Aspen University: Beleaguered nursing program reaches new agreement with Arizona officials

 As the U.S. faces a nursing shortage, an Arizona nursing program could be coming to an end.

We first took a close look at the issues Aspen University faced in 2022. Months ago, the embattled private, for-profit school surrendered its nursing program license, and now, the Arizona Board of Nursing is discussing further action.

The Board of Nursing met on Feb. 23, where the eight members of the board, in a unanimous vote, decided to give the university a 10-day notice of intent to lift a Stay of Surrender, meaning that after another vote in the next meeting, AU's nursing program could be shut down. 

The vote, supposed to happen on March 23, was stopped after a lawsuit was filed on March 20 and a judge decided that the Arizona Nursing Board can't shut down the university just yet.

Issues date back years

AU's nursing program problems stem back to 2021, when the Board of Nursing began its investigation, following several complaints. The school’s first-time pass rate on the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX), the national exam nursing graduates need to get licensed, was far below the required minimum of 80%.

Investigators cited rapid admission growth, sudden curriculum changes, and decreased clinical learning experiences as factors in low test scores.

"Aspen's only been around for four years here with this program, and so I think COVID did a number on them, and I think it grew really fast," said Aspen University nursing student McKenna Topp.

Topp is one of 400 students in AU’s Arizona program. AU surrendered its nursing license in September 2022 after months of probation, acknowledging it could not meet the NCLEX first-time pass rate in 2022, which stood at 63%.

The school is now in a teach-out process, where students are completing the nursing program before AU closes it. However, the Board of Nursing can terminate the program if it determines that AU's nursing program is failing to meet basic standards of educational practice and legal requirements.

Topp has until 2024, and fears she will have problems getting admitted to a new program that might now allow all her credits to be transferred from AU if the teach out is terminated

"Basically, we’re kind of left at square one is what I’ve been told," said Topp. "I think I’m meant to be a nurse, and I think a lot of my classmates feel the same so whatever happens, happens. I’m gonna find a way to do it," 

University officials issues statement

Officials with AU have issued a statement on the matter, which reads, in part:

"Aspen is committed to completing its teach-out and doing everything it can to assist its students in passing the NCLEX Exam and becoming licensed nurses to help meet Srizona’s nursing shortage."

AU officials say they made "sweeping changes" to its program and curriculum.

Aspen files lawsuit, pauses shut down

On March 20, the university filed a lawsuit against the Arizona Nursing Board, asking for immediate relief. Aspen is requesting a temporary restraining order and for a judge to prevent board from a lifting stay of surrender. The board is set to vote on March 23 for a potential shut down of the nursing program.

The Arizona Nursing Board released a statement in response, saying:

"The Board is aware that Aspen University filed a temporary restraining order with the courts to prevent the Board from considering Aspen University BSN program's status this Thursday, although the Board has not been properly served.

The Board is entrusted with the responsibility to protect the public by following the law, and making sure that graduates of nursing programs have the training and education to make them able to safely practice nursing. It's important to note that nurses do not have a skills test requirement before they can become licensed, which is why it is so critical that nursing programs are providing adequate clinical training for the nurses. Aspen previously requested that the Board consider a settlement option, and Board staff was diligently cooperating with that process but the filing of the TRO has shut down that option.

At this time, the Board is considering its options and will respond appropriately in the near future."

Aspen responded to the board's statement a day later, saying, "Aspen sought a temporary restraining order to ensure that the Board would not vote to terminate the teach out on Thursday because that would be a breach of the consent agreement signed by both parties.

Aspen remains hopeful that the Board will work with Aspen, its students, and other interested stakeholders on the terms of an amended consent agreement that would address any concerns the Board may have and permit Aspen to conclude the teach out by the end of the year and allow its students to finish their academic careers at Aspen."

By the evening of March 21, we learned a judge ruled the board cannot shut the school down just yet.

The board released a statement on the ruling, saying, "We rely on the nursing programs to test their students to make sure that they have the necessary competencies to be safe nurses. The Board has concerns that Aspen has not been properly testing its students or providing clinicals that meet minimum standards. These types of failures harm students and place the public, including future patients, at risk. Today's court ruling temporarily prevents the Board from closing the nursing program, but permits the Board to either continue an ongoing investigation or consider an additional agreement with Aspen to continue the teach out. Board staff had been attempting to meet with Aspen before they filed a court action for an injunction and cancelled the meeting. The Board is willing to continue discussions with Aspen representatives regarding a possible settlement option for the Board to consider."

Board of Nursing reaches new agreement with Aspen

On Mar. 23, we have learned that both sides have reached an amended consent agreement to let hundreds of nursing students to finish their education before the program comes to an end.

The agreement came just one day after Governor Katie Hobbs sent a letter to the Nursing Board's Executive Director, asking that both Aspen and the Board make this work.

"I want to ensure that all options have been exhausted to allow the students to graduate and be fully prepared as they enter the nursing profession. I urge the Board to work with Aspen University to find common ground to help these student nurses complete their education," read a portion of the letter.

With the new agreement, the lawsuit filed by Aspen is expected to be withdrawn. The new agreement also means heightened oversight of the program's education, as it nears its end by 2024.

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