After being home-schooled her whole life, Roseburg resident Whitney Meacham took a job working nights at a residential care facility for people with Alzheimer’s disease when she was 18. She also started working at Macy’s during the day.
She didn’t have much of a social life at the time, she said, but she was saving money and felt like her work was important.
While at the residential care facility, she realized she wanted a career in health care and decided to get licensed as a certified nursing assistant.
She worked as a nursing assistant at the Roseburg Veteran’s Affairs Hospital operating room for seven years, where she grew passionate about helping veterans.
“I took a lot of pride in its success and the presentation of that to our veterans,” she said.
She didn’t want to be a nursing assistant forever, so she decided to enter the Umpqua Community College nursing program with the intention of returning to the VA as a registered nurse.
But weeks after she graduated in 2018, she learned her plan to return to the VA as a registered nurse wouldn’t be possible.
UCC withdrew its national accreditation from the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing two weeks before Meacham graduated. Since the VA is a federal institution, nurses need a degree from a nationally accredited program. Meacham was in disbelief.
It’s not clear why the college decided to end its national accreditation on May 31, 2018, rather than waiting until Meacham and the others in her class graduated in June.
Nursing programs that voluntarily withdraw from the ACEN can continue their accreditation through the end of the accreditation cycle — June 30 — according to the 2017 ACEN accreditation manual. Marsal Stoll, CEO of the ACEN, confirmed that accreditation continues through the end of the accreditation cycle unless the program director specifically requests another date.
April Myler, director of the UCC nursing program, said in a statement sent to The News-Review that the program “elected to forego the National Accreditation by May 31 to meet accreditation reporting deadlines. Furthermore, ACEN staff were actively planning travels for the upcoming site-visit. UCC had an exit interview with ACEN in which the drop-date was not questioned, nor was any offer made by ACEN to extend the accreditation through the stated academic year.”
When The News-Review asked what “accreditation reporting deadlines” the college met by ending the accreditation on May 31, UCC spokesperson Tiffany Coleman did not respond to the question. The lack of a response raises questions about whether students in the class of 2018 could have kept the national accreditation.
The college’s decision prevents nursing graduates from working at a VA hospital that has struggled to staff and maintain employees in recent years. The area also has a nursing shortage, according to a recent Oregon Center for Nursing report. The withdrawal came as a surprise to UCC nursing students who were not notified of the decision by UCC administrators until weeks after graduation. Meacham said it has changed her entire career plan.
Myler said the college made the decision to end its national accreditation due to budgetary and time constraints. She said it was the best option for the program, which was struggling financially. The college has been in a financial deficit for years, according to minutes from an April UCC Nursing Advisory Committee meeting. Fees to renew the ACEN accreditation are at least $4,700, according to the 2019 ACEN continuing accreditation fee schedule.
But Meacham was frustrated with how UCC handled notifying students about the accreditation change.
Myler didn’t provide students with an official statement about her decision to withdraw its national accreditation until July 17, according to an email she sent to Meacham and other students. The college put out a press release regarding the decision on July 19 — about a month after graduation on June 15.
“This decision was not made in haste,” Myler said in the press release. “(The decision) included input from multiple community partners from UCC’s Advisory Committee (which is largely made up of staff from local clinical sites), colleague feedback from the Oregon Consortium for Nursing Education (OCNE), communication to the Oregon State Board of Nursing, and UCC student representatives, staff, faculty, and administration.”
“We had no idea until after we graduated,” Meacham said.
She said she first heard about the decision from a coworker at CHI Mercy Medical Center, where she now works as a nurse, a few days before Myler sent out the July email.
“At the time I was like, ‘OK, well they lost it but our class should still be OK,’ because we had already graduated,” Meacham said.
She texted Heather Monroe, one of two nursing program student representatives who attend advisory committee meetings. Meacham learned that the decision did, in fact, affect her degree.
“I was very angry,” Meacham said. “Anger and then heartbreak. I had already accepted a position at Mercy as a nurse because I knew the VA likes you to have experience. So I knew I wouldn’t be able to go back to the VA right away, but I didn’t realize it would be a longer journey than I first anticipated.”
Conversations on the nursing program class of 2018 Facebook page from July 15 show other recent graduates also didn’t know about UCC’s decision until July.
On July 15, Monroe posted on the Facebook page to try and mitigate the fears of students who had heard about the accreditation withdrawal but didn’t know how it would affect them.
“Okay, so a bit of damage control regarding the accreditation rumor,” Monroe wrote. “UCC has not lost its accreditation to keep the nursing program open and is still partnered with Oregon Health Sciences University and is accredited with the State of Oregon.” Monroe said it was only the national accreditation that had ended.
Monroe’s post didn’t pacify everyone’s worries, however.
“How does this affect people who plan to work out of state?” one student wrote.
“Holy crap. Calm me down before I start throwing stuff through the windows,” another student replied.
Other students voiced concerns on the Facebook page about how the loss of the accreditation would affect them.
