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Seattle U pushed a nursing master’s degree it couldn’t offer, lawsuit claims

Seattle University denies it intentionally misled students about the potential to get a nursing master’s degree through an accelerated program.  (Ellen M. Banner/Seattle Times)
By Elise Takahama Seattle Times

Four current and former nursing students at Seattle University are suing the school for allegedly advertising and promising master’s degrees it was not approved to offer, according to the complaint.

The lawsuit, filed last month, alleges the private university on Seattle’s First Hill knowingly promoted the master’s degree to two cohorts of students and accepted a $70,000-per-year tuition from them even though it hadn’t been authorized to offer the higher nursing degree as part of its accelerated doctoral program. As a result, students who thought they were on track to receive their master’s ended up walking away with a bachelor’s.

Seattle U has denied all claims that it intentionally misled students, instead referring to the mix-up as an unfortunate communication error.

“Although the university regrets the way information was communicated to doctoral students in 2020 about the proposed [master’s of nursing] degree, any allegation that the university marketed or advertised the degree with an intent to deceive students is categorically false,” the school said in a statement.

“The university cares deeply about its students and regrets any disruption this caused,” the statement added.

Seattle U offers a program providing a four-year track to a doctorate nursing degree, specifically catered to those who already have bachelor’s degrees in non-nursing fields. About 72 students make up an average cohort in that accelerated doctorate program, said Seattle U spokesperson Lincoln Vander Veen.

In 2019, university staffers approved a plan to also award a nursing master’s to students after five quarters in the doctorate program, or a little over a year, according to the complaint.

It was huge news to those who had already been enrolled in the 2023 cohort, who hadn’t expected a degree until then. A nursing master’s would allow them to take their licensing exams and start working as nurses while they finished the program.

“You can have leadership roles with a (master’s),” said Shelby Stephens, one of the plaintiffs in the complaint and a former nursing student in the school’s 2023 cohort. “As any graduate degree does, it stands you out a bit more from all the other nurses. It was such a huge goal of mine.”

Because the 33-year-old thought she had earned her master’s after her first five quarters, she decided to take a brief leave of absence after the summer of 2020 and get some experience working as a professional nurse. She had tentative plans to return to Seattle U in a year.

Stephens landed a job in a California hospital that fall, ready to start in December, but she still hadn’t received her degree.

“All Seattle U kept saying was, ‘Trust the process,’ ” Stephens said. “They never led me to believe that (the approval of the master’s) was even in question.”

The degree never came.

Meanwhile, even though the degree still hadn’t been approved by a state nursing commission, the school allegedly started accepting new students for its 2024 doctorate cohort. Many of them had applied under the assumption they would receive their nursing master’s after about a year, the complaint says.

The following spring, the school told students the state had declined to approve the master’s degree after all.

“At the end of it, I wasted nine months not being able to nurse,” Stephens said. During that time, she relied on babysitting gigs in California to help pay her bills.

Seattle U eventually granted Stephens a nursing bachelor’s degree, which was enough for her to take her licensing exam and get a nursing job in California, but her plans of pursuing her doctorate have crumbled.

“I’m scarred a lot by all of this,” she said. “I looked into many other schools, but none of my classes would really transfer over and it would be a sense of almost starting completely over.”

In response to allegations of fraud, negligent misrepresentation and violating consumer protection laws, the school has maintained it went through the proper processes to get its proposed master’s approved on time.

In the statement, the school said it sought approval from the Washington state Nursing Care Quality Assurance Commission in spring 2020 about offering the additional degree and “fully expected” a green light.

The school and the commission went back and forth for months, but the state ultimately declined to approve the accelerated master’s track primarily because it didn’t include enough hours of graduate-level clinical experience, Bonnie Bowie, Seattle U’s associate dean for graduate programs, told students during an all-cohort meeting in March 2021. The state requires 700 hours for a master’s; the school offered 600 in the first five quarters of the program.

The school also says the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education, a national accreditation agency, did accredit its nursing master’s and that it “did not need to communicate any caveat about its accreditation status.”

Seattle U ultimately withdrew its plans to award the early master’s and closed its general nursing master’s program, but some questions still remain around whether or not the accrediting agency deemed the former version of the program compliant. The national agency accredits by degree, not specific track or program, so while Seattle U itself is accredited to offer a nursing master’s, it appears the proposed master’s program faced several roadblocks from the commission – including failure to meet a core curriculum standard.

The agency did not immediately respond to inquiries about the school’s compliance status.

In November 2021, the state also found the university had violated two state administrative codes that require programs to provide accurate information to students and the public, but declined to take further action because the school had already ditched its early master’s plan.

Stephanie Lopez, another plaintiff and a former member of the school’s 2024 cohort, said she chose Seattle U over Johns Hopkins University specifically because of the dual-degree opportunity.

“My generation in my family is the first to go to college,” she said. “I was the first to get to graduate. It was a huge deal. I thought the master’s was a sure thing.”

Lopez’s plan, like Stephens, was to take a brief break from school after getting her master’s and work bedside.

“Not having my degree at the end of that first year messed everything up,” she said.

Fortunately, she said, the school granted her a nursing bachelor’s and she was able to land a job in the cardiac ICU at St. Joseph Medical Center in Tacoma. But she says she’s still $90,000 in debt and working on getting her student loans reimbursed.

“The whole experience was really disappointing,” said Lopez, who still wants to earn her doctorate and become a nurse practitioner eventually. “I’m working on getting out of that mentality, but it still does bother me. It’s a process.”