Ever Upward

When health care workers such as paramedics, emergency medical technicians (EMTs) or LPNs weigh the prospects of earning a nursing degree, the challenges can seem insurmountable. The stress and heavy workload of their current positions, as well as family and personal obligations, can make even the most ambitious student re-evaluate such a decision.

That’s where Excelsior College (EC) comes in. The school’s innovative online nursing program is designed to help health care professionals earn an associate’s, bachelor’s, or even a master’s degree while still working at their jobs and taking care of their families.

Thousands of nurses have taken advantage of this program since the college was established back in 1971. Called Regents College until early 2001, Excelsior College, based in Albany, N.Y., was renamed to focus on its “ever upward” philosophy and to mark its independent charter, granted by the New York State Board of Regents.

Founded to provide distance education and give nursing students a way to receive college credit for their prior health care experience and knowledge, Excelsior College lets students integrate what they already know into degree programs such as: Associate of Science, Nursing; Associate of Applied Science, Nursing; Bachelor of Science, Nursing; RN-to-MSN; and Master of Science, Nursing, with a major in Clinical Systems Management. An RN-to-BS(n) program was added in Fall 2001. The associate and baccalaureate degrees are accredited by the National League of Nursing (NLN) Accrediting Commission.

This novel distance education program is helping to address the nation’s urgent nursing shortage by providing nurses and other types of health care professionals with the ability to earn advanced credentials–or to refocus their careers into nursing—without having to take time off from their jobs.

“A Good Place for Minorities”

“From my perspective as an African American, it’s a good place for minorities,” says Sharri Pickney of Neptune, N.J., who graduated from Excelsior with an associate degree in nursing earlier this year. “Overall, it was a positive experience. The exams are fair, the instructors are there for you, you get to learn in your own style and my tuition dollars went further than at a traditional college. Whatever I asked, they answered.”

An agency LPN, Pickney shaped her degree program to fit her work schedule while reserving some time for herself. “As an LPN, I already had very good training as a nurse,” she explains, “so I thought it would be redundant to go back to the beginning at a traditional college. I could have finished [the EC program] in one year, but I took my time and spread it over two.

“People ask me, ‘Is it hard?’ I tell them it is challenging but if you study and know your critical elements, you’ll do fine.”
The EC School of Nursing actively recruits both minorities and men (see “Excelsior by the Numbers”). According to Associate Dean Marianne Lettus, “We have a higher percentage of male students than traditional programs. Many of

Independent Scholars

Both Lettus and EC Nursing School Dean Mary Beth Hanner are alert to the special needs of adult learners with prior nursing or health care experience. “Flexibility is the critical thing for most of our students,” Hanner says. “Their average age is around 40 and many of them have families.

 

“We are a distance-learning program and our students work at their own pace,” she adds. “They don’t have to focus on areas in which they already have extensive experience and expertise. For example, an OB nurse does not have to spend a lot of time in that area but might have to focus more on diseases of older adults.”

 

EC’s programs are not for everyone, Hanner concedes. “Students must already have a clinical background, such as LPN, EMT, military service corpsman (certain classifications), paramedic, etc. And potential students need to know that we do not provide instruction; we are an independent study program.”

However, this doesn’t mean that students are entirely on their own. The range of support services is extensive, and includes teleconferences, study guides, a bookstore, videotapes and workbooks, and more. In addition, an electronic peer network connects students with each other, helping to create a feeling of community.

Most Excelsior students come to the program with credits from a traditional college or university. When they enroll in the online college, they are assigned an advisor who does an official credit evaluation from the student’s previous transcripts and informs the student about how much of this prior work can be applied as credit toward their EC degree.

“They receive a letter explaining what they need to do and how to get started,” Lettus explains. “It’s up to the student what they do next. They may take general education courses at a regionally accredited college in their area or choose to take a CLEP exam or enroll in a distance-learning course. The majority of our associate degree students choose a combination of course work and examinations.”
For their nursing component, students in the associate degree program complete seven exams in nursing content. “There is a study guide for each,” says Lettus. “If students have concerns about taking the exams, they can call and make an appointment to talk with a faculty member by telephone.”

How much does all of this cost? At the associate degree level, costs include a $765 enrollment fee, which covers one calendar year of advising and evaluation services. For each year after that, the advising and activity fee amounts to roughly half the enrollment fee.

In keeping with the program’s emphasis on flexibility, many of the program costs can be handled on a pay-as-you-go basis. “Most associate degree students graduate in 18 months,” says Lettus. “They pay for each written exam as they take it. Nursing written exams are $145 and earn four semester hours of credit. The clinical exam is $1,200, the most expensive component. Books, tuition, etc. come to about $5,000 to $6,000 for the whole program.” The college also offers a variety of financial aid options.

The ASN and AASN programs have a 50-52% student retention rate that Lettus notes is about average for associate degree programs. The retention rate at the bachelor’s level is lower, in the 30-percentile range. “We have concerns about this,” she admits. “I think it is caused primarily by the fact that our students have full-time jobs and are required to do so much mandatory overtime.”

