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Nursing students file class action lawsuit against school

The lawsuit claims Excelsior College defrauded hundreds, if not thousands of students into enrolling in a dead-end nursing program


By Bethany Bump
Times Union

ALBANY, N.Y. — Excelsior College, a private, distance-learning institution based in Albany, has been hit with a class action lawsuit alleging it defrauded hundreds, if not thousands of students into enrolling in a dead-end nursing program.

More than a dozen former students are listed as plaintiffs in the suit, which was filed Thursday in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York and raises significant doubts about the legitimacy of the college's associate degree in nursing program.

According to the complaint, getting into the program was easy—it was getting out that was hard.

Former students say the college failed to inform them what it would take to pass the program's final exam, known as the Clinical Performance in Nursing Examination, and then forced them to wait anywhere from a year to 18 months to take it, despite statements from the college that it would take no more than three to six months from the time of registration.

In many cases, students had to pay fees to attend far-flung workshops in order to prepare for the test. And when they finally did take it, students allege they were failed for minor or subjective reasons, or for errors on the part of examiners.

The complaint alleges the high failure rates were intentional.

It cost students nearly $2,300 each time they took the exam, and many students were unaware they had the right to appeal a failing mark, the complaint says. Because they had already invested so much into the program, many chose simply to pay the extra money and retake the test—a process that, once again, stretched over a year.

Each year they were in the program students had to pay a $500 registration fee—something they didn't learn about until after they were enrolled, the complaint says.

"While Excelsior has an easy admissions policy, graduating from (the program) is difficult by design," the complaint says.

Of 10,432 individuals attending Excelsior's associate nursing program, only 718 individuals were said to have graduated in 2017, according to College Navigator.

Founded in 1971, Excelsior College bills itself as a not-for-profit institution with a "deep commitment to helping those left behind by traditional education." It's popular among older adults, working parents, single parents, veterans and military service members for its flexibility—classes can be taken online, and previously earned credits are often accepted as transfer credits.

In a statement to the Times Union, Excelsior College defended its nursing program, which it says has been continually accredited since 1975 and has graduated "44,754 people ... from the associate degree in nursing program since its inception."

"These allegations are without merit," the college said.

It points out that the National League for Nursing designated the college a "Center of Excellence in Nursing Education" on four consecutive occasions, and in its latest designation, was commended for "creating environments that enhance student learning and professional development."

But the former students said they received little help during their time in the program.

Shewanda Williams, a mother of two from Texas, enrolled in 2009 and was told she would receive the same instruction as she would at any traditional college. Yet unlike typical nursing programs, Williams says she did not receive any clinical instruction in the field.

When she signed up to take the final exam, she learned the waiting period would be nearly one year.

She failed, she was told, due to a "choice of wording" and eventually had to change careers.

The exam requires students travel to one of about 12 designated testing sites around the nation and, over the course of a weekend, complete a series of tasks that include developing a care plan for a live patient in a hospital setting. Students must pay for travel and lodging costs.

One plaintiff—a retired soldier from Pennsylvania with 24 years of experience as a paramedic—said he was alarmed to learn that an academic advisor he was assigned was not familiar with the subject matter the students were being asked to learn.

Another plaintiff, John Lowman of Texas, was a licensed vocational nurse when he enrolled in 2013 and failed the exam twice—once in 2015 when examiners prematurely ended the exam and once in 2016 after he encountered "non-functioning equipment" at the testing facility, the complaint says.

Another plaintiff from Texas was failed because he refused to administer a patient an expired drug, over the examiner's wishes, the complaint says.

The plaintiffs allege they lost thousands of dollars as a result of fees, tuition, travel expenses and loans taken out to pay for the program. Some lost out on advanced job opportunities that were being held for them at their place of employment, and others had to change careers entirely, the complaint says.

The suit requests plaintiffs be reimbursed for actual losses as well as emotional distress, and calls on Excelsior to take several actions in the name of transparency, including posting its pass/fail rates and graduation rates conspicuously, disclosing to students the various fees they will be expected to pay, and informing students their credits may not transfer.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs are John Hermina, of the Maryland-based Hermina Law Group, and Gregory Allen, of the California-based Law Office of Gregory Allen.

Copyright 2017 Times Union

McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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