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Nursing programs are about quality care, equity

Walter Bumphus

Editor’s note: The following is a letter to the editor to the New York Times pertaining to a June 24 article on requirements for nursing students.

Dear Editor:

Because the nation’s community colleges currently prepare more than half of all new nurses, we read with interest your recent coverage of the growth in BSN programs at four-year colleges (Perez-Pena, Richard, "More Stringent Requirements Send Nurses Back to School," New York Times, June 24, A13).

The writer gives compelling context for an urgent national problem, a problem that will become worse over the coming decades as an additional 32 million people strain the capacity of our health care system. An estimated 848,000 new nurses will be needed by 2020 to ensure quality of care for our families and communities. In fact, research recently released by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and Workforce indicates at least a 29 percent shortfall in professionally trained nurses.

Community college nursing programs–either alone or in partnership with four-year institutions–remain critical to meeting the nation’s need. Your article presents a number of contradictory and somewhat unclear assertions. It suggests that BSN educated nurses are preferred, but then notes that “such policies are limited to a small fraction of hospitals.” It cites surveys purported to show that most hospitals would rather hire BSN nurses, but it does not document that research. It quotes administrators who imply community college educated nurses may be “limited to nonhospital settings," without explaining the clear and prevailing trend that much of our health care is increasingly moving to community and public settings. 

A further and key point that the article does not address relates to equitable access to health care careers. The shift in our nation’s demographic makeup is well documented, with minority populations projected to represent a growing percentage of the nation’s workforce. Community colleges provide the greatest diversity to the nursing workforce and are the typical gateway to practice for the highest percentage of minority students. In addition, in remote and rural communities, which typically face greater challenges in attracting and retaining adequate numbers of nurses, community colleges provide an essential pipeline to the nursing profession and thus to quality of care in those communities.

Because we are dealing with human lives and not just an issue of supply and demand, understanding the factors underlying the nursing shortage is complex. Devising strategies to address that shortage while also protecting access and equity for students who would hope to enter the profession requires greater support for all nursing programs. Community colleges are key—both to the mathematical and the human equations.

Bumphus is CEO and president of the American Association of Community Colleges.