Senators note community colleges’ role in preparing healthcare workers

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, begins Thursday's hearing on the workforce crisis in healthcare by highlighting the shortage among nurses. (Screenshot of streamed event)

Community colleges weren’t represented at a Senate hearing Thursday on healthcare worker shortages, but they still were in the mix of the conversation.

At the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee hearing, Sen. Roger “Doc” Marshall (R-Kansas) said he wants to more closely review community colleges’ role in preparing healthcare workers, especially nurses.

“80% of the jobs in healthcare could be done with community college nurses,” said Marshall, a physician who graduated from Butler County Community College (Pennsylvania).

He noted that, particularly in rural areas, residents go to their local community college for affordable job training, and they are more likely to stay in those communities, as opposed to students who attend a university elsewhere and often don’t return to their home towns.

Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-Louisiana), a physician who taught at the Louisiana State University Medical School, said he “endorsed” Marshall’s comment that community college graduates typically stay in their communities. He also noted that community college programs are less expensive and have a shorter pipeline to help fill desperately needed nurses. He added that there’s a “clear bias toward BSNs” (bachelor of science in nursing degree), observing that he himself worked for 30 years with a nurse with a certificate who was “fantastic.”

The HELP Committee — which heard from witnesses from a healthcare system, Dartmouth College, University of New England, Meharry Medical College and Johns Hopkins School of Nursing — also explored diversity in the healthcare workforce, better data on that workforce (especially after the Covid pandemic) and service in rural areas.

A fledgling partnership

A representative from Louisiana’s Ochsner Health outlined before the committee its workforce development efforts, which include a significant partnership with Delgado Community College (DCC), the largest educator of nurses and allied health professionals in the state.

In 2021, Ochsner Health teamed with DCC to train the next generation of nurses and allied health professionals, forming the Ochsner Center for Nursing and Allied Health, said Leonardo Seoane, chief academic officer for Ochsner. The healthcare system’s $20 million investment in the center covers full-time tuition for Ochsner employees pursuing a nursing or allied health certificate or degree at Delgado and matching funds for a new state-of-the-art facility on its City Park Campus.

Also in 2021, Ochsner, DCC and the Louisiana Department of Education started a nursing pre-apprenticeship program that provides high school sophomores and community college students an opportunity to apprentice as nurses. The program, which serves more than 350 students, will expand soon to other counties and aims to serve more than 600 students over the next two years, Seoane said.

“We’re early on in the program, senator, but we’re very enthusiastic about it,” Seoane said in response to a question from Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colorado) about apprenticeships in healthcare.

Ochsner also has teamed with DCC, Northshore Technical Community College and the Louisiana Community and Technical College System to offer tuition-free registered apprenticeships to Ochsner medical assistants. There are plans to expand the program to other parts of the state.

GRAD Act reintroduced

Also on Thursday, HELP Committee members Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and John Hickenlooper (D-Colorado) and Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming) reintroduce a bipartisan bill to more accurately measure student success at community colleges.

The Higher Education Act requires the U.S. Education Department to report institutions’ graduation rates for full-time, first-time students, which excludes part-time and other nontraditional students. The Graduation Reporting for Accuracy and Decision-Making (GRAD) Act — which is supported by the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) — aims to fix that.

“Schools like Snow College and Salt Lake Community College have students enrolled from all walks of life — from the first in their family to go to college, to veterans, to single parents,” Romney said in a release. “Current reporting requirements fall short in reflecting community colleges’ unique make-up of students, and every year students who receive degrees are classified as ‘drop-outs’ by the federal government. Our bill will fix this problem and ensure that the government more accurately measures success at community colleges in Utah and across the country. I’m hopeful that this Congress can get the GRAD Act across the finish line.”

AACC President and CEO Walter Bumphus said the GRAD Act reflects community colleges’ own Voluntary Framework of Accountability metrics, which hundreds of institutions use to foster public accountability and institutional improvement.

“Higher education would be well served by enactment of this legislation,” he said.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
Matthew Dembicki edits Community College Daily and serves as associate vice president of communications for the American Association of Community Colleges.