College’s pursuit of bachelor’s in nursing gains supporters
Ozarka College wants to be heard.
The two-year college with campuses scattered around north-central Arkansas first proposed to offer a bachelor’s degree in nursing in 2015 to address a nursing shortage in the area. And it got so far as having the matter placed on an agenda for an Arkansas Higher Education Coordinating Board meeting.
But the state Department of Higher Education pulled it soon after, saying the 1,147-student Melbourne-based community college failed to show “sufficient demand” for the program, said department Director Maria Markham, who took over the state agency in fall 2016, nearly a year after the proposal.
That hasn’t stopped Ozarka President Richard Dawe, though.
Dawe had planned to bring the proposal before the Higher Education Department for a second time this month — in time for the coordinating board’s quarterly meeting. Instead, he’s lying in wait for a more opportune time.
His plea comes as the state and the nation are facing a nursing shortage driven by increased need — baby boomers and nurses are aging, and school enrollment isn’t outpacing demand, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. That’s in part because there aren’t enough nursing instructors, who must have a master’s degree or be enrolled in a master’s degree program.
It also comes as the Institute of Medicine called for 80 percent of nurses — who spend the most time in delivering patient care — to have baccalaureate degrees by 2020. Nurses who have higher-level degrees deliver higher-quality primary care, data has shown.
Registered nurses can earn the designation through hospital diploma programs, associate degrees at community colleges or bachelor’s degrees at universities, or by taking an accelerated program to pursue a bachelor of science degree in nursing — also known as an “RN to BSN” degree program.
The percentage of nurses whose highest degree is an entry-level hospital diploma has dramatically lowered from 54.7 percent in 1980 to 13.9 percent in 2008, according to the Health Resources and Services Administration. Meanwhile, the percentage of registered nurses with associate degrees has jumped from 17.9 percent in 1980 to 36.1 in 2008, and the percentage of those with bachelor’s degrees has also increased from 22.3 percent to 36.8 percent during that same time period.
With his college board’s backing, Dawe wants to create a cheaper option for placebound nurses and students in north-central Arkansas, he said. The plan would be to target students who have graduated from Ozarka’s nursing program and now work in local health care facilities.
Students don’t want to travel the 90-mile, one-way trip to the closest university, Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, and they don’t want to enroll in an online-only program, Dawe said of a survey he did of prospective students and alumni.
Currently, all of the state’s public universities have nursing programs. Many offer bachelor’s degrees in nursing, but those are for traditional students who are not working. Many — including ASU and the University of Central Arkansas — offer RN to BSN programs fully online, while others, such as the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and Henderson State University, offer in-person and Webbased programs.
Ozarka’s proposal would make the school the only public community college in the state offering a bachelor’s degree on site. Other two-year schools, such as Arkansas State University-Beebe, allow for students to complete bachelor’s degrees on site via distance technology. The bachelor’s degrees are awarded through the four-year institution.
It would need approval from the state and from the Higher Learning Commission, a regional accrediting body.
“All I ask is that [coordinating board members] are allowed to make an informed judgment, an opinion,” Dawe said. “And what I would like when we do bring this before them — with or without legislative pressure of some sort — I’m going to recommend that they try it as a threeyear pilot. What’s the harm in that?”
He continued, “Best case: it’s a seed for developing a transformative new means to create more degreed people in Arkansas. Worst case: Hey, we tried it and we’re not going to consider it in the near future.”
About 17 states have at least one community college that confers bachelor’s degrees, according to the Community College Baccalaureate Association, which seeks to promote better access to baccalaureate degrees on twoyear college campuses.
Arkansas lawmakers passed Act 971 of 1997, allowing what was then Westark Community College, as a “unique community college,” to offer “selected” bachelor’s degrees. The law was designed to meet the demands of “the state’s largest manufacturing center” in Fort Smith, it said. In 2002, when Westark joined the University of Arkansas System as the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, it transformed into a four-year university.
Nationally, most community colleges conferring bachelor’s degrees are workforce-related, or responses to area industry needs, said association executive director Beth Hagan. They don’t give up their community college mission, nor their two-year approach, she said.
Of all the degrees offered, nursing “remains to be a problem” because both community colleges and universities offer it, she said.
“That’s the one that has the greatest potential for profitability in the last two years,” she said.
Ozarka’s plan is not to become a four-year university, Dawe said, adding the plan has come under fire from the public universities, particularly the UA and Arkansas State systems.
UA System President Donald Bobbitt, who has recently clamped down on duplicate online degree program offerings for schools in his system, said in a statement he does not support Ozarka’s plan.
“I do not support the duplication of offerings at a time when so many other needs could more efficiently be met,” he said. “We have limited resources in our state for higher education and when students can easily benefit from what already exists, it eliminates the need to use funds to deliver a relatively expensive and staff-intensive degree program like nursing.”
The ASU System is not completely opposed to community colleges conferring bachelor’s degrees, said Jeff Hankins, vice president for strategic communications and economic development.
“But they should be in very high demand fields in high demand areas where a university cannot partner or otherwise accommodate the program,” he said. “We’re not sure how efficient an additional baccalaureate nursing program would be for higher education or hospitals when many traditional and online programs exist for the entire spectrum of nurse education.”
The north-central region has more than 80 clinics for student nurses, and most — alongside the area hospitals — need nurses with bachelor degrees “in large numbers,” Dawe said, adding nursing is a signature program for the college.
The Arkansas State Board of Nursing does not currently track workforce data, said executive director Sue Tedford, but it has created the Arkansas Center for Nursing to do just that.
The registered nurse workforce is predicted to increase from 2.7 million in 2014 to 3.2 million in 2024, an increase of more than 18 percent, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. The data also estimate the total number of job openings for nurses to be 1.09 million in 2024, a combination of growth and replacements for aging nurses.
In 2014, agencies in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services put out a report, “The Future of the Nursing Workforce: National and State Level Projections 2012-2025.” It estimates in Arkansas in 2025, the supply of registered nurses will exceed demand. But the agencies note that the data are sensitive to enrollment in training programs and economic conditions.
The Higher Education Department came to the decision that Ozarka did not present sufficient need for the program in 2015 after distributing to employers a needs survey. One question asked if online, weekend or evening courses would be helpful for employees, and many businesses selected online delivery, the surveys show.
The surveys did not include the traditional classroom method, Ozarka officials have said.
But Ozarka’s proposal has gained supporters, including legislators and leaders of area hospitals and health care facilities.
Gary Bebow, chief executive officer of the White River Health System, said recruitment can be challenging for rural health care organizations, but many Ozarka graduates seek employment with the system.
“[White River] employees provide patient care, and use their education and skills to improve their communities through volunteerism and public service,” he said. “This improves the quality of life for all residents.”
Under Ozarka’s proposal, the college would accept up to 20 registered nurses per academic year and would offer hybrid courses for $170 per credit hour. College officials said the school would use about $10,000 more for firstyear supplies “to support the program” and travel requirements, but it would not need any new “physical resources” or personnel.
“I’ve got plenty of fuel,” Dawe said of the proposal’s supporters. “I just need a spark. I’m just waiting for the right opportunity to proceed.”