Nurses go back to school to get their bachelor’s degree
Cardiac rehabilitation nurse Anne Lipira talks with a patient, Larry Wilson, 53, of Downers Grove, at the Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital s cardiac rehabilitation center. Lipira returned to school and will graduate this month with a bachelor s degree in nursing from Benedictine University. (Chuck Berman, Chicago Tribune)
Anne Lipira had been thriving as a nurse at a west suburban hospital when she decided to go back to school in 2011 to get a higher degree in the field.
She felt her decade of experience and associate degree might not hold up in the shaky economy. She also wanted to develop more skills in case a promotion or leadership opportunity came her way.
“If something happens to your job, you could always go anywhere with your bachelor’s in nursing,” said Lipira, 54, who graduates from Benedictine University in Lisle this month. “I definitely think it offers you security.”
During the past five years, more Illinois nurses with two-year degrees have enrolled in accelerated nursing programs in pursuit of a bachelor’s, a trend that is unfolding nationally too.
The latest data show that 41 percent of registered nurses in Illinois have associate degrees, slightly more than the 39 percent who hold a bachelor’s. But that makeup is quickly changing, experts say.
Last year 3,367 nurses in Illinois enrolled in a baccalaureate nursing program, a 75 percent jump from the 1,922 who signed up in 2008, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. The number has risen by 88 percent across the country in the last five years, figures show.
Hospitals are pushing their nursing staffs to go back to school for higher degrees as they chase a prestigious designation that focuses on quality nursing care.
“We need a nursing workforce that is as highly educated as possible,” said Jane Kirschling, president of the Washington-based nursing college association. “The care that’s delivered across America it has (become) extremely complex.”
Students who graduate with an associate or bachelor’s degree can become registered nurses, but their preparation for the job is completely different, nursing leaders say.
The two-year nursing programs at community colleges mostly focus on preparing students for the licensure exam. In a bachelor’s nursing program, however, students also take classes on communication, research and leadership.
Those kinds of classes help nurses build their thinking skills and work with all kinds of people, according to nursing experts.
“The nurse of today is dealing with much more independence, critical thinking and complex patients,” said Terri Burch, president of St. Anthony College of Nursing in Rockford. Obtaining a higher degree “is something (nurses) need to go back and do so they’re not frustrated later.”
But leaders have come across all kinds of barriers jobs, families and other responsibilities as they’ve tried to recruit nurses to go back to school.
To make the transition smoother, community colleges and universities have teamed up in recent years or expanded age-old partnerships. Many of the programs make it easier to transfer college credits and hold classes outside of universities, such as in rural areas, inside hospitals and at community colleges.
Claywon Young thought it would be too time-consuming to get a bachelor’s degree in nursing as she juggled work and raised her two children. But the 42-year-old City Colleges of Chicago graduate has been able to take classes before and after work near her home on the city’s West Side. The accelerated nursing program is a partnership between her alma mater and Northern Illinois University.
“I was just amazed,” said Young, a nurse at West Suburban Medical Center in Oak Park, of the flexibility. “I jumped right in.”
With health insurance expanding to cover an estimated 30 million more Americans under the Affordable Care Act, nurses need to be ready to handle all kinds of illnesses and patients, experts said.
A 2010 report from the Institute of Medicine encouraged the health care profession to increase the number of nurses with bachelor’s degrees to 80 percent from 50 percent by 2020, pointing to the changing health care landscape.
Hospitals appear to be heeding the call by requiring nurses to hold a bachelor’s degree. Last year, 39 percent of hospitals across the country required new hires to have a bachelor’s, up 9 percentage points from the year before, according to the nursing college association.
One reason is the Magnet Recognition Program, a prestigious designation for hospitals that recognizes quality nursing. One of the chief requirements is that nurse managers and leaders have at least a baccalaureate in nursing.
In Illinois, 33 hospitals have received the designation, more than any other state in the country.
Some studies have found that hospitals have better patient outcomes, such as fewer deaths, when their nurses have a bachelor’s degree. Other research has uncovered no causal relationship between nurse education and patient outcome.
Despite the shift toward higher academic degrees, nursing leaders say they don’t think the associate programs will become obsolete. Although the nursing shortage has been curtailed, experts predict a wave of nurses will retire as the economy improves within the next three to five years.