Nursing Education Is In Catch 22

July 25, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — They have enough people in West Michigan wanting to enter the profession.

The problem for administrators at nursing schools in the region is that they don’t have enough classes for everybody who wants to enter nursing.

Ironically, the amount of people on waiting lists to attend nursing schools, in fact, is roughly equal to the number of job openings at hospitals and other care providers in the region.

That lack of capacity significantly hinders the ability of nursing schools to address on the local level a shortage of nurses.

“If we could expand those programs we could pretty much solve our problem,” said Ingrid Cheslek, chief nursing officer at Metropolitan Hospital in Grand Rapids and chair of the West Michigan Nursing Advisory Council.

“There’s a constant bottleneck of supply and demand,” Cheslek added.

Participants in the West Michigan Nursing Advisory Council met recently in Grand Rapids to examine the problem and begin the process of developing ways to fix it.

One of the biggest hurdles toward expanding capacity at nursing schools is money. Nursing education is a costly venture for schools.

For instance, Juan Olivarez says Grand Rapids Community College, with 80 nursing students a year, loses more than $1 million annually on its nursing program.

Olivarez, president of the college, says that cost prevents the school from simply adding capacity to meet demand for its two-year nursing program.

Compounding the situation are the tight budget constraints that GRCC and other colleges are now experiencing.

He said addressing the problem requires finding new ways to provide training and increasing collaboration among nursing schools to expand capacity, while containing costs and not pricing programs out of students’ reach.

“It’ll depend on can we develop some creative ways of allowing us to increase student capacity?” Olivarez said. “It’s got to be cost-effective and made affordable for the community, too.”

After a long-term decline, enrollment in the last two years at entry-level nursing schools nationally has begun rising.

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing in December reported an 8 percent increase in entry-level nursing programs nationwide last fall.

Enrollment for master’s degree nursing programs rose 3.5 percent with 33,976 students enrolled nationwide.

The increases reflect the profession’s attempts to bring more people into nursing to avoid a chronic shortage of nurses that’s projected to worsen.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 1 million new nurses are needed by the end of the decade to meet growing demands for care and to replace those who reach retirement age and leave the profession.

While last fall brought a welcome upswing, the enrollments still remain well below levels of 1995 and are not enough to address the nursing shortage.

“We are encouraged by the upswing in enrollments, but understand that we have a long way to go before we come close to meeting the projected demand for nurses into the foreseeable future,” association President Kathleen Ann Long said.

The association, representing more than 570 public and private nursing schools in the United States, stated that nursing schools across the country are having a hard time expanding capacity.

Among the obstacles the association sites are shortages of qualified faculty, tight finances faced by colleges and universities, and inadequate facilities.

Schools can address the issue by forming more partnerships with each other and with local health care providers that enable staff to serve as teachers and to provide clinical support.

At the recent West Michigan Nursing Summit, participants identified improved marketing and awareness, new instruction models, increased community collaboration with businesses, and increased fund-raising activities as key to their efforts.

Grand Valley State University’s Kirkhoff School of Nursing also plans to make better use of the Internet for Web-based instruction, Dean Phyllis Gendler said.

The issue of creating more capacity for nursing schools without a corresponding cost increase is best addressed from a work force development perspective, said Win Irwin, president of the Irwin Seating Co. and chairman of the Workforce Development Board for Kent and Allegan counties.

Irwin said he sees similarities to problems local manufacturers faced years ago in training workers. Working together, they created a training network to help people develop the skills needed for today’s manufacturing environment.

He believes the nursing schools, through collaboration, can achieve the same kind of success.

“If we get the community together and say, ‘Let’s solve this problem,’ we can solve this problem,” Irwin said.

A review by the Alliance for Health earlier this year found 436 vacant nursing positions at hospitals, long-term care centers and public health agencies in a 10-county area, while 400 qualified students were on waiting lists to get into a local nursing school.

“People want to become nurses and they can’t because there are not enough openings,” Irwin said. “We need to help them (the schools) create those slots.” 

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