DECATUR — Nurses fulfill so many health care roles, it’s hard to imagine ever having enough, but the shortfall could soon be acute. Illinois could be short more than 21,000 nurses by the year 2020, according to the Illinois Center for Nursing.
Some lawmakers are pushing a solution to help the state by allowing community colleges to award bachelor’s degrees in nursing. With Richland Community College, Millikin University and other four-year institutions nearby with cooperative agreements, the Decatur area appears to be fortunate with its options already.
“Not all areas are as blessed as we are,” said Ellen Colbeck, health professions dean at Richland. “Some areas in the state, it’s important with the nursing shortage. For students who need to get a job, I understand the urgency.”
Registered nurses in Illinois can have either an associate or bachelor’s degree. Nationally, though, a bachelor’s degree is the typical entry-level education required for a job as a registered nurse, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Senate Bill 888, sponsored by state Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, would grant community colleges the ability to award bachelor’s degrees in nursing.
Manar said there is a shortage of nurses and access to nursing education in some rural areas and urban neighborhoods in Illinois. People in those areas are more connected to their local community colleges, he said.
Allowing a select number of community colleges to offer a BSN would open up opportunities to nontraditional students, including working parents and those with time and financial constraints, said Manar, who noted some states already allow this.
Richland already can help its students interested in pursuing higher degrees, Colbeck said, and doesn’t yet feel the need to add a bachelor’s degree option.
But Colbeck said she understands why such a measure could be beneficial. Richland maintains formal agreements with several universities and works with others to offer opportunities for its students to continue their education, Colbeck said. The partners include Benedictine University, Eastern Illinois University, University of Illinois at Chicago, Indiana Wesleyan University, Illinois State University and Millikin, Colbeck said.
Colbeck said HSHS St. Mary’s Hospital and Decatur Memorial Hospital work with Richland’s graduates interested in pursuing advanced degrees. “Our graduates are getting employed,” Colbeck said. “Before they graduate, they often have a job. We see the partnerships meeting their needs at this time.” Devon Moretti is among the Richland Community College students who feels fortunate to have choices as she pursues a nursing career.
Moretti is a fourth-semester student nearly ready to finish with a two-year associate degree in nursing. From there, she would like to start working while continuing to pursue an advanced degree online. “I’m lucky I can do something I’m so passionate about from the start,” Moretti said while working with a group of other students during a training simulation. “Working full time will help financially.” Other Richland students are in similar positions. “I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t need to work,” said Edie Berry, another fourth-semester Richland student.
Michelle Oliver, chief nursing officer at St. Mary’s, said the hospital encourages any programs that will increase the number of applicants for careers in nursing. “We would love to see our local community colleges offer four-year nursing degree programs that would allow more BSN-prepared nurses to fill the much-needed roles during this nationwide nursing shortage,” Oliver said.
Decatur Memorial Hospital did not respond to a request for comment for this story. Setting up a new part of the program to offer a four-year bachelor’s degree would be costly, Colbeck said. A limited amount of space in local hospitals is available for clinical work, which Colbeck said makes adding to the program difficult.
“It’s not an inexpensive venture,” Colbeck said. “We want to work with our graduates who want to pursue a bachelor’s degree.” Opponents of Manar’s proposal say such a move would weaken nursing education and not address the nursing shortage. All 37 members of the Illinois Association of Colleges of Nursing — private and public schools offering four-year nursing degrees, including Millikin University — oppose the proposed changes.
Manar said his bill can help. It contains several requirements that must be met before a community college could offer a bachelor’s degree in nursing. They include documenting workforce needs, the availability of faculty for the program and being accredited. “This isn’t some will-nilly handing out of authority,” Manar said. “They have to prove they have what it takes to run a program.”
No state dollars would go to the bachelor’s program under the measure so the school would have to be supported through tuition, fees and/or local tax dollars. But increasing the number of schools offering programs would over-saturate available clinical sites, said Pam Lindsey, the director of Millikin’s School of Nursing. The ability to offer online RN to BSN programs helps ease the capacity burdens, Lindsey said.
Pursuing a bachelor’s degree can be beneficial, Lindsey said.
“Studies have shown a higher percentage of nurses with bachelor’s degrees achieve better patient outcomes,” Lindsey said. “We strive to have our nurses prepared.”
Aleisha Dotson, a Richland student who comes from a family of nurses, has been able to advance through the educational and training process. Dotson would like to be able to continue pursuing higher degrees, which can mean earning more money and more responsibility.
Fellow Richland student Dean Ziemer feels he is on his way to being prepared for a long career in nursing, with an interest in focusing on being an emergency trauma nurse. He served in the Marine Corps, where he was a combat lifesaver.
But after leaving the Marines, Ziemer said he has worked in about a half dozen jobs.
“I never really enjoyed any of them,” Ziemer said. “Going back to school, I’m doing something I really enjoy.” Manar dismissed objections from universities and said they need to explain “why they think their complete monopoly is good for the people of Illinois.”
The Senate Higher Education Committee approved Senate Bill 888 on a 7-6 vote in March. State Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, was among those voting against it. No date is set for a vote by the full Senate. Rose’s main objection is a lack of a comprehensive higher education plan that addresses what programs are offered where.
Noting the number of schools that are struggling with falling enrollment at the same time state funding is declining, Rose questioned adding more competing programs to “an already frayed and tattered system.” But Manar said, “What we’re asking for is not going to put any university out of business.”
By the Numbers
- The United States currently has 4,011,911 registered and licensed practical nurses. Illinois has 173,000. — The Kaiser Family Foundation
- According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2016-17 Occupational Outlook Handbook, the median salary for an LPN is $42,490 and for an RN it’s $66,640. Sign-on bonuses are also becoming common.