Last week's news that Mountain State University's accreditation could be gone on Aug. 27 shocked many in West Virginia. While the school may not have a physical presence in the local area, the New Martinsville campus of West Virginia Northern Community College has had agreements in place with the university for nearly three years.
In fact, Mountain State University Center Township's "Student of the Year" was from Paden City, attending through the local college. While her master of science degree in strategic leadership will not be compromised, MSU cannot award degrees to current students and credits received from the university may not be transferable to an accredited school. This will directly impact the 3,769 enrolled students at MSU.
While officials at WVNCC declined to give a statement on the matter, many other authorities in the state are offering hope and help-which can be found in "The Reaction" portion of this three-section report.
The public disclosure notice released by HLC stated that MSU "has not conducted itself with the integrity expected of an accredited institution with regard to ensuring that its students have accurate and timely information about the status of their academic programs and consistent quality across all academic programs; does not have the human and financial resources expected of an accredited institution; has not demonstrated that it can plan realistically for the future to anticipate and overcome institutional challenges; lacks effective governance and administration to provide appropriate oversight over all levels of the institution and to take appropriate action to ensure quality in all its academic programs; and lacks adequate learning support and faculty oversight to assure an effective teaching and learning environment."
The university remains on provisional certification from the U.S. Department of Education because it has not demonstrated to the satisfaction of the department that it is able to monitor the academic progress of students to satisfy federal requirements.
It was found that the university was unable to demonstrate that its government is stable and effective. For, although the Board of Trustees fired the former president, the new system of oversight and evaluation were not deemed sufficient by the HLC, and there still appears to be distrust of the university's government.
And although some university administrators have been replaced, most of the administrators responsible for overseeing the quality of the university during its loss of accreditation by the NLNAC and recognition by the West Virginia Board of Examiners for Professional Nurses, remained in their positions.
It also appears that programs offered at the main campus, at different campus locations, online, or by independent study, and as dual credit, did not provide a consistent educational experience for students because the programs "are not of consistent academic rigor or do not have consistent resources or support." The independent study program was found to not have a required grade point average, nor other standards of academia in place." And perhaps one of the most shocking findings by the HLC is that the Houston, Texas, City Attorney has recently brought to the university's attention that there is an apparent over-awarding of prior learning credit to Houston police officers that does not appear to be consistent with the university policy. According to the HLC's investigation, the university had yet to act on this.
A report of detailed findings were included in the HLC's public disclosure notice, including information regarding Mountain State's loss of accreditation towards its bachelor's degree in nursing last year. The notice reports that in 2010, the National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission ("NLNAC") notified HLC that it was in the process of withdrawing accreditation from a bachelors degree in nursing at MSU after it found non-compliance with the university's standards in areas that included faculty members having insufficient credentials and low pass rates on exams for nursing licenses. MSU unsuccessfully appealed the NLNAC's action and the accreditation was withdrawn in spring 2011. Concerns were also raised by the West Virginia Board of Examiners for Registered Professional Nurses regarding MSU's low pass rates on licensing exams. Because of this, the board of examiners had required MSU to cease admitting new students to this nursing program.
In response to the adverse actions, HLC was required to further investigate to see if there were more issues with the overall quality of MSU. The president of the commission called for an advisory visit that resulted in the commission issuing a show-case order to MSU in June 2011. During the show-cause period, HLC was notified that an application for initial accreditation with a different specialized nursing accrediting agency was denied, that the West Virginia Board of Examiners for Registered Professional Nurses had withdrawn recognition from programs leading to licensing, and that a specialized accrediting agency had placed MSU's diagnostic medical sonography program on probation for lack of appropriate resources which included insufficient clinical placements for students and a lack of faculty with appropriate credentials. A follow up visit this past February found that MSU was not in compliance several areas of criteria for accreditation. On June 28, the Higher Learning Commission's Board of Trustees reviewed material provided by MSU, a show-cause evaluation team's report, the transcript of a hearing conducted earlier by a subcommittee of the Board with institutional representatives, and other materials and then acted to withdraw accreditation.
Furthermore, in the detailed findings, it appears as if MSU did not give its nursing students, which they also could not provide an accurate headcount of, clear and complete information regarding these nursing accreditation troubles, and although adverse actions have caused MSU to take action regarding some of its issues, the actions are "incomplete and their effects are uncertain. In addition, although the university has begun work on a new mission statement, members of the university were unable to clearly show support and understanding for the new mission.
