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College Presidents Reject Letting Community Colleges Offer Nursing B.S. Degrees

Issue seen as referendum on academic reach and mission of county colleges now heads to Secretary of Higher Education

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New Jersey community colleges seeking to offer four-year degree programs suffered a significant setback yesterday when an advisory board comprised primarily of the state’s public college and university presidents voted against the proposal by a margin of one vote.

The presidents of Union and Passaic community colleges had asked the New Jersey Presidents’ Council for permission to expand their nursing degree programs to meet a pressing need for nurses with bachelor’s degrees and higher.

But the council split – two-year schools versus four-year schools – with baccalaureate-granting institutions narrowly outvoting their county-college counterparts. The matter now heads to state Secretary of Higher Education Rochelle Hendricks for her approval without a recommendation from the council.

Today’s nursing field finds itself in an unusual state. After two decades of sometimes severe staffing shortages, the nation now has enough nurses, thanks to consolidation-caused layoffs and retirements put off by the recession.

But it won’t stay that way for long. The average New Jersey nurse is 62 years old, and analysts predict their impending retirements will bring back the familiar staffing deficit within a decade.

For now, hospitals and nursing associations are taking advantage of their plentiful supply to raise expectations and educational requirements for incoming nursing practitioners. In New Jersey, almost all of the 19 county colleges offer a registered nursing (RN) degree, which is the equivalent of an associate degree. All eight of the New Jersey Association of State Colleges & Universities members offer bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral nursing degrees.

Prohibitive cost of bachelor's degree

But most New Jersey nursing students, a majority of whom are first-generation college students of color, can’t afford to get a bachelor’s degree, even if they get a lower-cost RN first. Rose says less than one-third of his RN students pursue a higher degree, and a survey he commissioned determined that the overwhelming number of practicing nurses in Passaic County who didn’t further their education cited affordability as the reason.

Although the vote dealt only with the specific requests by the two colleges to expand their nursing programs, the sometimes rancorous discussion beforehand sounded more like a referendum on whether community colleges should have the right to reach beyond their stated mission. Representatives from the four-year colleges said no, while county colleges said yes -- and accused their naysaying colleagues of being offensive, demeaning, condescending and patronizing.

“This is surprising,” said Mike Gorman, president of Salem County College. “Exceeding our mission should be encouraged rather than discouraged. If by exceeding mission we increase opportunities, we are obligated to make this happen.”

“The perception of community colleges from 10 and 20 years ago is changing with the public and I think it needs to change around this table,” said Middlesex County College President Joann La Perla-Morales, alluding to the fact that the role of community colleges has morphed as they strive to meet the needs of a population that finds traditional education out of reach due to rising tuitions and shifting lifestyle patterns.

Presidents from four-year programs countered that expanding in community college offerings in this way wouldn’t exceed their mission to provide their local communities with associate-level educations; rather, they said, it would upend that mission.

“It seems to me what you’re really talking about is whether you want to change the definition of who can grant bachelor’s and master’s degrees because this issue is going to come up again and again,” said Rutgers University President Robert Barchi, who voted no.

Barchi did, however, bolster the chief immediate argument made by supporters when he acknowledged that more BSN programs in nursing and physical and occupational therapy are needed.

“You can accept it as a given,” he said, thrilling the community college contingent by choosing not to necessarily limit those programs to standard four-year institutions. “Somebody has to do it.”

The community college leaders who offer nursing degrees say their healthcare partners are asking them to replace some of their RN coursework with Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) classes.

“This has been debated among nurses for 50 years,” said Passaic County Community College President Steve Rose, who also chairs the Presidents’ Council. “To get taken seriously they need to professionalize.”

Plus, as growing numbers of New Jersey hospitals like Robert Wood Johnson seek to hire at least 80 percent of their nurses out of BSN programs or higher, recent RN graduates aren’t getting the jobs they used to. Instead, they get squeezed into part-time, low-paying, benefit-free skilled nursing centers or eldercare facilities where they might make $16 to $18 per hour.

Big gap in average salaries

Even those who do find jobs at hospitals make less than their better-educated peers. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, New Jersey RNs working at critical care centers earned an average annual salary of $66,200 in 2013, compared with $89,400 for BSNs. Both the selectivity and wage factors lower the value of an RN degree and leave community colleges fearing for their relevance.

So community colleges want to bridge the gap between often unaffordable B.S.N.s and the increased demands of employers.

Bolstering their argument is the reality that it’s not just tuition that stops these students. It’s also the cost and inconvenience of traveling to a four-year program. Warren County Community College President William Austin says he recently talked with a prospective student’s family that earns a total of $10,000 per year. Their concern wasn’t paying Warren’s tuition, he says, but the fare for public transportation.

“These people didn’t know how they were going to pay for their kid to commute three towns over,” he said. “This will not hurt bachelor’s degree programs because these students would never make it that far.”

By failing to address the growing demand for healthcare, said John Larson of Ocean County College, the academic community also fails to meet the needs of the community With an aging population, demand for nurses is growing, and community college advocates maintain that regardless of what their written mission says, their real mission is to train a workforce to meet the needs of the local community.

Larson said his county feels that need acutely, considering its large senior citizen population. Though he runs successful partnerships with several universities that grant bachelor’s degrees to his nursing students -- including one with Kean University that brings Kean faculty and coursework right to his campus -- he doesn’t believe in universities’ abilities to scale up their capacity to meet future demand as promised.

“It’s part of our strategy to have everything on our campus to serve one of the largest senior citizen populations on the East Coast,” he said. “We don’t see your glacial pace of expansion meeting the need of the hospitals, and we intend to provide our (services) as soon as possible.”

But opponents of the proposal warn it won’t be as easy as community colleges expect. They say it’s extraordinarily costly to establish a nursing program because of all the clinical requirements. Plus, finding qualified nursing faculty is difficult and expensive. Adding more programs would make the search even more competitive.

“This is a state that badly supports its public institutions,” said Montclair State University President Susan Cole. “Creating baccalaureate-level programs and higher is not something that can be done at the same cost as the lower levels and we’d need to think about that very seriously before we went in that direction.”

However, President Jon Connolly of Sussex County Community College, who hosts a branch of Passaic’s nursing school on his campus, says it’s the RN program that’s expensive to set up, not the higher levels.

“Students spend the first two years in clinical study so they learn how to perform the duties of nursing,” he said. “That’s the expensive part. The second half is classroom work where they learn subjects like ethics, administration.”

Union County College President Margaret McMenamin says the shift will happen eventually, especially considering that 22 other states have already made it.

“It’s the right thing to do. As the world changes, higher education must change along with it,” she said. “We’re not innovative with this. For once let’s get New Jersey moving forward.”

Rose says he expects the secretary of higher education to hire a consulting firm to study the matter then make up her mind deliberatively. A spokesperson for the secretary says she’ll start considering it once she’s received the official proposals from the colleges.

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