May 16, 2018; Inside Higher Ed

Adult learners, distance learners, and mid-career learners are often poorly served by the higher education system. Excelsior College was founded to help fill that gap, but they strayed from their mission and the program suffered as a result. Now they are repositioning, but are they too late?

Excelsior was founded in 1971 by the New York State Board of Regents, with funding from the Ford and Carnegie foundations. It became an independent nonprofit in 1998. It targets adult learners, including veterans and people making a mid-life career change or upgrade, plus those who simply need accreditation for jobs they already perform.

In the 2013 and 2014 school years, the nursing program grew explosively, increasing its revenues by $10 million each year. By 2015, nursing students made up nearly half of Excelsior’s student body, but only one in six got a degree.

Students accused Excelsior of misleading them, keeping them enrolled while making it extremely difficult to pass the Clinical Performance in Nursing Examination (CPNE). In 2014, a group of students filed a lawsuit claiming the college had not provided them sufficient information about the test. They settled in 2015, but in 2017, another group claimed that Excelsior was pursuing profit motives rather than students’ benefit, using similar tactics to those mentioned in the 2014 suit. James Baldwin, who assumed Excelsior’s presidency in 2016, said, “We knew there was a problem there, but there was a reluctance to lose the revenue.”

Nonprofit leaders will recognize an organization that strayed from its mission, and perhaps wonder where the board was to guide them back. Doug Lederman of Inside Higher Ed adds, “One wonders where the college’s accreditors were; officials at the Accrediting Commission for Education in Nursing did not respond to several messages seeking comment.”

Excelsior has tried to put themselves on a new path. They have adopted more guidelines for admission to the nursing program and have shrunk their budget and admissions accordingly, which unfortunately also means laying off staff. They have put information about the CPNE on their website, including pass rates.

Image courtesy of Inside Higher Ed

Baldwin claimed that “To me, if an academic institution loses its integrity, then it’s time to close. Because if you have no integrity, you’re in a business that’s going to eventually expire.” He seems determined to bring Excelsior back to its mission, serving students who are too busy, broke, uncomfortable, or otherwise marginalized to experience the traditional four-year college track.

But is that enough? The website contains more information about the CPNE, but the test still costs $2,300, requires retaking in its entirety if one part is failed, and offers limited spots each session. Excelsior has contracted with Pearson Education to administer their tests, and they brought their own PR issues; in fact, a 2015 Fortune article claimed that “everybody hates Pearson.” The 2017 lawsuit came after Baldwin took over, and after the new admission requirements were instituted.

Excelsior’s 2016 form 990 doesn’t show a lot of love from donors; in fact, the form shows that fundraising cost nearly $9,000 more than it brought in. The majority of the college’s funding, over $1 million, comes from government support. Where other colleges often rely on alumni for support, Excelsior doesn’t seem to have that option, especially since contributions in 2016 were less than half what they were in 2013.

The Wall Street Journal reports that adults over age 24 are the fastest-growing segment of the college market, and competition is growing. Dennis Devery, vice president for planning and research at New Jersey’s Thomas Edison State University, said Excelsior is “focusing, or refocusing, on adults and degree completion at a time when a huge group of institutions, public and private, are coming into that area.”

Will Excelsior’s profit-chasing years hamper its ability to serve its constituents in the future? They were among the first programs to serve this student demographic and could have had the jump on other organizations. Some of their success will likely depend on how deep the changes go, and whether they truly realign to serve students. Employees have described a vulnerable, low-morale atmosphere amid the cuts, but if the organization can truly realign around its priorities, perhaps there is hope yet.—Erin Rubin