by CHRIS ROGERS
Minnesota State College - Southeast (MSC-SE) announced last week that it will end its professional nursing program because too few graduates passed licensing exams.
Southeast’s two-year associate degree in nursing (ADN) program prepared students to become registered nurses (RNs), and of Winona’s three schools of higher education, MSC-SE was the only one that offered a two-year RN track. By comparison, Southeast’s practical nursing program is a one-year program that prepares students to be licensed practical nurse (LPN). Generally, RNs have more training and responsibilities and are higher paid than LPNs. MSC-SE’s practical nursing program will continue and is not affected by the change.
To become a nurse, graduates must pass the NCLEX — the nursing equivalent of passing board exams. The Minnesota Board of Nursing sanctions schools where fewer than 75 percent of the graduates pass the NCLEX on their first try, and in 2013, just 68 percent of MSC-SE students passed the RN exam on their first try. In 2014, that figured jumped up to 83 percent, but in 2014 and 2015 it sunk to 64 percent and 62 percent, respectively. MSC-SE Dean of Health Jennifer Eccles said that Southeast expected that this year would be the third year in a row that fewer than 75 percent of ADN graduates passed the NCLEX-RN on their first try. If the school did nothing and continued accepting ADN students, Eccles said the Board of Nursing potentially could have forcibly shut down MSC-SE’s program, leaving students half-way through the program in the lurch.
So MSC-SE decided to voluntarily suspend the ADN program and stop accepting new students, Eccles explained. “We were very sad that we had to make this decision, but I think it was the right decision for our students. Southeast college has always said if we can’t do something really well, let’s find another way to do it well,” she said. “By taking steps to voluntarily suspend this program, students who are currently enrolled will be able to complete the associate degree in nursing, graduate, and sit for the NCLEX-RN exam,” Eccles stated. The program will officially shut down in 2019. “By voluntarily stopping we can continue teaching our students. It might have been a different story if we wouldn’t have stopped,” she added.
Several students had hoped to enter the ADN program this spring. Eccles said that MSC-SE was able to offer nearly all of them spots in the practical nursing program instead.
Eccles added that MSC-SE is already in early conversations with other local educational institutions about working together to continue offering a two-year RN program in the Winona area. Winona State University currently offers a four-year RN program.
Why did many Southeast graduates fail the exams? “I think there’s just multiple different reasons that go into that, and throughout that time we put corrective actions in place, but it takes time,” Eccles said. “For instance when you heighten your admission standards, those students don’t graduate for two years so they don’t take their tests for two years.” Eccles said that in response to poor passing rates, the ADN program raised its admissions standards, added student supports such as instructional videos to augmented classroom teaching, and offered nationally benchmarked tests so students could see how they matched up to nursing students across the country.
MSC-SE is not alone. This spring, it was one of five Minnesota schools with two consecutive years of low pass rates that were subjected to extra scrutiny by the Board of Nursing. According to its 2016 annual report, the Board of Nursing found some common challenges at those schools, including stability in faculty and leadership staff, “reliance on adjunct faculty due to inability to promptly fill open positions,” admission requirements, support for struggling students, and a need to add rigor to the curriculum and prioritize different areas of study.
Eccles said that faculty was not the problem at MSC-SE. “We have very qualified faculty. We weren’t finding that problem so much. I would say these guys did a really great job with their students,” she stated.
While the RN program is ending, MSC-SE officials explained that the practical nursing program is going strong. “We want people to know that our practical nursing program is accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) and is in good standing with the Minnesota Board of Nursing,” MSC-SE President Dorothy Duran stated.
On the LPN version of the NCLEX, from 2013-2015, MSC-SE pass rates exceeded the national and state averages with 86-92 percent of graduates passing on their first try, but they stumbled in 2016, when just 55 percent of graduates passed on their first try. Eccles said that, so far, 2017 passing rates are back on track with 88 percent of practical nursing students passing on the first try.
The ADN program’s suspension also does not affect the RN to Bachelor of Science in nursing completion program, which will be offered by Winona State University at MSC-SE’s Red Wing campus starting in January.