Higher education

Iowa State plans new nursing degree

Hospitals, including University of Iowa, upping nurse education standards

Two students sit on the grass in front of Curtiss Hall on the Iowa State University campus in Ames on Tuesday, Mar. 31,
Two students sit on the grass in front of Curtiss Hall on the Iowa State University campus in Ames on Tuesday, Mar. 31, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

Even with demand for nurses soaring nationally and across Iowa, hospitals are upping employment standards — sending more nurses back to school and generating more programs to support them.

Iowa State University is the latest institution in Iowa with plans to offer a nursing degree — one specifically for registered nurses who have associate degrees and licensure but no baccalaureate.

The Board of Regents earlier this week OK’d Iowa State’s new registered nurse-to-bachelor of science in nursing program, which officials said is a direct response to the growing demand for nurses with more education.

Take the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, the largest hospital system in the state, which employs more than 2,600 nurses. UIHC lists baccalaureate or master’s degrees as “preferred and highly desired” for its staff nurse hires.

And last year it began “strongly encouraging” staffers without one to get an advanced degree within five years of hire.

“We offer robust tuition reimbursement, multiple collaborative college and university partnerships, and flexible scheduling options to support our staff in this endeavor,” according to UI spokesman Tom Moore.

The university implemented its recommendation that staffers earn BSNs within five years in alignment with national goals established by the Institute of Medicine’s Future of Nursing Report. That report challenged each state to increase the educational attainment of its nursing workforce — setting a goal of getting 80 percent of the registered nurse workforce with baccalaureates by 2020.


UIHC currently reports more than 78 percent of its staff nurses have bachelor’s degrees and 22 percent have associate degrees — although those numbers are much lower statewide.

UI registered nurses who don’t earn bachelor’s degrees within five years won’t lose their jobs, Moore said. UIHC has been afflicted of late by a nationwide nursing shortage that has it paying a premium — to the tune of millions — for temporary “traveling” nurses.

In light of growth across the UIHC campus — both physically, with the opening of its new $360 million, 14-floor Stead Family Children’s Hospital, and in patients, with daily census numbers regularly near capacity — the university’s use of traveling nurses has skyrocketed from the full-time equivalent of nine in 2014 to 216 right now.

Its website currently lists more than 200 open nursing positions, and minimum hiring standards allow for education ranging from an associate degree to doctorate. The same standards apply to the UIHC’s traveling nurses — although hospital officials on Friday couldn’t immediately provide the percentage of travelers with associate degrees versus bachelor’s degrees.

Ginny Wangerin, clinical assistant professor and director of nursing education at Iowa State, said the research is clear on the benefit of advanced degrees.

“There have been studies going back now for more than a decade ... showing that there is very clear evidence that when a health care provider has more baccalaureate-prepared nurses on staff, there are fewer negative events for patients,” Wangerin said.

So while Iowa State’s new nursing program — scheduled to launch in fall 2018 — won’t do much to address the overall shortage of nurses, it should close the education gap and address shifting employer demands.

In documents provided to the Board of Regents in support of the new program, Iowa State cited a 2012 report that found just 29 percent of 46,780 registered nurses in Iowa had baccalaureate degrees.


A more recent 2016 report by the Iowa Board of Nursing and the Iowa Organization of Nurse Leaders found 46.5 percent of Iowa nurses have bachelor’s degrees, compared to the national average of 65 percent.

The percentage in rural Iowa is much smaller, according to the regent documents, and “Iowa nurse education programs continue to graduate significantly more associate degree nurses than per-licensure baccalaureate degree nurses.”

In 2015, 1,584 applicants with an associate degree sought initial RN licensure in Iowa, compared with 610 candidates with a baccalaureate, according to regent documents.

“The difference means that in just the one year an additional 974 nurses entered practice with only an associate degree,” the documents state.

Although 16 other approved and accredited RN-to-BSN programs exist in Iowa — including an online version at the UI — Iowa State won board approval by showing the sustained need and by highlighting new aspects of its proposal.

For starters, the ISU program will be located in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition in the College of Human Sciences and will partner with the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

“Students matriculating from the ISU RN-BSN will be distinguished by having exposure to a model of dietary prevention of disease,” according to board documents.

The ISU program also aims for improved collaboration. Specifically, it’s looking to provide a seamless path for graduates of the Des Moines Area Community College RN degree program.


“Due to the close proximity of DMACC to ISU, and the willingness of both campuses to collaborate, the development of a coordinated program will be straightforward,” according to board documents.

Iowa State acknowledged the crossover with the University of Iowa’s online RN-to-BSN program — as the Board of Regents of late has stressed improved efficiency and less duplication. But UI, which has struggled to hire enough faculty to increase the number of nurses it graduates, is backing the Iowa State offering.

“We are not objecting to ISU offering its own face-to-face RN-BSN program,” UI Interim Provost Sue Curry wrote in a letter to the Board of Regents in May, noting the universities hope to find ways to collaborate.

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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