Community colleges consider four-year Nursing degree

Published 11:41 am Tuesday, January 20, 2015


John Pope Center

RALEIGH — In most states, community colleges offer only associate degrees in nursing, which require two to three years of education. But in five states — Florida, Indiana, Nevada, New Mexico, and Washington — they offer a four-year nursing bachelor’s degree.

North Carolina could be next. The idea has been brewing for some time, and now the State Board of Community Colleges has formed an ad hoc committee on the “future of community college nursing education.” It is meeting once a month from October through March to discuss the issue.

The committee has met twice so far, and at neither meeting has anyone challenged the necessity of the degrees.

The impetus for the committee was a 2010 report arguing that the 20th-century model of nursing education fails to meet the needs of today’s patients. But implementing the report’s vision could mean a major transformation of both community college systems and the nursing field.

For community colleges, the question of whether to offer a bachelor of science in nursing is something of a stalking horse for the broader issue of whether they should be allowed to give bachelor’s degrees in a variety of fields.

Traditionally, the job of a registered nurse has not required a college degree. The Bureau of Labor Statistics even identified it as the highest paying job in the United States that does not require a four-year degree. The BLS has projected that between 2012 and 2022, the RN field will grow by 19 percent, a much faster rate than the average among all occupations, 11 percent.

However, jobs are hardly guaranteed in a weak economy — 36 percent of licensed RNs who graduated in 2011 did not have an RN job four months after graduation. But 2012 numbers show that around 90 percent of BSN graduates had jobs within four to six months of graduation.

A rising number of RNs, now over 50 percent, are earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees, a sign that they believe degrees will enhance their career prospects. The BLS says that bachelor’s degrees often are required for administrative, research, consulting, and teaching positions. According to the Raleigh News & Observer, in 2013 44 percent of North Carolina nurses had at least a four-year nursing degree.

Some employers now require nurses to have a BSN. Legislators in New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island have proposed making it a statewide requirement. The American Nurses Association favors such mandates, citing research linking advanced degrees and lower patient mortality.

The 2010 “Future of Nursing” report by the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine recommended that 80 percent of U.S. nurses have bachelor’s degrees by 2020 and that the number of nurses with a doctor of nursing practice be doubled.

By most accounts, there is a looming shortage of nurses and nursing faculty. According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, in the 2013-14 academic year, BSN and graduate programs nationwide turned away 78,089 qualified applicants because of a nursing instructor shortage.

There are alternatives to the community college BSN. North Carolina and other states are trying to increase the number of skilled — or at least credentialed — nurses through revised articulation agreements between community colleges and four-year schools.

Another popular option allows RNs who have associate degrees or a hospital diploma to return to school to upgrade their résumés.

One big drawback to the community college BSN is the possibility that it won’t be valued as highly as one obtained at a four-year college, a point raised by Roxanne Fulcher, director of health professions policy at the American Association of Community Colleges, at the October nursing committee meeting.

In any case, after months of discussion focused more on how it should implement BSNs than whether it should at all, it seems unlikely the board will say no to adding bachelor’s degrees in nursing as an offering at some North Carolina community colleges.

Harry Painter is a reporter for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.