A group of former Excelsior College students have sued the institution over its online associate degree program in nursing, claiming the self-paced, competency-based curriculum clashes with an expensive and "subjective" clinical exam.
In the complaint, filed in a federal district court in New York, 17 former students in Excelsior’s associate degree program in nursing from 11 different states say the college sold them “ an ‘educational’ program that was devoid of any education, and ... an ‘objective’ test, which was anything but objective.” The students, many of whom have decades of experience in the medical field, are suing Excelsior for breach of contract and deceptive or misleading practices.
The nursing program’s curriculum can be accessed online or, for students without Internet access, as a set of CD-ROMs. Once students have passed several nursing theory exams, completed 21 out of the 31 required credits and taken a computer-based clinical assessment test, they take the college's Clinical Performance in Nursing Examination. The 17 students, however, say the coursework did not prepare them for the CPNE, and that Excelsior withheld information about the test until they “had expended resources and were irreversibly committed to completing the program.”
“Excelsior did not provide consumers with the clinical education that it promises,” the complaint reads. “ Instead, it provides a test.”
Competency-based education has attracted considerable interest lately, but the learning approach is not new territory to Excelsior. The college has been in the field for a long time, and has in fact been cited by some as evidence of the potential for competency-based education.
Still, several states have in recent years raised questions  about the preparedness of Excelsior’s graduates. California does not allow recent graduates to apply for registered nurse licenses, for example, and 14 other states require those who have passed the CPNE to log hundreds of hours of experience before becoming eligible.
Some studies have challenged those claims about competency-based education. In one example, the Council on Adult and Experiential Learning in 2012 found Excelsior’s graduates and students from other programs pass licensing exams at the same rate .
In a January 2013 exit survey , several recent graduates of the nursing program at Excelsior singled out the CPNE as the one aspect of the program they would change. Some recommended more practice materials and changing the test from a pass-fail system to a percentage score, while others called it “traumatic” and said it “ruined the [Excelsior College] experience.”
The CPNE costs $2,225 per attempt, and students are given a test date between three and eight months after signing up.
One of the 17 students, who spoke on condition of anonymity, did not sign up to retake the test after failing it the first time. The student described being subjected to “psychological tricks,” such as facing constant interruptions and having to whisper the reasoning behind each step of the clinical process. At one point during the test, the student said a registered nurse walked up and said “I feel really sorry for you guys.”
“They were trying to induce you to fail,” the student said. “When you’re playing against a stacked deck, you don’t stand much of a chance of winning.”
The group of plaintiffs also includes Jillian Phelan, who passed the CPNE “solely because of the Examiner’s discretion.” In Phelan’s case, the complaint says her examiner “assisted [Phelan] on six (6) different occasions during her examination” and “informed [Phelan] that she felt that the program was ‘unfair.’”
John Hermina, who represents the 17 students, declined to speak on the record, as the complaint was filed as recently as Wednesday.
William M. Stewart, assistant vice president at Excelsior, also said the college is not yet in a position to comment. He pointed out that the nursing program has been accredited since 1975, and that more than 42,000 students have earned associate degrees from the college and are working as registered nurses.
John F. Ebersole, Excelsior's president, also highlighted the college's experience in the field. "Facts are that this is a 40-year-old program that has produced more than 50,000 graduates and has been designated a Center of Excellence in Nursing Education by the National League of Nursing for the past 7 years," he wrote in an email. "We are proud of what we do and what we have achieved."