raised to 90 in fall, 2012.

    ‘Blessing in disguise’

    Benjamin Irvine, 26, of Maumee said he decided to get his RN degree after earning a bachelor’s degree from Bowling Green State University and working in health-care staffing for a few years. He researched and visited numerous programs before deciding on Owens. Cost was one factor, he said. The lost accreditation was not.

    He said all the other programs he looked at had the national accreditation, but he chose Owens anyway, not worrying it might affect his employability.

    “When it comes down to it, everyone takes the same exam at the end of graduation. It’s a national exam,” Mr. Irvine said. “What you do in the classroom is completely different than what you do at the bedside ... I think experience makes up for a lot of things that are just stuff on paper.”

    Mr. Irvine plans to graduate in May.

    Charity De La Cruz, 27, of Fostoria, a nursing student at Owens’s Findlay campus, said what’s most important to her is that Owens had — and still has — full approval of the Ohio Board of Nursing, which regulates nursing programs in the state.

    “Losing the accreditation was very disappointing, but it didn’t change my feelings about the program,” she said. “I thought personally it was really a blessing in disguise. From that situation, it’s made the program really strong. We have newer resources. I think it’s been a positive for the nursing program.”

    An opportunity

    A review team from the National League of Nursing Accrediting Commission is to be on campus Tuesday through Thursday. In addition to reviewing records and meeting with administrators, faculty, and students, the team will take public comment about the RN program at 2 p.m. Wednesday in Room 145 of the Law Enforcement Building at Owens.

    Sharon Tanner, executive director of the Atlanta-based accrediting commission, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

    While Owens likely will not learn until spring if the RN program is granted accreditation, Ms. Scott said the distinction would be retroactive to the previous semester, meaning graduates such as Mr. Irvine and Ms. De La Cruz would have associate’s degrees from a program accredited by the National League of Nursing Accrediting Commission.

    That is not the case for those who graduated during the previous three years. Owens officials have apologized but decided not to rush into getting the accreditation back.

    “We decided to say, ‘What do we need, what are our challenges, how can we improve this program, and leverage this opportunity to really take a serious look — not just address the couple of things that caused us to lose accreditation — but look at it in total?’ ” Ms. Scott said.

    Owens spent $410,000 to hire 10 additional full-time faculty members — six clinical teaching faculty and four lab instructors — increasing its nursing faculty from 25 full-time to 35 full-time members, all of whom have master’s degrees in nursing. Approximately 60 percent of its part-time faculty members have master’s degrees.

    Owens now has a full-time adviser for nursing students and an associate vice president charged with overseeing accreditation of the college and its 48 accredited programs. Owens also converted its former nursing “department” into a “school” of nursing in an effort to increase accountability, Ms. Scott said.

    “They get a dean who reports to a provost versus a department chair who reports to a dean who reports to a provost so they have someone who can work very closely with my office to ensure that they have the resources they need to meet the standards of their program-level accreditation,” Ms. Scott said.

    The nursing school was physically moved to the second floor of Heritage Hall. Fully renovated, the clinical space is set up like a floor of a hospital with a nurses’ station, patient rooms, and four human patient simulators.

    In addition, Owens has put into place an assessment plan that allows it to monitor student learning, student satisfaction, and employer satisfaction. Ms. Scott said it wanted at least two years’ worth of data to present to the accrediting commission.

    Among the statistics she points to is the rate of Owens graduates from the registered nursing program who pass their licensure exam on the first try — 80 percent in 2010, 88 percent in 2011, and 95 percent in 2012.

    Legal claims

    Still, Mike Bruno, a Toledo attorney who represents some former Owens students, said part of his clients’ legal claims focuses on diminished earning capacity.

    “Our position is, throughout your work life, if you have a degree from an unaccredited institution, you’re going to be earning less during your career,” he said.

    “It’s not just what’s going on in the here and now, but what’s going to happen in five, 10 years.”

    Owens has not paid out any damages because of the lost accreditation, Ms. Scott said, adding that the college was “not aware that it has negatively impacted the graduates.”

    “I maintain that all along we had a very good program, and we didn’t do a very good job of demonstrating that to the [accrediting commission], and we were negligent in not doing it, in not addressing the two concerns they asked us to address,” she said.

    “Our graduates continue to get employment because we do a good job of training them."

    “If I put in 100 percent and the student puts in 100 percent, I think we have a really, really good shot of helping the student be successful,” she said.

    “To that end, I’m sorry that our college put our students in the position it did.”

    Contact Jennifer Feehan at: jfeehan@theblade.com or 419-724-6129.