Aspen University investigation: For-profit nursing school placed on probation by Arizona state nursing board

On March 31, we have learned that Aspen University (AU) has reached a consent agreement with the Arizona Board of Nursing in connection with an investigation on the university.

AU was under investigation by State Board of Nursing

AU, which has two campuses in Phoenix, was under investigation by the Arizona State Board of Nursing, and hundreds of students were impacted.

Officials with the board previously said AU did not accept settlement charges, which would've been a three-year probation with several stipulations, within the designated time frame. The university was issued a notice of charges, but there were no disciplinary action yet.

Aspen responded to the board with the following statement: "Aspen University is committed to having a collaborative relationship with the Board of Nursing, but respectfully disputes the Board’s statement of charges, and will exercise its right to an administrative hearing.  While doing so it remains willing to enter into an appropriate consent agreement, to ensure the least amount of disruption to our students as possible."

State officials detail problems with AU

AU is a private, for-profit, online school that is nationally accredited by the Distance Education Accrediting Commission. The Denver-based school has a little more than 9,500 students enrolled at campuses across the country.

According to the U.S. Department of Education's College Scorecard, only 31% of those enrolled at the university graduate within eight years.

"The problems that were uncovered are very severe, and that’s where the problem is, and to put more students into that situation places them at great risk," said Dr. Dave Hrabe, Education Program Administrator with the Arizona State Board of Nursing, during a Board of Nursing meeting on Jan. 28.

Investigators with the Board of Nursing claim Aspen is performing badly.

"The term I used in the investigative report was 'infrastructure collapse,' and to me, this is like putting students into a situation where they would be harmed," Hrabe said.

Meanwhile, In the notice of charges issued to AU by the Board of Nursing, investigators learned the program went through five administrators in less than four years, which is considered to be ‘Below the standard of practice.’

Investigators also say the curriculum at AU is in question, with the nursing board's findings referring to changes in curriculum during the middle of a course, along with changes in testing practices without adequate planning as factors in low exam scores.

In 2021, a faculty member emailed AU's administration about course changes made by administrators after the course started.

"I share the same frustration that the students do. As a faculty, it is impossible to do my job and provide clear expectations to the students, when the expectations literally change from session to session and with no regard to where the students are in the session," the e-mail read in part.,

AU's NCLEX exam results rank last in Arizona

For schools, the proof of performance is in results from the NCLEX Exam (National Council Licensure Examination).

NCLEX exams are the ultimate test for nursing graduates. It is a nationally-recognized exam to become a registered nurse or practical nurse. We went through the 2021 NCLEX exam results for Arizona's nursing programs. Out of 33 programs with at least 20 students taking the test for the first time, AU's pass rate was 58.04%.

"That's very concerning, and it worries me that I could possibly be getting a pretty horrible education," said Adrian Swinler.

Arizona law requires nursing programs to maintain at least an 80% for graduates being tested on the NCLEX for the first time, within 12 months of graduation. Aspen met that mark in 2020, with 20 students passing the exam.

As of February 2022, school officials say 85% have passed, but the Board of Nursing wants to see the minimum pass rate hit for at least one year.

Officials call for consultancy on AU; School on education board meeting agenda

"I believe it's critical for us to get the best consultant in there to right the ship," said Dr. Kathy Malloch, Associate Director of Education and Evidence Based Regulation with the Arizona State Board of Nursing, during a meeting on Jan. 28. "What we really need is a strong consultant to get in there and figure this out for survival."

on Feb. 24, AU was on the agenda of the State Board for Private Postsecondary Education (PPSE). The board licenses and regulates more than 200 institutions operating vocational and degree programs.

During the meeting, AU leaders took questions from board members.

"We’ve done everything that we can to provide an opportunity for the students that we currently have to continue with their program, or to choose to transfer elsewhere," said AU's provost, Dr. Joanne Weiss.

"Aspen is committed to its students, and we may have made decisions and will continue to make decisions that puts their interests first," said Aspen Group Inc. Chairman and CEO Michael Mathews.

The amended stipulated agreement between AU and the PPSE includes meeting monthly with updates, as well as reporting student information monthly. PPSE has now heard from several AU students wanting to transfer, and need help advising them. 

Amid calls for a consultant for AU, there are students who are still in the core program. They are working towards the NCLEX, as well as career during a national nursing shortage.

