Online Students Sue Over Fees, Lost Time and Wages

A lawsuit filed against Excelsior College alleges the institution defrauded nursing students of thousands of dollars and made it difficult for them to graduate.

November 1, 2017
 
Excelsior College

A class-action lawsuit filed against Excelsior College alleges that although the college has an “easy admissions policy,” graduating from its online associate degree in nursing program is difficult by design.

According to the suit, the Albany, N.Y., institution benefits from keeping students enrolled for up to seven years so that it can collect additional program fees and payments for the required for the college's Clinical Performance in Nursing Exam (CPNE), which many take more than once. The suit argues that Excelsior, a nonprofit catering to adult learners, “has an interest in expanding the number of years in which a consumer is enrolled” because its “sole purpose and motivation is profit.”

None of the former Excelsior nursing students involved in the suit passed the CPNE, which is required to graduate from the associate's degree program.

Excelsior officials declined to answer specific questions about the lawsuit. However, in an email to “Inside Digital Learning,” officials said, “These allegations are without merit.”

The suit was filed last week on behalf of 13 former Excelsior students from 10 states. It seeks, among other requests, for the college to:

  • post its graduation rates on its website
  • clarify the costs for taking the CPNE multiple times
  • reimburse the plaintiffs for certain program fees, uniforms and equipment
  • reimburse all costs related to the CPNE, including travel, lodging and study workshops
  • pay for students’ lost wages

Most of the former students said they incurred thousands of dollars in extra expenses during the time they were enrolled in the Excelsior program. Sherwanda Williams, a mother of two from Texas, said she accumulated significant debt due to lost wages, loans and CPNE test and travel fees. She did not pass the exam and is not working as a nurse.

This is not the first time that Excelsior has been sued by nursing students. In February 2014, 17 students from 11 states filed a class-action lawsuit against the college alleging some details of the distance learning program were withheld and others misleading. The learners claimed they were not given adequate details about fees and failure rates prior to enrolling. As in the current suit, online students claimed Excelsior was motivated by profit because students pay an annual registration fee and to retake the final exam if they don't pass. A settlement agreement for undisclosed terms was approved at a hearing in July 2015.

Facts and Figures

Excelsior’s website mentions the $2,295 CPNE fee and provides 12 locations that administer the exam: seven in New York, two in Texas and one each in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Georgia.

The website also states that nursing students “are responsible for all expenses (travel, hotel, meals, etc.) required to attend your exam. These expenses are not reflected in your CPNE tuition. Note: Repeating … the CPNE will require you to pay all tuition and/or fees that are associated with repeating the requirement.”

Donna Meyer, CEO of the Organization for Associate Degree Nursing, said that most associate's degree nursing programs are offered in person at community colleges, and that when students complete classroom and hands-on clinical work, they take the registered nurse licensing exam, which costs $200. She added that some colleges require an "exit exam" to prepare for the licensure exam, which costs $80 to $100.

Meyers, who taught nursing courses for 32 years, said: "If you are doing an online program, there has to be a way of testing clinical competency. The [CPNE] exam sounds very specific to Excelsior."

Learners cannot graduate from the nursing program without passing the CPNE, and the lawsuit states that Excelsior misrepresents the time required for scheduling and taking the exam. Matthew Ryan Cavo, of Texas, said in the suit that it took him one year to schedule his first exam, which he did not pass, and 16 months to schedule the second one, which he also failed. Kimberly Robertson-Davidson, of Oklahoma, said scheduling her exam took 18 months, even though Excelsior told her it would take three to six months.

Meyer's said that nursing students at community colleges can take the licensure exam right after completing required course and clinical work.

In addition to scheduling delays, the suit alleges that the test locations are not permanent. For example, on Aug. 3, Excelsior advised students that CPNE exams had been suspended at four Georgia testing centers.

Excelsior’s CPNE tests also are inconsistently administered, according to the suit. For example, Kelli Ramsey-Gunn, of South Dakota, said the CPNE is subjective and was administered differently at the two locations where she took the exam, thus preventing her from passing either time.

Meanwhile, the suit states that Excelsior does not disclose graduation rates for its associate in nursing program. There are no graduation numbers on Excelsior’s website; however, the site does say that students may attempt the CPNE up to three times, and that between July 2012 and June 2017, 6,640 individuals took the exam and 62.2 percent passed as of June 30, 2017.

In a written statement to “Inside Digital Learning,” Excelsior officials said that the college’s nursing program “has been continually accredited since 1975 and over the years has provided a pathway for more than 44,000 adults seeking an associate degree in nursing. The National League for Nursing has designated us a Center of Excellence in Nursing Education four consecutive times. The most recent designation, which extends to 2021, recognized the college for ‘creating environments that enhance student learning and professional development.’”

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