Because of numerous issues, including the main ones highlighted above, MSU's financial future appears to be dim. The HLC reported that the university has $16.5 million in long-term debt and overall debt of $27 million, and MSU has failed to meet various debt covenants because of the large amount of debt taken on that was labeled as short-term (shopping mall purchase and residence hall financing) and failure to maintain debt service coverage ratios of at least 125 percent. MSU also has a promissory note of $9.7 million due on July 15, 2013, for which the bank is holding $10.8 million in cash as security because the residence hall that was recently built was deemed of insufficient value as collateral for the note. Also detrimental to its finances, are the several lawsuits that MSU is involved in regarding its handling of the nursing program.
The end of the detailed findings highlight troublesome statistics for MSU. The National Center for Education Statistics in its College Navigator tool shows a graduation rate of eight percent for first-time full-time freshman. Retention rates for first-time, full-time students are 48 percent and 30 percent for first time, part-time students. MSU explains that these students constitute only five percent of its enrollment, though the College Navigator reports that 28 percent of the university's entering students were counted as first-time, full-time students in 2010.
In a five-paragraph statement released on July 10, the Mountain State University Board of Trustees stated that it was both "disappointed and surprised to receive notice from the Higher Learning Commission of its intention to remove the university's accreditation." Furthermore, the board stated that it was "surprised because the report ignores the significant progress that has been made since the Higher Learning Commission notified the university of its concerns a year ago. Major changes have been undertaken in all of the areas of concern that were cited by the Higher Learning Commission and significant progress has been demonstrated in implementing these changes."
The board stated that missing in the HLC's response was recognition of the evidence that the university presented as documentation of its progress. The university also stated that the report was missing acknowledgment that in February, the commission had recognized that not enough time had passed to enable the university to make permanent change.
The university ended its statement by saying that it would "forcefully pursue our appeal" and that it would "provide updates on a regular basis as decisions are made."
The support and concern for MSU's students has been widespread. On Thursday, a press release from U.S. Senator Joe Manchin's office stated that the senator is "working to make sure that all possible resources are made available to any affected students and personnel." Furthermore, the release stated that the senator is working closely with the West Virginia HIgher Education Policy Commission, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and the U.S. Department of Education.
West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin also offered his support toward the Mountain State community, staying that his top priority is the students. "I understand that Mountain State University is considering whether to appeal the decision from the Higher Learning Commission and I appreciate their diligence during this process. My top priority is the students. I am working with the Higher Education Policy Commission and all the colleges and universities across the state to help the affected students, and give them guidance about their options and information concerning any financial assistance awarded to them at Mountain State University."
The West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission released a statement July 10 regarding Mountain State University's loss of accreditation. The commission encouraged current and prospective MSU students to explore "educational opportunities in their respective areas."
The commission coordinated college advising fairs in the Beckley and Martinsburg areas for students who would like to explore academic program offerings. The Beckley event was held July 12-13, whereas the Martinsburg event was held Monday and Tuesday. Kathy Butler, vice chancellor for academic affairs of the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission, said the largest fair was held in Beckley where most of MSU's students are located. Butler also stated that WVHEPC brought two experts on financial aid from their office in Charleston to Martinsburg. These individuals could pull up the students' financial aid records and show them possible options. Butler says that students could identify which academic program they are interested in and WVHEPC could supply them with information as to where there were other available programs from the state. Butler adds, "We are very clear, this isn't a recruitment fair; we are just providing information in case they want to go to a different school."
She added, "One thing we are careful about is that we aren't critical of Mountain State. . .this is a very unfortunate situation that has occurred. There are life changing situations happening now. . .it's impacting families."
Butler confirms that alumni from Mountain State have nothing to worry about in regards to their degrees. She adds that as long as the institution is in the process of losing accreditation or in an appeals process, that institution remains accredited. Butler adds that in the worst case scenario, if the ruling is not overturned, MSU will most likely go on and request accreditation through the end of the semester.
As for MSU students receiving state-level financial aid, such as the Promise Scholarship or the West Virginia Higher Education Grant, these students are encouraged to contact the WVHEPC's Division of Financial Aid by calling 1-877-987-7664, or by e-mailing financial aid.wvnet.edu for information regarding continued eligibility. Butler says that if MSU's accreditation ends up being taken away, some financial aid will not work at MSU, including federal financial aid and West Virginia's Promise Scholarship. These types of aid require the student to attend an accredited source of higher education.
For frustrated students, Butler says to not give up. She says that students will say that something has gone wrong and they will give up on their education. Butler says of this, "I'd say, 'Please don't do that. . . take some time to reflect and gather your options. . .If you can't finish a degree at Mountain State, let's find a place where you can."