"They can’t ever be nurses if they can't pass that test, and that's not the only thing. It is an important thing, but the other part of that is being able to take care of patients and be competent and be safe," said Carolyn Jo McCormies, Board President for the Arizona State Board of Nursing, during a meeting on Jan. 28.

Settlement details revealed

According to the consent agreement document, which was dated March 30, AU's provisional license approval by the board is revoked, but the revocation is stayed for 2022.

During 2022, in what is referred to as Phase I in the consent agreement, student admissions to AU's core program are suspended, and AU will need to raise its NCLEX first time pass rate to at least 80%.

"Failure to achieve the NCLEX first time pass rate of a minimum of 80% for the calendar year 2022 or violations of the Order may result in Board review for possible lifting of the stay of revocation," read a portion of the agreement. 

If Phase I is completely successfully, the consent agreement states that AU's license will automatically be placed on standard probation for at least 24 months, in what is referred to as Phase II. During Phase II, AU may once again admit students to its core program after completing certain admission resumption requirements, and can continue to admit students if they maintain at least an 80% NCLEX passage rate each calendar quarter.

Other conditions include the AZBN notifying the public of aspen's current status, monthly reports from Aspen's pre-licensure nursing program on admissions, when they resume, attrition by cohort, exam results and direct care clinical experiences, additional training for faculty and admin, an outside evaluation by a consultant, and a $4,000 civil penalty. 

Current students in the nursing core program are not impacted by this probation, and operations for those enrolled will still be conducted.

"Aspen previously instituted an improvement plan which it believes is beginning to show results. It welcomes the opportunity to work closely with the Board and its staff in making additional improvements to its program through the terms of this agreement," read a portion of a statement released by AU officials.

Students say they knew nothing of the investigation

Aspen University has 1,500 students in Arizona, and we spoke with five of them. All of them agree that for them, nursing is a calling.

"I've wanted to be an RN since I was about five years old," said Swinler.

"I've been wanting to be a nurse almost my entire life," said Karina Maldonado.

Maldonado says she was inspired by her late mother, who was once a nurse herself.

"She was a very huge role model into being a nurse, and to being the best nurse I could possibly be," said Maldonado.

Even as we are in a seemingly never-ending pandemic, nurses seems to remain the backbone of healthcare.

"That's the kind of nurses that we need in this world is, you know, people that aren't afraid to get out there and make a difference and help," said Sasha Godsil.

Since news of the investigation spread, several AU students came forward, claiming the university left them in the dark about the entire situation.

"I wasn't even aware that any of this was going on until I tried to reach out to apply for my next steps, for the core, and that's when I was informed," said Regina Melendez.

Melendez is one of 700 AU students in the Phoenix area who have completed pre-requisite courses. For students like Melendez, the next level would be the core program, in which there are 800 students currently.

Like Melendez, Swinler was on her way, until she learned on Facebook about the investigation into AU.

News of the investigation spread after a board meeting on Jan. 28, when investigators revealed concerns.

"I was in the HESI on Jan. 27," said Swinler, referring to a test provided by nursing schools to determine if a student is ready to pass the NCLEX exam. "So they knew about this, and yet I'm sitting in there taking a test that I'm not going anywhere with."

"If they knew in 2021, why keep enrolling people?" said Melendez. "Why keep us going forward and enrolling us in classes and exhausting our financial aid like that? That, to me, if you knew about it, why not be fair enough to your students and let them know 'hey, this is what we're facing.'"

Students we spoke with are mothers who juggle school and full-time jobs. They are all driven by the same dream.

"I actually was doing homework while I was in labor with my youngest, my youngest kid, because that's just how much time you have to commit to the program," said Erika Pruitt.

"This is what's supposed to be my career and my life to set my family straight, and for this to happen, it's just so unfortunate," said Maldonado.

Former, current students speak out on learning model

Godsil was asked if students at AU are going to be prepared to be able to treat patients, take care of them the right way.

"I honestly don't know," Godsil replied. "From what I have read and heard from other people in core, there is massive concern about that."

Godsil is a stay-at-home mom who enrolled at AU in June 2021. She dedicated herself to her courses, and earned a 4.0 GPA. However, she said the "self-study" online learning is a struggle for many students.

