Southwest Colorado Community College could help alleviate a nursing shortage if the Colorado Legislature approves a law this spring that would grant community colleges the ability to offer four-year degrees in nursing.
At least 500 nursing positions that require a bachelor’s degree go unfilled each year in the state, a number that is expected to increase as demand for health care grows, according to a news release from the Colorado Community College System, which backs the bill.
House Bill 1086 would permit the state’s 13 community colleges to offer four-year Bachelor of Science degrees in nursing. The bill, called Community College Bachelor Science Degree Nursing, passed through the Colorado House of Representatives’ Health, Insurance and Environment committee last week but still faces many more layers of approval.
The Colorado Community College System is lobbying for the bill at the request of the health care industry to help address the nursing shortage, said Nancy McCallin, the system’s president.
If the bill is approved, the new degree would be offered across all of the campuses in the Pueblo Community College system, including SCCC’s Mancos campus, said Patty Erjavec, president of PCC.
“We have heard from our industry partners that this is a huge need,” she said.
According to an Institute of Medicine report, patient health outcomes improve when at least 80 percent of nurses have a bachelor’s degree. The findings are driving a push across the nation to hire nurses with a bachelor’s, said Margaret LaRose, nursing faculty coordinator with SCCC.
“Our local health care facilities vary in percentages of (Bachelor of Science in nursing) prepared nurses, but our service area is far below the 80 percent recommendation right now,” she said.
At Mercy Regional Medical Center, a bachelor’s degree is preferred but not required for most nursing positions, said spokesman David Bruzzese. The hospital does not struggle as much as other hospitals to fill positions because Mercy has a high ranking for quality and Durango is a desirable place to live, he said.
But, he said, “I think as Mercy Regional Medical Center continues to grow to meet the needs of the region, we’ll see demand for nurses increase.”
SCCC already offers an associates degree program for those who want to work as registered nurses.
If the House bill is approved, students in the bachelor’s degree program would also earn licenses to be registered nurses, but they would attend a greater variety of classes, such as nursing theory, research, leadership and social sciences, LaRose said.
Developing a curriculum for the bachelor’s degree program would likely take two years, Erjavec said.
Once developed, the programs would offer a more affordable alternative to traditional four-year institutions and tap into the 56 percent of nursing students who earn an associate degree at a community college who are not transferring to continue their education.
“We are really looking to support the community that has already come to us,” McCallin said.
The majority of nursing graduates from community colleges say they want to pursue more education, but many of them may not be able to move for jobs and may need to start working immediately, she said.
SCCC consistently has a wait list of 70 students or more for its RN program, which accepts 24 students each year, LaRose said.
The school is limited on how many students it can take at one time because of the number of hours students must spend in health care settings supervised by PCC nursing staff.
Currently, students have the option to earn their bachelor’s degree through a dual enrollment program through the University of Colorado, she said.
Offering the classes directly would provide a more affordable option, with the support of local faculty, LaRose said.
In addition to its RN program, SCCC started a one-year licensed practical nursing program in the fall to meet industry needs, she said. The first class of LPNs will graduate this spring and could fill positions in long-term care facilities, detention centers or other organizations. The RN students are likely to work in hospitals, she said.