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For-profit nursing school advances in Milwaukee, but critics say they won’t stop fighting project

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For-profit nursing school advances in Milwaukee, but critics say they won’t stop fighting project

Jun 12, 2024 | 8:30 am ET
By Erik Gunn
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For-profit nursing school advances in Milwaukee, but critics say they won’t stop fighting project
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As a for-profit nursing school proposes to open a campus in Milwaukee, existing nursing school operators and community activists are campaigning to thwart the project.

The Arizona College of Nursing (AZCN) says its proposal would contribute to reducing a shortage of nurses in Southeastern Wisconsin.

“We have a long history of connecting aspiring nurses with quality educational opportunities, including first time pass rates that are in alignment with the national average as well as the Wisconsin average for the past year on the [nurses] licensure exam,” said Tamara Poole, an AZCN associate provost, at a Milwaukee city council zoning committee hearing earlier this month.

But a coalition of organizations have publicly urged officials to block the college based on what they argue are predatory practices of for-profit colleges.

“The presence of such an institution threatens to erode the standards of nursing education, potentially compromising the care that future nurses will provide to our community. Milwaukee deserves institutions that uplift and empower its residents, not those that jeopardize their futures,” said Quinton Cotton of the MKE Black Grassroots Network for Health Equity at the same zoning meeting, held June 4.

The critics have been focusing on trying to stop a technical zoning change that city officials said was necessary for the college to occupy the building where it plans to operate.

Despite objections, the college’s plans advanced Tuesday as the Milwaukee Common Council approved the zoning change. Several alders who voted for the change said they agreed with critics of for-profit higher education, but took seriously the threat of a lawsuit if the city rejected the change.

Health care worker shortage

The school’s bid to enter the Wisconsin market comes amid a national shortage of health care workers. Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers earlier this year established a task force to examine ways to boost the number of people entering nursing and other health care professions.

It also follows a series of for-profit colleges that have entered the Milwaukee market and, critics say, fallen short of promises to students. Most notable of those was Everest College, which shut down in Milwaukee in 2013 after three years and left countless students in debt and without the degrees they had hoped to earn.

For-profit colleges “flooded into Milwaukee during the great recession,” Michael Rosen, a retired economics professor and union leader at Milwaukee Area Technical College and one of those organizing the opposition, told the Wisconsin Examiner. “These groups prey on poor people’s aspirations.”

The coalition opposing the nursing school includes a number of health-related groups. “For-profit colleges like the Arizona College of Nursing have a history of targeting Black and Latino students and military veterans with little experience in higher education falsely promising well-paying careers, job placement, transferable credits, and affordable tuition,” states a petition circulated online by the Wisconsin Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, a coalition member. 

The petition cites research showing students at for-profit schools “borrow more, default at a higher rate, and have lower likelihood of employment” than their counterparts in comparable nonprofit schools.

A group of existing nursing training programs, including MATC and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, wrote to city council members in March asking them to oppose the school.  

“We do not need greater capacity, as the current Nursing and Health Sciences educators have sufficient capacity to increase Nursing and health related graduates,” the letter states. “The limiting factor is availability of staffing for sufficient clinical placements in the region.”

Arizona College of Nursing is under a consent decree with the Arizona State Board of Nursing based on 14 complaints filed with the agency. The order is in place until 2025.

Among the complaints cited in the agreement were “non-compliance with program policies and standards, a high number of program and course changes without adequate notice to students [and] inadequate clinical faculty,” according to the agreement.

Twenty campuses in 13 states

College executives have defended the institution’s record. “Arizona college graduates are performing in line with the national average and better than Wisconsin’s average,” CEO Nick Mansour told the zoning committee hearing.

According to the company’s website, the school was founded in 1991 as a private pharmacy-training school. In 1996 it became part of Eduvision Inc., an educational services company, and was renamed the Arizona College of Applied Health. The college was renamed again in 2012 as Arizona College, operating two campuses in the greater Phoenix area.

(The for-profit college is unrelated to either the University of Arizona or Arizona State University, both public universities.)

Arizona College launched a separate Arizona College of Nursing in 2013 and with it a bachelor of science in nursing program the college says can be completed in three years. The nursing college now has 20 campuses in 13 states.

The Wisconsin nursing board gave initial approval for the school’s entry into the state in late 2022.

Rosen subsequently filed a complaint with the nursing board against the school based on its record, including the Arizona consent decree. He said in an interview he was told that since the school had not harmed anyone in Wisconsin and had not broken any Wisconsin laws, there were no grounds for the board to take action.

The college took out development permits in September 2023 and signed a 10-year lease on 25,000 square feet of space in an office building on Milwaukee’s far west side.

When the building was first developed more than two decades ago in the city’s comprehensive plan, it was approved for uses including office, retail, business services and “personal instruction schools” — trade schools that don’t grant degrees, Sam Leichtling, city planning manager, told the zoning committee at the June 4 meeting.

Because the list doesn’t include a degree-granting college, the planning department prescribed “a minor modification to the detailed planned development,” requiring approval by the council.

Coalition campaigns in opposition

Opponents of the school organized to block the change. In February, the city plan commission recommended rejection of the change after an outpouring of criticism of the college and of for-profit colleges generally.

The college launched a web page to garner public support. The page includes an electronic message that visitors, who give their names and email addresses, can fill out to be shared with public officials.

The sample text on the message concludes, “We have an opportunity now to address the nursing shortage, and I urge you to support more Milwaukee nursing education opportunities with AZCN to keep up with Wisconsin’s health care needs.”

The council’s zoning committee put off acting on the zoning change in March. Alders said they were advised in later closed-door sessions that the for-profit college was likely to sue if the change was rejected.

At the committee’s June 4 meeting, which included testimony from opponents of the college as well as from college officials and supporters, the committee voted 4-1 to approve the change.

On Tuesday, the council voted to accept the committee’s recommendation, but a number of alders expressed their opposition to the project.

“You have individuals that are paying $70-80,000 just to get a piece of paper and sometimes not even a credit,” said Ald. Mark Chambers Jr., whose district is on the far northwest side of the city. “The city has had multiple colleges come into this location, come to the city and fleece our residents — plain and simple.”

Ald. Sharlen Moore, whose district includes the planned Arizona College site, said during Tuesday’s council vote that she disliked for-profit colleges, but the decision centered on how the property would appropriately be used — not on whether a particular business that would qualify met with the council’s approval.

“If it was a college that we did like, we will be voting yes. It’s something that we don’t like, we’ll be voting no — I’m looking at the precedent, on being fair,” Moore said.

East Side Ald. Jonathon Brostoff agreed. With “the extremely narrow set of criteria we’re allowed to look at for this minor modification, legally speaking … it’s a pretty cut-and-dried situation,” Brostoff said. “But that in no way takes away the sentiments shared earlier” by critics of the school, he added.

Rosen said that by Tuesday’s council vote opponents knew they would not succeed in blocking the zoning change. But he said that the critics were not ready to give up and were looking at various strategies at stopping the school.

“It’s clear that there are elected officials who were not happy about this, and they felt they were having to make a  pretty tough choice [in] approving a zoning change to allow what they acknowledge is a predatory institution,” Rosen said.