The State Board of Community Colleges voted Friday not to pursue four-year nursing degree programs at the state’s community colleges.
After much debate, the board voted against hiring a consultant to conduct a feasibility study on offering four-year degrees in nursing at some of the colleges. The system had set aside $75,000 for the study, after a committee last year examined the future of nursing at community colleges.
The idea of launching four-year degrees at community colleges would have been a political hot potato, and some members worried that it would represent a departure from the system’s traditional mission. Friday’s vote was 11-7, with the board instead endorsing other methods for increasing the number of nurses with four-year degrees, including dual-enrollment programs, online education and partnerships with the UNC system.
By voting down the measure, the community college system avoids a turf battle with the UNC system and difficult questions from legislators who regularly raise concerns about duplication of academic programs across the state.
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At the same time, the decision means the state will have difficulty producing enough nurses at a higher educational level at a time when the health care system is increasingly complex.
The Institute of Medicine has recommended that 80 percent of nurses in North Carolina have a four-year degree by 2020, said Samuel Powell, who heads the programs committee of the board. About half of the workforce now has that credential, he said, and more hospitals are requiring it.
We’re opening up a can of worms. I mean, what’s next? What’s the next four-year degree? The next thing you know we’re going to be competing with the universities. I don’t think we’ll stop with nursing.
Lynn Raye, member of State Board of Community Colleges
The state had about 97,000 nurses in practice in 2012, and every year about 4,000 take licensing exams in the state. About half of the state’s nursing graduates annually come from the state’s community colleges, and 55 of 58 colleges offer the two-year degree. Many nurses are under pressure from their employers to get a four-year degree but can’t easily do that in their communities.
“There is a tremendous need out there for nurses to get the baccalaureate degree,” Powell said.
But board member Lynn Raye said it would be a mistake to put the community colleges in direct competition with the state’s public universities.
“We’re opening up a can of worms,” Raye said. “I mean, what’s next? What’s the next four-year degree? The next thing you know we’re going to be competing with the universities. I don’t think we’ll stop with nursing. We’ll want engineering, and I don’t know what else. We signed an articulation agreement with the university, and now I think we’re kind of stepping on their toes.”
Supporters said the new degree would have been restricted to areas where the need wasn’t being met by other means.
But some were concerned that undertaking the feasibility study would be viewed as a self-serving strategy that could erode historically strong support for community colleges in the legislature.
Breeden Blackwell, a board member who lobbies for a hospital system in southeastern North Carolina, supported the idea of a feasibility study, with reservations.
Board member Ernest Pearson said all options should be on the table in finding affordable ways for students to continue their education in nursing.
“One of the things I’m really concerned about is our relationship with the General Assembly,” he said, later adding, “We’ve got friends there.”
He also challenged the notion that all hospitals require nurses to have a bachelor’s degree. “These two-year (degree) nurses do wonderful work,” he said.
Board member Ernest Pearson said all options should be on the table in finding affordable ways for students to continue their education in nursing. He said the only way to make a reasoned decision was to have the facts from an objective study.
“It’s extremely important to the people of this state and the students that we serve,” Pearson said.
The study would have answered questions about the cost of offering the higher-level programs and whether the community colleges could hire faculty who could teach the expanded curriculum.
About half of states have community colleges that offer four-year degrees. The special committee that studied the issue consulted with Florida community colleges, which now offer baccalaureate degrees after an eight-year political process to win approval.