Nursing Attracts More Students as Texas Faces Huge Shortfall

It’s rewarding, companies are hiring and there’s money in it. The secret’s out about the perks of nursing, and North Texas colleges are clamoring to keep up.

Long second shift to other medical training, nursing education has taken on new relevance as the country faces a drastic shortage of nurses and a thin job market overall.

Colleges are quickly expanding their programs to encompass lengthy waiting lists. And Gov. Rick Perry has just approved $5 million to establish a regional nursing education center at the University of Texas at Arlington, a crucial resource facility for the area’s 14 nursing schools.

But, right now, demand exceeds space.

"There is absolutely an increasing interest in nursing as a marketable skill," said Nell Ard, the director of nursing at Collin College in McKinney. "With the economy, people are refocusing and if we could admit everyone that was qualified, we would double the program."

Just this spring, the number of applicants increased by 50, she said. The community college will begin offering an expedited program in the fall that provides licensed vocational nurses and paramedics with a registered nursing degree. It has recently added a nurse’s aide course as well.

Four-year colleges such as Baylor University are reeling from the same paradoxical onslaught. Its nursing school in Dallas had double the number of applicants than it could accept for the coming fall. The school started a similar fast-track program this summer that helps college graduates change careers by running them through an intensive 12-month nursing program.

Filling the shortfall

The percentage of college freshmen who plan to major in nursing has gone up from 1.7 percent in 1988 to 4.5 percent last year, according to the Higher Education Research Institute.

But today’s nursing students don’t fit age or gender stereotypes. They range from college-bound seniors to midcareer professionals looking for stability and a chance to fill the shortfall of nurses in Texas – estimated at 22,000.

Kristen Beaver, who graduated in the top 10 percent of her class this year at Frisco’s Liberty High School, said the "availability of jobs was important" in her decision to specialize in neonatal nursing at Baylor.

For the first time in recent years, a cluster of Collin County’s valedictorians and salutations said they planned to major in nursing. The number of top Dallas County students going into nursing more than tripled from last year.

Older career-switchers are just as eager to enter a field with job prospects and a shifting sense of purpose.

"They’re seen as professionals now, more a part of patient care, rather than the people who get a cup of water or bring a patient to the bathroom," said Linda Franklin, a 46-year-old Celina resident who rotated through several professions, including physical therapy and special education, before she discovered an occupation she considers truly holistic.

She’ll finish her nursing studies this year at Collin College.

Lack of resources

The downside to this mounting interest is finding enough training venues and equipment necessary for teaching this specialized profession.

"Everyone has the same problem," said Robert Rosseter, associate executive director for the American Association of Colleges of Nursing in Washington, D.C. "There are more students but not enough faculty and clinical sites."

Texas alone had to send away 8,000 qualified applicants from nursing programs last year, according to the Dallas-Fort Worth Hospital Council.

This puts people like Bobbi Jo Leisey in a prime spot. The 39-year-old Plano resident and second-year Collin College nursing student already plans to work at the Children’s Medical Center campuses.

"With such a shortage it’s hard to get things done," she said. "So people are more aware of the role nurses play."

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