"Yes, I have a 4.0 with Aspen University for all my prerequisites that I've done with them, but in the end, if I were to switch to another college, do I have the knowledge to be able to continue on after learning what I should have learned? I don't know the answer on that."

"No real teaching," Maldonado "It's just 'this is the chapter you're supposed to read. This is your question, this is your assignment. It's due Monday before midnight.'"

"There was no structure," said a former AU nursing program student, identified only as ‘Rebecca.’

Rebecca said she experienced learning troubles first-hand at AU.

"There’s an issue here, because I’m not getting what I thought I would get out of this program, which is a lot of hands-on, more thorough support from instructors," said Rebecca. "It got to a point where I was like, I can’t continue here because in the long run, when I get out of the school, I wanna be confident with my head high knowing I know what I’m doing."

Rebecca was enrolled with AU until October 2021. She then transferred into another nursing program, but says she spent at least $22,000 on AU. 

"My education of going back to school at the wrong school," said Madison Harbin, an AU student in Texas. "I feel like Aspen doesn't care about their students, and they're not letting us know what's going on, especially now."

Harbin is waiting to get into the nursing program, and since everything is virtual, she fears she will get the same kind of education described in the Arizona board's findings.

"I mean if the core classes, or anything like the classes I'm taking now, then no, I'm not going to be a great nurse," said Harbin.

AU students say one of the biggest concerns is the lack of direct care clinicals. According to the nursing board, AU requires 855 hours of ‘clinical contact’ at a clinical site, but the graduating September 2021 cohort was offered 270 hours, and the rest in a virtual setting. That marks a 63% decline in clinical hours for AU, compared to 15% for other Arizona nursing programs affected by the pandemic over the same period of time.

As for Rebecca, she said she is preparing to graduate from her new nursing program in August 2023, now confident in her skills.

"Someone’s gonna have to actually depend on you to help them at their bedside," said Rebecca.

Officials with Aspen speak out

In an e-mail to AU employees obtained by us a week ago, Mathews cited COVID-19 as a main factor impacting nursing schools and NCLEX first-time pass rates nationwide.

In response to the Arizona Board of Nursing's investigation, Mathews says AU disagrees with the board's findings.

"We are considering invoking our right to follow the formal administrative appeal process in order to ensure the university is afforded due process."

During the January board meeting, AU's Chief Nursing Officer, Dr. Anne McNamara, said officials noticed concerning signs in 2021.

"In 2021, we knew we were in trouble, and so, we started making some changes," said Dr. McNamara. "Faculty did a full curriculum review, and made updates to many things in the program, and I think that's some of what angered the students, because we made it more rigorous and they didn't like that."

School officials offer options for affected students

In the meantime, officials with AU are providing options to pre-professional nursing students who can't begin the core program due to the investigation.

As part of the options, February 2022's cohorts can join a waitlist, and receive a 65% tuition discount once cohorts are available, or use that discount if they relocate to a campus outside Arizona. An alternative is to transfer to another institution, but it is not known which specific credits can be taken elsewhere.

The 65% tuition discount on the core program is also offered to an incoming nursing student choosing to move to campuses in Tampa, Fla., Nashville, Tenn., Austin, Texas, or Atlanta, Georgia.

Some students, however, say they want to be reimbursed for what they have already spent.

"I think so far, I've taken out $12,000 as far as like student loans, and then I got a couple grants from Pell Grants, but once that's gone, that's gone," said Pruitt. "If I spent x amount in loans, you know, having to pay that back on top of taking out more for my next steps, kind of frightening to think about."

As leaders of AU claim a new curriculum is being implemented and improvements are being made, board members say the influx must be put on hold.

"The problem wasn't lack of students. Part of the issue is they grew way too fast," said McCormies.

"It is the worst nightmare," said Godsil. "I have worked so hard, and to lose this opportunity, I don't -- I don't have the words. I don't. I have not been sleeping. I have a little boy that's three and a nine-year-old, and to think that in April, when I should have started that two years from then, I would be able to graduate with my RN and support my family and give them a better life, and to have that ripped away, it's crushing."

On Feb. 24, AU leaders are scheduled to appear before the Arizona Private Postsecondary Education Board, which licenses and regulates more than 200 postsecondary educational institutions. The board is also investigating AU as a whole.

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