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Mountain State University students consider options

BEAVER, W.Va. -- Here are the grim options facing Kirk Mulcahy, a 31-year-old father of two who was studying to be a medical sonographer at Mountain State University:

"I can either leave MSU with no degree and no debt, or leave with $60,000 in debt for an associate degree I didn't want," said Mulcahy, a resident of Fayetteville. "What a horrible decision."

Mulcahy was one of 123 students who came to the Erma Byrd Higher Education Center on Thursday to weigh his education prospects after Mountain State University had its primary accreditation revoked.

The Higher Learning Commission, the regional watchdog group that accredits MSU, said this week that the private school had lost its primary accreditation for years of integrity issues, debilitating leadership, and a lack of program oversight.

If a school loses its primary accreditation, any subsequent degrees offered by the school will be considered illegitimate and not be recognized by other institutions. Students at the school also won't be able to get federal and state financial aid.

MSU officials have said they plan to appeal the decision, but students must now grapple with what the penalty means for them.

About 20 to 25 institutions throughout West Virginia set up shop at the advising fair on Thursday to provide students with a breakdown of their options.

Students like Melissa and Scott Keen came to the advising fair with their three daughters in tow. State higher education officials had them fill out information about their credits at MSU and past education history, and then directed them to different state officials with expertise in their areas, whether it was to field questions about their financial aid, transferring veteran benefits, or transferring colleges.

"If we wouldn't have come to this, we'd just be twiddling our thumbs at home and wondering what to do," said Melissa Keen. "No one at MSU is answering our questions."

There was no Mountain State University booth at the advising fair and no MSU administrator was on hand Thursday to answer students' questions.

A big question for many students, said state officials, was what MSU's loss of accreditation meant for their financial aid.

"Eligibility for the Promise Scholarship and any state grants are contingent on accreditation," said Ashley Schumaker, spokeswoman for the HEPC. "If Mountain State University loses its appeal and loses its accreditation, MSU students will not be eligible for federal or state financial aid."

MSU students who receive Promise funds can still transfer their remaining dollars to different institutions. They cannot recover any of those funds from the state, however -- the state will still only pay for students to take eight semesters' worth of classes, even if those semesters will not count because a university loses its accreditation.

MSU students received more than $1.3 million in state financial aid this year through the Promise Scholarship, the Higher Education Grant Program, and the Higher Education Adult Part-Time Student program.

A few higher education institutions like Mountwest Community and Technical College say that all MSU students' credits will transfer. With other institutions, like West Virginia University Tech, students must discuss their transfer options with the school registrar.

But some students don't have any good transfer options.

Mulcahy was trying to get a bachelor's degree in medical sonography and was scheduled to finish up by next August. He is working to transfer his credits, but no other university in the state offers a bachelor's degree for his particular program.

Like many students, Mulcahy said, he started at MSU to get a second go at a life better than working as a carpenter and bartender.

What he got instead was a nightmare, he said.

"Education was kind of like religion in this country," said Mulcahy. "You grew up to trust it. It was off my radar for a place that would screw you."

MSU students have a limited window to transfer schools while their credits and degrees are still backed by full HLC accreditation. MSU remains fully accredited with the HLC until Aug. 27. That accreditation temporarily extends once MSU files an appeal, extending the accreditation through the fall. 

Ed Welch, president of the University of Charleston, said UC is trying to ease the process for any MSU students to transfer.

"Their credits will transfer because they got credits from an accredited institution," said Welch. "Because we embed general education knowledge in all our classes, we'll be able to transfer in credits that MSU students have already gotten and make certain that they have the level of writing and thinking and critical thinking skills."

"They don't have to start all over," said Welch. "We want this transition to be seamless."

Students say MSU officials are still telling students that they should wait out the accreditation issues, but Mulcahy isn't buying it.

"There is a difference between optimism and deception," said Mulcahy. "They have crossed the line into deception."

He says he has been contacting the HLC and the U.S. Department of Education on his own.

"I called someone from the HLC who told me, get out, transfer, leave now," said Mulcahy. "The HLC guy wasn't supposed to say that, but he said it because he is compassionate. He's not giving us false hope like MSU administrators are."

Reach Amy Julia Harris at amy.harris@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.


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