Community colleges one signature away from offering four-year nursing degrees

Wednesday, March 7, 2018 8:37 PM
Lauren Richardson, Jonie Ditzler, Rob Abercrombie and Rachael Sproul check vitals on a mock patient during an RN program class at Pueblo Community College in Mancos in January.

A bill that will allow Southwest Colorado Community College and other community colleges to offer a four-year bachelor of science in nursing degrees won final approval Tuesday in the state House. The measure, House Bill 1086, now heads to Gov. John Hickenlooper for his signature.

House Bill 1086 would grant community colleges authority to offer the bachelor’s degree in addition to the two-year associate degree they already offer. SCCC, a branch of Pueblo Community College, expects to add the higher degree program that will allow registered nurses to continue their education, PCC president Patty Erjavec said.

“We are thrilled,” she said.

The program will allow nurses to earn degrees without leaving the area, she said.

“It will just elevate that level of care for our citizens, especially in the rural areas, she said.

She expects enrollment in the program will grow faster than numbers of students in registered nursing classes, because it won’t be limited by the number of hours that students must spend in medical settings.

The degree program will help fill a need for nurses with bachelor’s degrees that isn’t being met by four-year schools.

The problem is that there just aren’t enough slots open in existing four-year degree programs, or that the cost of those programs are beyond what students can afford, or that the four-year programs aren’t available in some parts of the state.

According to Nancy McCallin, president of the Colorado Community College System, there were 21,000 job listings for nurses with the bachelor of science degree in 2017. Eighty percent of those openings were for entry-level positions. “If there isn’t a workforce shortage here, I don’t know what is,” she told Colorado Politics last month.

The degree program will be developed by the community college system and is likely to offer flexibility for working adults, with some classes online and some in person, said Margaret LaRose, nursing faculty coordinator with SCCC.

“The details are yet to be determined,” she said. “I think the goal is making it fit for the community.”

Under the bill, students enrolled in the two-year associate programs at the community colleges would be allowed to continue into the four-year program. That would also apply to graduates of the two-year associate program. Both programs allow graduates to obtain the RN certification. The four-year degree provides management training and is also required for those interested either in nursing education or other graduate programs, like nurse practitioner.

The bill drew objections from some of the four-year institutions, like Colorado Mesa University and the University of Colorado, both from its Anschutz campus and at Colorado Springs.

The Colorado Commission on Higher Education also had problems with the bill; last year, CCHE was stripped of its authority over degree programs. But when the bill was in the Senate, the commission attempted to persuade lawmakers to amend the bill to allow them approval authority over the BSN program. That failed, but in order to appease the CCHE, and by extension, the Hickenlooper administration, bill sponsors agreed to amendments that would declare a change in the role and mission for the community colleges to allow for the BSN program.

The bill also dictates that the board of the community college system work with the CCHE in a joint meeting to “solicit the commission’s input” on the program.

McCallin said it will take at least a year to get their programs ready for students, and that not all community colleges may offer the new degree.

Tuesday’s action required the House to agree to the Senate amendments, and to re-pass the bill, which was unanimous. Sen. Irene Aguilar of Denver, one of the bill’s sponsors, told Colorado Politics she expects the governor to sign it.

Durango Herald Staff Writer Mary Shinn contributed to this report.