Best-Kept Secret

“I think Excelsior College is the best-kept secret in nursing education,” says Barbara Nichols, RN, DHL, MS, FAAN, an EC faculty member based in Philadelphia. “It’s an excellent school with a well-prepared faculty who are committed to excellence and to helping students achieve their goals. That makes for a phenomenal learning environment.”

 

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Nichols, who recently received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Black Nurses Association, is also CEO of the Commission on Graduates of Foreign Nursing Schools. When prospective students ask her about EC, she often encounters misconceptions. “Sometimes they think it is not a bona fide degree,” she explains. “Then they learn it is accredited just like [the schools of nursing at] Emory University or Vanderbilt.”

 

William Cody, RN, PhD, agrees. “The testing is rigorous,” he says. “That’s why it is such a reputable degree.” An associate professor and chair of the Family and Community Nursing Department at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, Cody earned a 1982 associate’s degree and 1986 BSN degree from EC when it was called Regents College.

At the time he first enrolled, he was an LPN working in an ICU. “I didn’t want to have to start over from the beginning, learning how to take blood pressure,” Cody recalls. “It was exciting to me to be able to move forward [with my education] and still support myself. Excelsior College’s programs are for self-starters.

“I’d never have become an RN without the college,” he continues. “I’ve heard a lot of [other EC graduates] say the same thing. It’s hard to be an LPN near the bottom of the pecking order and go to school. But Excelsior treats you with respect and wants to help you succeed.”
Now a member of the EC Nursing Family Committee, Cody is excited about remaining part of the college. “For me it was a journey from LPN to bachelor’s to master’s to doctorate to faculty member. They started the ball rolling; I would not be where I am without them.”
Cody believes the college is “very egalitarian about minorities and men in nursing. As a faculty member, I know that all of EC’s written course material is sensitive about gender, race and ethnicity. When I was at the 2001 graduation ceremony in June, the diversity was obvious–different accents, people of color, men and women. It was a celebration of diversity.”

Take Your College to Work

Elizabeth Critchlow Benfield was a home health nurse when she entered the bachelor’s degree program at Excelsior. She had a diploma in nursing from a non-U.S. school and was eager to earn her BSN. Still, making the transition took effort.

 

“It was difficult to work full time and complete the degree,” remembers Benfield, who is African American. “It took me a year to get my mind disciplined. I had to create a study space in one of my bedrooms and make myself sit there an hour a day.

 

“I tell people, ‘This is not an easy program,’” she continues. “It can be stressful, especially when you have to travel for clinical exams. I live in Brooklyn but because of the time frame I was working with, I had to go to California to take my clinicals. But in the long run it worked out well. It was a wonderful experience and the support was there for me. I was able to call the counselors and get advice as often as I needed.”

A June 2001 graduate of Excelsior’s BSN program, Benfield plans to forge ahead with both her career and her nursing education. “Occupationally, I can now become a supervisor in my department; educationally, I can earn my master’s degree,” she says.

Recognizing the difficult balancing act that working students face, some health care facilities are helping to ease the process for their employees by making arrangements with Excelsior College to conduct a Project LEARN (Learning, Experience, Assessment, Resources and Networking) program on site. Tina Raggio is director of Project LEARN at the Albany Medical Center in Albany, N.Y.

“The advantage of having a program on the premises is that it fits into our employees’ schedules,” she explains. Most Albany Medical Center student/employees can take their clinicals right at the hospital, reducing the cost and stress of having to travel to take them. In addition, a skills lab, library and on-site access to counselors are available at the facility.

Albany Medical Center has a contract with Excelsior College to administer the program for employees interested in pursuing a degree in nursing at the associate and bachelor’s level, as well as in the RN-to-MSN program.

Raggio, herself a 1987 EC graduate, says the on-site program is welcomed by both supervisors and students. “Over 300 students here are taking advantage of it,” she says. “There is a tremendous demand in nursing [for a program like this], and there are more Project LEARNs in the works for Excelsior.”

Learning for Success

Ask Katrina Brown, RN, currently a student in the BSN program at EC while working as a nurse at Ohio State University Hospitals East in Columbus, if she would do it again and she answers with an immediate “Yes!”

“The experience has benefited me greatly,” she says enthusiastically. “As of July, I am now associate director of Perioperative Services at the hospital. Attending Excelsior contributed to that advancement. It taught me leadership ability and organizational skills.”

Brown, who is African American, found the college a good fit. “It is particularly friendly to minority students,” she emphasizes. “Because it’s an online college, I don’t think they even know your race. I’m a single mother who works full time. I’ve been a nurse since 1985 and a perioperative nurse in the OR since 1992, so testing out of the basic nursing courses was not hard for me to do.”

Brown is a good example of an independent learner who knows how to take advantage of the college’s flexible options to meet her particular needs. “At one point I felt I needed an instructor, rather than preparing for my clinicals alone,” she relates, “so I took a class at the local community college to assist me in learning the proper techniques for doing a physical assessment. The Excelsior programs are meant for mature adults who know when they need a class to help them.”

On June 30 of this year, Brown traveled to Albany to be inducted into the Honor Society at Excelsior College. “It was one of the best experiences I ever had,” she says. “They welcomed me with open arms.”