Beckley, W. Va.-based Mountain State University’s accreditation has been revoked and, barring a successful appeal, may be forced to close its doors by Labor Day. The Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (HLC), Mountain State’s accreditor, issued a report stating that the school’s accreditation will be withdrawn Aug. 27.
The main impetus for the withdrawal of Mountain State’s general accreditation came from the loss of accreditation for the school’s undergraduate nursing program. In 2010 the National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission (NLNAC) withdrew its accreditation for Mountain State’s Bachelor of Nursing Science because of insufficiently credentialed faculty and a low rate of students passing the nursing licensure exam.
After an unsuccessful appeal, the NLNAC decision became effective in spring 2011—which prompted the HLC to issue a “show-cause” order in June 2011. While having to justify to the HLC why it should remain accredited, Mountain State was denied an application for accreditation by another nursing accrediting agency and was barred from admitting new nursing students by the West Virginia Board of Examiners for Registered Professional Nurses. Additionally, the university had its diagnostic medical sonography program placed on probation because of a lack of appropriate resources, including an insufficient number of clinical placements for students and a lack of appropriately credentialed faculty.
After reviewing Mountain State’s financial information, the HLC determined that the university doesn’t have financial or academic plans for the future that factor in the loss of the nursing program, the possible loss of the sonography program, and declining enrollment in other programs.
Interviews with students, performed by HLC staff, determined that the school had “failed to inform students about its loss of nursing accreditation.” Students also did not understand the consequences of the accreditation revocation and continued to make decisions based upon on inaccurate and incomplete information. Mountain State’s failure to inform students about the nursing program’s loss of accreditation has led to the filing of 35 separate lawsuits by former students, almost all of whom claim they were misled by the university about the program’s accreditation and recognition.
The school’s problems were not solely limited to the handling of the nursing program’s loss of accreditation. The HLC determined that, despite the recent termination of the university president, Mountain State continued to face serious governance issues. Charles H. Polk, who had been president of Mountain State since 1990, garnered attention for receiving $1.8 million in compensation, which made him the sixth-highest paid private-college president in the country.
The HLC review stated that, even after Polk’s removal, several of Mountain State’s administrators “lack credentials and previous employment experience consistent with their job titles and responsibilities.” The report went on to state that a small group of administrators loyal to Polk had “a long history” of controlling the university and that, even after the ouster of the former president, most of them are still in place.
The HLC determined that, with $27 million in debt and a recent downgrade of the university’s bond rating to below investment grade, Mountain State is financially unstable. Part of the instability comes from the school’s inability to meet short-term debt obligations; that included shopping trips and financing a new residence hall. Once completed the residence hall was deemed not valuable enough to secure a $9.7 million line of credit, which forced the university to put $10.8 million in cash as security, states the HLC report.
Mountain State’s cultural focus on increasing enrollment allowed for the creation of academic inconsistency across the multiple platforms—residential main campus, satellite campuses, online, dual credit, and independent study—that the school utilized for content delivery. One of the lawsuits filed against the school alleges that a student went three semesters without a single professor providing a syllabus or returning grades.
Additionally, the report finds, the school has a student retention rate of 48% and that only 4% to 8% of Mountain State students graduate, both of which are rates below those of similar institutions.
In a statement posted to the school’s website, Mountain State’s interim president Richard E. Sours said that the university community is “disappointed and surprised” by the withdrawal of accreditation and promised that a “prompt appeal” would be undertaken. The college has until July 27 to file the appeal paperwork.
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