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Students left in limbo as Arizona State Board of Nursing seeks to halt admissions into nursing program

The Arizona State Board of Nursing is offering a consent agreement to Aspen University after an investigation revealing their nursing program is underperforming.

PHOENIX — Hundreds of Valley nursing students are scrambling to figure out what happens to them, and their future, as the Arizona State Board of Nursing is seeking disciplinary action including stopping admissions to Aspen University’s core nursing classes.

State investigation

At the Arizona State Board of Nursing’s latest meeting, board staff laid out issues they found in their investigation of Aspen University.

“This has been an extensive and complex investigation,” A staff member said in the meeting.

During the meeting, the Board, Board staff and Aspen University’s representatives discussed issues with students not being able to pass the NCLEX exam. The NCLEX is the exam required of nursing school graduates to get their license.

Arizona law requires that nursing programs have an 80% first-time pass rate of the NCLEX.

However, the Board told 12 News, Aspen University’s 2021 first-time pass rate was 58.04%, where 65 out of 112 students passed on their first try. 

Data for 2022 provided by the Board showed Aspen University currently has an 85.71% first-time pass rate with 18 out of 21 students who have taken the exam so far this year passing.

“This is vital for us as a nursing board as patient protection because this is where our future nurses are coming from,” An Arizona State Board of Nursing member said during the public meeting.

More than 30 minutes of discussion was heard during the January meeting, with state board members, staff, Aspen University representatives, and counsel addressing the concerns raised by the investigation.

12 News was not able to obtain a copy of the investigation, as state law keeps such investigations confidential.

Consent agreement not yet signed

“After considerable discussion, and expressions of concern about how to best mitigate potential harm to students, the Board voted to offer AU a consent agreement for a 36 month stayed revocation probation on its provisional approval,” A portion of a statement given to 12 News by the Arizona State Board of Nursing said.

Among the provisions in the consent agreement, the Board would require Aspen University to suspend new admissions to the core nursing program until it reaches the 80% NCLEX pass rate and keeps it up for a year.

A consultant would also be involved with Aspen University to address the issues.

However, Aspen University has not yet signed the consent agreement. They’re required to sign it by Feb. 18, or the State Board of Nursing can issue a notice of charges to the institution, which would start a hearing process and could lead to disciplinary action. 

Left in limbo

The State Board of Nursing said there are about 800 students currently in Aspen University’s nursing program in Arizona and about 700 students who had begun taking prerequisite classes to go into the core nursing program. 

“The core nursing program was supposed to start on the 15th,” Tonya Nelson, a student working on her nursing degree with Aspen University, said. “So, you know, I’m getting everything ready, and then just the ball dropped.”

Nelson is currently an LPN but has dreams of getting her Bachelors of Science in Nursing.

“I was just devastated,” Nelson said.

Aspen University has not responded to 12 News’ requests for comment on the issue, including questions about guidance for students who aren’t sure what next steps to take.

“Aspen University takes this report and the matters that are presented very seriously,” counsel for Aspen University said during the meeting.

Concerns were raised during the meeting that Aspen University’s prerequisite credits do not transfer to other schools because they are nationally accredited and not regionally accredited; however, a representative stated during the meeting they’re in the process of getting regional accreditation.

It’s the 700 students who have taken the prerequisite courses that would be affected by the consent agreement presented by the Arizona State Board of Nursing, as those students would not be able to move into the core nursing classes.

“It’s the wrong thing to do for those students to progress. I understand that means a lot of things to those students who don’t go into a program. But to put them into a program that is underperforming so badly is my concern,” an investigator for the Arizona State Board of Nursing said.

Aspen University’s website states the program, which has two locations in Phoenix, costs about $52,000 between tuition and fees.

“Without being able to pass the NCLEX, students may have financial debt without the ability to become licensed as nurses,” A portion of the Board’s statement said.

A statement from from Aspen University's President, Dr. Cheri St. Arnauld was posted Thursday on the university's Facebook page. Here's the full statement:

"Aspen University is working with the Arizona Board of Nursing to remedy our mutual concerns as quickly and expeditiously as possible. We all recognize that the COVID pandemic has damaged the ability of nearly all academic institutions to meet minimum standards, much less excel. We intend to continue to work with the Board to ensure our program meets and exceeds the standards set by the State of Arizona. 

Aspen began our program in Phoenix three and a half years ago, and our initial cohort graduated in 2020 meeting all State standards. Clearly, we failed to meet those standards in 2021. We adopted numerous changes throughout 2021 increasing the program rigor which are already showing results as we expected. In the first calendar quarter of 2022, we have an 85% pass rate as of 2/10/22.

Aspen was provided the Nursing Board’s consent agreement earlier this week. We are reviewing that presently. We will not, though, sign any agreement that jeopardizes our currently enrolled student’s ability to continue to work within our academic institution to finish their degree. Our most recent test scores indicate our commitment to improvement.  It is our hope that the Board of Nursing will recognize our improvements and not choose to diminish our ability to provide a pathway to meet the increasing demand for nurses in Arizona with qualified professionally registered nurses."

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