“I am disappointed that April (Myler) didn’t feel like it was necessary to address this with us prior to losing the accreditation in May,” said one student.
Myler told the advisory committee she planned to end the accreditation at the meeting in April. But Monroe didn't attend that meeting, and she didn't learn about the decision until weeks later at the end of the term, according to a Facebook post on the class page. She learned about it one hour after she took a final exam, she said.
“I learned this at the time and (I see now) that I should have communicated it to the class,” Monroe wrote on the Facebook page.
Monroe didn’t respond to The News-Review’s Facebook message requesting comment.
UCC nursing administrators said having two elected student representatives on the advisory committee should have been enough to accurately relay information about the accreditation to the rest of the student body.
Myler said students spread many inaccurate rumors over the summer about how the end of the national accreditation would affect the program. That’s why she decided to make the first official statement about it in July. Some students incorrectly thought the program didn’t have state accreditation well into the beginning of fall term, she said.
“The message was out there, but it was being twisted and misinterpreted to the point that we have panicked students,” Myler said.
Ruth Verkuyl, administrative secretary for the nursing program, said, “business decisions aren’t necessarily run through the student body.”
Myler said she keeps an open door policy. Any students who were confused about the accreditation change could come speak to her, she said, even though she had not yet made an official statement about the decision.
“Due diligence goes two ways,” said Tiffany Coleman, spokeswoman for the college.
LaRae Coil, a second-year nursing student who accompanied UCC administrators to an interview with The News-Review, said she was aware of the accreditation change before the end of the school year.
She added that she doesn’t think her classmates would have better understood the accreditation change if administrators had put out a statement at the time of the decision. Students may have been too stressed at the end of the term to internalize information they heard verbally about an accreditation change, she said.
“I don’t know that that would have made a difference,” Coil said. “We heard it, we were exposed to it, whether people received it and took it and processed it, that I think is where the hiccup might have lied.”
Myler said she was under the impression that the VA could provide a waiver allowing UCC students to work there when she made the decision. That’s part of why she didn’t make an official statement, she said. UCC has not received that waiver from the VA, and students cannot work there in any capacity at this time, according to Sarah Teeter, spokesperson for the VA.
Myler said the administration also didn’t think the decision would affect many students. She said the number of students who go through the program intending to work at the VA — and the number of students who have been hired there in recent years — is small.
The VA did not fulfill a public records request The News-Review filed inquiring about how many UCC nursing graduates have been hired there in recent years before deadline.
The Facebook conversation from July shows that Monroe and Franci Smith, a nursing instructor at UCC, were also under the impression that the VA could still hire UCC graduates.
The Nursing Advisory Committee meeting minutes show that the committee made the decision only when Amanda Morrow, academic affiliation program coordinator with the VA, confirmed that UCC graduates could get a waiver to work there.
“Amanda (Morrow) shared that requiring a national accreditation was preventing the VA from hiring well-qualified nurses and inhibiting students from participating in clinical practices within their facilities,” read the minutes. Morrow told the committee national accreditation was no longer a barrier. “Conversations continued with statements of acceptance of forgoing the accreditation taking place so long as documented proof of ‘no need for national accreditation’ from the VA could be provided.”
The policy Morrow referenced had been “misinterpreted,” according to Myler. Myler said she learned the policy had been misinterpreted only after she made the decision to end the accreditation. Morrow no longer works at the VA and The News-Review could not reach her for comment.
“If anything then I wish that we would have just briefed some more on what does it mean, because then we wouldn’t have had the rumor mill,” Myler said.
But she maintains ending the accreditation was the best thing for the program. Administrators have more time to focus on strengthening the most important aspects of the program now that they don’t have to pay for the national accreditation and complete the paperwork associated with it, Myler said.
The program’s state accreditation is in good standing, Myler said, and she made sure it was before withdrawing the national accreditation. Myler also expects the UCC program will try to get nationally accredited again in the future, she said.
Marsal Stoll, CEO of the ACEN, said it’s unlikely the organization’s Board of Commissioners would overturn the program’s voluntary withdraw date of May 31 and extend the national accreditation to the 2018 graduates.
Meacham said she loves working at Mercy, but she never anticipated she would have to get an additional degree to work at the VA when she entered the UCC program.
“It has literally affected my entire plan for my career,” Meacham said. “I planned on going to the VA and building my career there versus having to build my career outside of the VA, and at some point get my bachelor’s degree and then going back to the VA.”
UCC has a partnership with Oregon Health Sciences University in which graduates can complete a bachelor’s degree online in one year for $16,164, according to the OHSU tuition schedule. But that’s time and money Meacham says she doesn’t have right now working full-time at Mercy and raising a 4-year-old and a 9-year-old.
“I have over $20,000 of student debt right now and I don’t feel that I got what I paid for,” Meacham said. “When you pay money for a service, you expect to get what you paid for.”
Max Egener can be reached at email@example.com and 541-957-4217.
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