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Seattle U students sue, say school promised master's degree in nursing that wasn't state-approved

Current and former nursing students in a doctorate program are suing Seattle University. They say they were promised a master's degree and never got one.

SEATTLE — In a lawsuit filed Thursday against Seattle University, four former and current students say the school was deceptive, promising a degree that none of the students ever received.

The students were enrolled in a doctorate program but believed they’d be able to attain a master's in nursing.

“Being a graduate student was always my goal,” said Shelby Stephens, a former Seattle University graduate student. “It was years and years of preparation; I did undergrad at UC Santa Cruz to end up going to this graduate school.”

The university was the plan for Stephens, where she could get a Master of Science in Nursing. It would allow her more clout and pay. 

“Seattle U is a reputable institution; I chose it for that reason,” said Stephens.

Stephens now says the university isn’t reputable and didn’t live up to its promises. She enrolled in 2019 and spent an entire year working to get her degree. With a diploma in hand, her goal was to get a nursing job in California. Then she got a phone call, “And was told by the California Board of Registered Nursing that I didn’t have a degree on my transcript.”

Unbeknownst to Stephens and her fellow students, there was a serious controversy behind the scenes over the university's advanced nursing program. The state of Washington was sending letters to the university warning that their Master in Nursing program has not been approved by the nursing commission. 

“I was just desperate, when you’re in that state, you’re like well I don’t have a job, I don’t have a degree and I don’t have any way of making money,” said Stephens.

Stephens and her classmates had each paid nearly $70,000 in tuition for a degree. They wanted their money back. Their next step was to file a complaint with the state, saying this was a "frustrating and unjust experience."

“It just doesn’t make sense as well. That’s the main thing, it doesn’t make sense why I would pay for something and not get it,” said Stephens.

Last November, the state concluded the university broke the law. They ruled the school used misleading and inaccurate information. 

However, the state didn’t sanction them because the school voluntarily dropped this master's program.

“It was a scramble moment and a few months of feeling absolutely devastated,” said Stephens.

Seattle University released a statement Friday saying they are aware of the lawsuit and cares deeply about its students and regrets any disruption it caused.

The statement read, in part: 

"The university was accredited to offer an MSN degree, but in the end the Washington State Nursing Care Quality Assurance Commission (NCQAC) did not approve the university’s proposal to offer an MSN degree to these doctoral students, approving a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) instead. Although the university regrets the way information was communicated to doctoral students in 2020 about the proposed MSN degree, any allegation that the university marketed or advertised the degree with an intent to deceive students is categorically false.

"In the end, because the College of Nursing had corrected its communications to clarify that the proposed MSN was pending NCQAC approval, NCQAC resolved the technical violation of the administrative code without further action in November 2021. NCQAC also approved a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) for students in the APNI to DNP program—allowing those students to practice as nurses in states that require a nursing degree—as they progress toward their doctorates."

Read the full statement, here.

“We knew there had been transgressions, that school had falsely promised an MSN [Master in Nursing] degree. We didn’t know how out of compliance they were with state law,” said attorney Andrew Ackley, with Stritmatter Kessler Koehler Moore.  

Ackley filed a lawsuit Thursday against the school. In it, four students accuse the university of doing a lot more than betraying them. They said the school’s actions were so egregious they constitute deceptive practices, negligent misrepresentation and even fraud. 

“To not even be able to trust their educators is an affront to our future frontlines and also the public. Their education is monitored by administrative agencies for the protection of the public,” said Ackley. 

As for Stephens, the university ended up awarding her a Bachelor of Science in Nursing. She’s working in a hospital in California but she doesn’t have a master's degree. She may never receive one.

“I don’t think I’ll ever go back to school and I just don’t think I have it in me anymore,” Stephens said.

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