Healthy Choices

Nursing ambitions: CSUS and community colleges offer accelerated 4-year degrees

Students Nessa Osuna and Jennifer Commins work with a mannequin “patient” in a university birthing-simulation lab.
Students Nessa Osuna and Jennifer Commins work with a mannequin “patient” in a university birthing-simulation lab. California State University, Sacramento

Five years ago, a nationwide call went out: Hire more nurses with four-year college degrees.

Today, with hiring improving as more nurses hit retirement age, and as medical care grows more complex, there’s added urgency in boosting the number of highly trained nurses. In fact, in its 2010 report on the future of nursing, the Institute of Medicine set a goal: By 2020, 80 percent of U.S. nurses should hold four-year baccalaureate degrees.

Stepping up to meet that demand, Sacramento State is partnering with three local community colleges – American River, Sacramento City and Sierra – to fast-track a limited number of students who will graduate next December with a baccalaureate degree in nursing. The first 40 students will graduate this spring from their respective community colleges, then earn a California State University, Sacramento nursing diploma in December 2016.

“It’s quite a unique partnership,” said CSUS nursing professor Dian Baker, who helped coordinate the new River City Partnership program. “Patient care is increasingly complex, so the nursing profession itself is calling for an increased level of education for registered nurses.”

As such, it’s one of 19 collaboratives in California where public and private colleges are working with community colleges to provide students with a “seamless progression” from two-year to four-year nursing degrees.

“California has significantly moved the needle, increasing graduates with a (bachelor’s nursing degree) or higher from 53 percent to 61.5 percent since 2012,” said Mary Dickow, statewide director of the Oakland-based California Action Coalition, one of 51 groups nationwide working to boost nursing education and meet the Institute of Medicine’s 80 percent goal. The “action coalitions” are coordinated through a joint project of AARP and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

“We are very excited to see this growth,” said Dickow, noting that another three California collaborative programs are expected in 2016.

The abundance of schooling options comes as the California job market for nurses appears to be improving, with an average annual salary of $98,400 in 2014.

Studies indicate hospitals with higher rates of baccalaureate-trained nurses have lower mortality rates, shorter hospital stays and improved surgical outcomes.

The new CSUS program is attracting students such as Sarah Arrington, a Sierra College nursing student who was one of 14 students from the college who applied for 40 openings in the program.

“The way things are going, having a bachelor’s degree is going to be the only option for getting a job,” said the 23-year-old student, who earned a surgical tech certificate after high school and worked in a medical clinic. She said it took her nearly four years and several attempts to get into the highly competitive two-year nursing program at Sierra.

Last summer, Arrington took classes at CSUS to finish up some of her required undergraduate classes, such as childhood development and humanities. Next summer, she’ll be co-enrolled at Sierra College and CSUS, taking upper-division classes in nursing research and leadership taught by professors who will rotate among the three community college campuses. In the fall semester, the curriculum will include community health and critical analysis courses.

Nancy Schwab, Sierra College’s associate dean of nursing, said the CSUS partnership is not for every student because it requires a year-round commitment to schooling and an accelerated pace.

“It is definitely not your typical nursing program,” she said, with students taking as many as 17 units a semester over the summer and into the fall. “That way, six months after graduation (from community college), they’ll earn their bachelor’s degree, at a fraction of the cost of a normal program.”

In its October 2010 report, the Institute of Medicine said the country’s nursing education system needed improvement. “Patient needs have become more complicated,” the report said, “and nurses need to attain requisite competencies to deliver high-quality care” such as mastering new technologies, learning information management systems and coordinating care with teams of health professionals. “Nurses must achieve higher levels of education and training to respond to these increasing demands.”

There’s no lack of nursing school programs in California. The state has 88 of them at the community college level for two-year associate degrees in nursing and another 40 public and private campuses that offer four-year bachelor’s degrees. At community colleges such as Sierra, demand is high; last year, more than 200 students applied for the school’s 40 openings. Similarly, CSUS typically admits 80 students twice a year for its upper-division baccalaureate nursing program but has about “four times that many qualified applicants” trying to get in, professor Baker said.

Last month, UC Davis Medical Center broke ground on a new $50 million graduate school of nursing building, the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing, that will accommodate more students for advanced training, including a master’s degree in nursing leadership, a Ph.D. in health care leadership, and training for physician assistants and nurse practitioners.

Health systems such as Kaiser Permanente are adding training programs for current nurses, helping them earn bachelor’s or other advanced degrees. In Northern California, for instance, Kaiser, working through Samuel Merritt University in Oakland, recently announced scholarships for working nurses with associate’s degrees who want to complete their bachelor’s degree.

The California Board of Registered Nursing’s annual survey in 2014 found that 33 percent of registered nurses plan to retire or reduce their hours in the next five years, compared with about 25 percent in 2010. At the same time, mandatory health care coverage under the Affordable Care Act has increased the demand for medical services.

California nurses are among the best-paid in the country, according to the 2014 federal Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates. While the average U.S. nurse nationwide earns about $69,800 in annual wages, those in California pull in far heftier salaries. Among the state’s metropolitan areas with the highest average annual wages for nurses: Sacramento ($105,400) and San Francisco ($128,200).

UC Davis Medical Center, which hires only nurses with four-year degrees, has about 100 openings, most in acute and critical care. Nurses with at least one year of experience, working day shifts, start at $105,000 per year. Newly graduated nurses who enter a one-year UC Davis residency program start at roughly $100,000.

At CSUS, Baker said there’s been a “significant uptick” in the hiring market in recent years, with roughly 80 percent of new graduates getting hired within their first year of graduation. That compares with the “pretty dismal” situation a few years ago when only half of all graduates were finding jobs.

For students such as Arrington, enrolling in the accelerated program gets her that much closer to her first nursing job. “It helps us right out of the gate. When we graduate in May, we’ll be only six months from our bachelor’s.”

The Newcastle resident, who now spends two days a week in Sierra College nursing classes and works two eight-hour shifts at Sutter and Kaiser Permanente hospitals in Roseville, said the consolidated program will save her time and money by not having to apply again to a separate nursing program. “I battled my way into nursing school but now I don’t have to do it all over again. It’s phenomenal.”

Claudia Buck: 916-321-1968, @Claudia_Buck