Career college sector moves to meet the nation’s need for nurses

“I just want an education,” said Danielle Pickering.

Pickering currently makes ends meet by working in a coffee shop located in Kansas City, Mo., while she waits to be admitted into a nursing program. Like many prospective nursing students, the 24-year-old has found that getting into school comes with an added prerequisite these days: patience.

Since Pickering decided that she wanted to become a registered nurse, she has taken every avenue toward becoming the perfect candidate for nursing school. She has volunteered with several health-related organizations, including the Good Samaritans, a group dedicated to helping individuals diagnosed with AIDS and HIV; Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault, which assists victims of sexual abuse; and her local free health clinic. Even earning well-above-average grades throughout the pre-nursing program she recently completed at Johnson County Community College has done little to shorten the waiting lists for Pickering.

“Now my only option is to wait,” Pickering said. “I’ve applied to several different nursing programs, and it looks like even the shortest waiting list is still one year.”

Pickering’s frustration is common. Despite the 8.5 percent national average of registered nurse vacancy rate reported by the American Hospital Association, many students interested in nursing programs are discovering that the doors to higher education are closed. According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, nursing schools turned away 41,683 qualified potential students in 2005.

Why are thousands of applicants spending years on waiting lists in the midst of a national nursing shortage?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics cites several reasons for the unmet demand. The median age for experienced registered nurses is increasing, causing them to retire at faster rates than they can be replaced. However, traditional institutions of higher education have failed to increase enrollments due to financial constraints and a shortage of nursing faculty to teach classes. Experienced nurses usually earn higher wages practicing medicine than in teaching positions.

With traditional colleges lacking the resources to supply the labor force with more nurses, career colleges are stepping in to fill this dramatically widening gap.

The career college sector is unfettered by the administrative and political constraints that can cause traditional schools to respond slowly to societal needs. Because career colleges typically concentrate their resources, they have the ability to react more quickly to meet the demands of the labor force – and it’s increasing their legitimacy.

In order for most nursing programs to be approved, three steps usually have to be taken. After gaining approval from an accrediting agency, a program has to earn a license from either the National League for Nursing Accreditation Commission or the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education. Additionally, it has to satisfy its state’s professional nursing board. Even after these requirements are met, these boards continue to monitor program expansion based on student-to-faculty ratios.

However, the career college sector does not face some of the difficulties traditional colleges do when it comes to staffing experienced instructors.

Darlla Roesler, Program Director for Western Career College’s vocational nursing program, says that they assess instructors based on real-world experience, unlike universities that tend to look at an individual’s degree and academic publications.

“It’s more important for our faculty to have well-rounded experience because we offer our students hands-on training,” said Roesler.

In addition, career colleges do not have to prolong the hiring process like other sectors of higher education that stress tenure-track positions. Instructors who work in the career college sector may also earn a higher income than those employed by traditional schools that rely on state funding.

Can the nursing void be filled?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Handbook, job opportunities for registered nurses are expected to increase at a rate of almost 30 percent, creating the second largest number of new jobs among all occupations. Compound that with baby-boomers aging out of the workforce and into nursing homes, and it means that more than one million new and replacement nurses need to receive access to education.

Career colleges are increasing this access. Roesler says that 90 percent of students who enroll in their Licensed Vocational Nursing program go on to enroll in the school’s Registered Nursing program. Smaller class sizes also allow them to admit more students with greater frequency.

While the nursing shortage is expected to persist, the career college sector is ready to invest time, energy and resources into meeting the demands of both student interest and society.

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