The New Normal in Nursing Education
By MELANIE KILGORE-HILL
Non-traditional Nursing Programs are on the Rise
The landscape of nursing education is evolving, with non-traditional and online programs now accounting for half of all nursing graduates nationwide. As more and more students head to their laptops for class, health systems, universities and colleges are looking for innovative ways to reach tomorrow's generation of healthcare providers.
"So many students are older or don't have the means or time for traditional four- to five-year programs," said Kimberly Estep, PhD, chancellor of Western Governors University Tennessee.
WGU represents 16 percent of non-traditional nursing graduates nationwide, with competency-based online programs available for RN to BSN and BSN to MSN degrees. Their popular RN to BSN program is designed to further the training of registered nurses with two-year associate degrees offered through the state's community colleges.
"Once those nurses are out working, they find that to move into management they need to complete a bachelor's degree, and WGU provides opportunities for registered nurses already in the workforce to finish their bachelor degrees without quitting their jobs," Estep said.
WGU's average nursing student is 37 years old, often with a family and full-time career - obstacles that make more traditional programs less than ideal. WGU's nursing graduates typically complete degrees within 18 months, or three terms. The competency-based, flat-rate tuition program means students aren't charged by the course, so those who complete eight courses in a term pay the same as those who complete four courses in a term. "Because of the flat rate price structure, it's in the student and employer's best interest to move quickly," Estep said. Support faculty call students weekly to monitor progress and answer questions, and students are expected to spend a minimum of 20 hours weekly on their course studies.
Some 800 RNs are currently enrolled in WGU Tennessee. Thanks to the state's incentive programs, Estep expects that number to rise along with more traditional options. "In Tennessee, we won't stop having a pipeline of traditional students out of high school as Tennessee Promise has been very successful in getting those students who weren't originally going to attend community college," Estep said.
The first Tennessee Promise class graduated from two-year community colleges in 2017, and Estep expects that trajectory to increase. Meanwhile, Tennessee Reconnect is providing a cost-effective way for returning students to move from associate to bachelor degrees. Partnerships with some of the state's largest healthcare systems help students land the jobs they want: HCA, Community Health Systems, LifePoint Health and Memphis LeBonheur Children's Hospital are a few of the Tennessee organizations working alongside WGU.
"We provide greater access to nurses, while students can access employer reimbursements funds to help them defer or drive down costs below our already low tuition," Estep said.
Amy Wilson, RN, MSN, CPHQ
In Nashville, Saint Thomas Health/Ascension have partnered with WGU to provide tuition reimbursement and mentorship opportunities through their two-year nurse residency program. Amy Wilson, RN, MSN, CPHQ, market chief nursing officer for Saint Thomas Health, said the program provides unique incentives for recent graduates - nearly 20 percent of which are non-traditional.
"We've seen a lot of diversity in the type of applicants we've received in the past few years," Wilson said. "There's been a big shift in the number of second or third degree students who went back to nursing school after entering the workforce but realized they weren't doing the work they loved. Many realized that what they desired was a career that provided the opportunity to help others."
Wilson also is seeing more applicants attracted to Saint Thomas' mission of caring for those affected by poverty. "This new generation has a strong desire to make a difference and do good in the world, and they desire an organization with a strong mission," she said.
The residency program ranges from 100-200 RNs at any given time and includes a mixture of nurses with associate and bachelor degrees. Wilson said non-traditional students often bring life experience that can't be taught in a classroom. Most are self-achievers, eager to draw on their own work and life experience. "Nursing is a unique combination of medical skills and education, people skills, knowledge and critical thinking," Wilson said. "Non-traditional students bring many of those things to the table and adapt very quickly in their new medical world."
The first year of Saint Thomas Health's residency program includes a 14-week orientation followed by a period of mentoring. The second year is focused on learning to be a mentor and giving back to first-year residents. The program is open to any RN licensed in Tennessee and guarantees employment following completion of the two-year residency.
For RNs wishing to further their education, the health system provides tuition reimbursement while the Saint Thomas Health Foundation offers a program specifically for healthcare education. School partnerships, like the one with WGU, provide discounts as well. "Our nurse residency program is an investment for our organization and for each nurse," Wilson said. "Our goal is to take care of our nurses holistically, just like we do for our patients. Saint Thomas and Ascension believe in personal and professional integration and that you have to have both to become the best person you were intended to be."