Tusculum denied optometry program by institutional accreditor, AOA spurs standards dialogue
Tusculum University's proposed addition of an optometric degree program was denied by a regional accreditor in June.
Formerly Tusculum College, the eastern Tennessee school's application for a Level V degree classification was denied by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) during its June 14 board meeting. The Level V classification is necessary for Tusculum to offer a doctor of optometry program, but SACSCOC denied the institution's reclassification citing the lack of an acceptable business plan and supporting documentation.
For purposes of accreditation, a SACSCOC-approved Level V classification permits institutions to offer three or fewer doctorate degrees as highest degrees. Currently, Tusculum is accredited as Level III, offering master's degrees as its highest degree.
The application for a Level V classification comes as Tusculum transitions from a college to a university to facilitate its new College of Health Sciences, of which optometry, physician assistant, occupational therapy and physical therapy programs were hallmarks.
In March, Tusculum announced it would enroll its first optometry class in 2020, pending approval of certifications and accreditations. That public announcement drew immediate concerns from the profession, coming on the heels of a concerning report on national licensing examination data.
Professional dialogue on institutional standards
Released by the National Board of Examiners in Optometry (NBEO) and Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry (ASCO) in January, the 2016-17 academic year pass rates for the national licensing exam showed several programs lagging below 90% and two programs less than 75%. Separately, NBEO's own data through March 2016 showed a variable pass rate for Part 1 of the exam with a declining trend in recent years, while an August 2017 test produced pass rates lower than those in previous years.
That troubling trend led to a letter from the AOA to the Accreditation Council on Optometric Education (ACOE), the only accrediting body for professional optometric degree programs, optometric residencies and optometric technician programs in the U.S. (ACOE, a programmatic accreditor, is wholly separate from SACSCOC, a regional institutional accreditor).
Co-signed by AOA's Board of Trustees, the letter stated in part: "We note [Tusculum] is the fourth new school recently proposed in the same part of the southeastern United States, and this development again brings to the fore the same questions we raised in our January 18 letter about the ability of schools of optometry to continue to attract enough qualified faculty and students, and to provide adequate clinical opportunities to students when so many programs are clustered in one relatively lightly populated area."
The letter continued: "While we continue to recognize that each program must be judged on its own merits, and that the number of potentially qualified applicants and faculty is subject to change, the recent experience of other professions, such as law, suggests that a rapid increase in programs can lead to a decline in educational and career outcomes." The AOA Board of Trustees has previously affirmed and endorsed the ACOE's complete independence in the development and application of accreditation standards.
The letter further reinforces AOA's continued support for ACOE Professional Optometric Degree (POD) Standards that maintain and produce high-quality, exceptional doctors of optometry, and stresses that it is essential from the outset of program reviews "to ensure every aspect of the position of public trust that the profession occupies is faithfully and forcefully upheld." The alternative could hurt the profession, the public and students who may acquire significant debt without the ability to complete a program or pass licensing exams upon graduation.
"We again recognize and thank the ACOE for its unwavering dedication to its mission, as well as its diligence in the development and application of standards for the optometric educational enterprise," the letter concludes.
AOA's vested interest in optometric education
Earlier in January, AOA's Board of Trustees sent ACOE an initial letter expressing concern over the joint NBEO-ASCO licensing exam report and underscored several POD standards that all schools and programs—new and old—must meet in order to maintain the standard of excellence expected of the profession, including:
- The ability of programs to ensure at least 80% of graduates pass all three parts of the NBEO exam, or otherwise obtain a license within a reasonable time following initial matriculation.
- The continued high quality of the student applicant pool, and its ability to master the clinical competencies expected of the profession.
- The ability to recruit qualified faculty.
That letter, sent Jan. 29, arrived prior to ACOE's Winter Meeting, Feb. 9-11, where the organization accepted proposed changes to standards for POD programs seeking preliminary approval pre-accreditation status for distribution and comment. These proposed changes are necessary for POD preliminary approval standards, ACOE notes, following its adoption of new standards for POD programs in 2016.
At that time, AOA weighed in with h2, detailed commentary to ACOE during its comment period for revised POD standards, and applauded ACOE's upholding of POD standards that ultimately took effect July 1, 2017. The ACOE notes that in approving new POD program standards, it created a necessity to bring POD preliminary approval standards in agreement.
Earlier this year, AOA encouraged doctors to weigh in during public comments for those preliminary standards, and in June, ACOE adopted revised standards. Taking effect Jan. 1, 2019, the revised POD standards for preliminary approval preaccreditation status reflects the need for high-quality, detailed standards that keep the bar set high for optometric education.
Read more about the ACOE's accreditation process for POD programs.
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