Article - Office of College Advancement

Good news in sight for nurse shortage

Education Boost Expected to Pay Off in a Decade

By Saqib Rahim.

Saturday, November 24, 2007—Reprinted from Mercury News.

It was the collision everybody was bracing for: With California's nurses getting older and with baby boomers turning gray themselves, the state's nursing crunch would only get worse.

But a recent study suggests that renewed efforts by nursing schools could make the decade-old nursing shortage history within 10 years.

The number of nursing school graduates has increased by 73 percent during the past five years, according to research by University of California-San Francisco's Center for California Health Workforce Studies.

"If policy-makers can sustain the growth in nursing programs that they've achieved, the nursing shortage will be solved over the next 10 to 15 years," lead researcher Joanne Spetz said. But the road to recovery may be bumpy as nurses age, nursing instructors remain scarce and schools, relying on temporary grants, keep scrounging for more money.

The recovery would bring much-needed relief to a strained nursing workforce. Nurses statewide have been pressed into working overtime - they worked an average of 9.6 hours a day in 2006. And with 45 percent of nurses with active California licenses over 50 years old, as a 2006 Board of Registered Nurses report found, looming retirements seemed to spell trouble. But hospitals statewide shored up their ranks with thousands of nurses from around the country and abroad, and since the start of the decade, efforts large and small have aimed at educating more nurses in the state.

In 2005, the California Governor's Office launched a program that included $90 million for expanding student enrollment. Colleges such as UCLA and UC-Irvine have opened nursing baccalaureate programs. And junior colleges - which educate roughly two-thirds of the state's nurses - have invested more in their programs.

Most recently, a $100 million grant by the San Francisco-based Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation helped UC-Davis open a complete nursing school. That school is projected to educate 456 nurses a year by early in the next decade.

But while such monster grants have made a splash, a stream of smaller donations around the state has also helped.

A $1.08 million grant in October 2006, for example, allowed De Anza College to accept an additional six students each quarter, educating an extra 66 nurses over five years.

The efforts, Spetz said, have also relieved some of the tension brewing among the thousands of students who vie for the limited number of seats available every year.

Drawn by high salaries and the desire for fulfilling work, nursing hopefuls have long been caught between a health care system desperate for their help and a school system that lacked the resources to train them.

Nursing instructors have been particularly difficult to find. With wages as high as ever - the average nurse in California made $73,542 in 2006 - many nurses have chosen practice over teaching. Cash-strapped colleges responded by downsizing their programs.

Much of students' hopes - and frustrations - show up at nursing program "lotteries," where hundreds of junior college students, finished with their prerequisites, hope to be among the lucky ones whose name is drawn from a hat.

Racquel Montoya was one of the lucky ones. When she began De Anza's nursing program in 2001, she had survived the program's second-ever lottery - a cordial affair with only about a hundred students vying for 20 spots.

Some of Montoya's friends, however, were not so lucky. One close friend, she recalls, went to six lotteries over two years before she was admitted. Montoya became familiar with emotions that came with being turned away.

When they aren't chosen, she said, "people cry, feeling like their lives are just ruined. Bummed out completely."

Some have also blamed the lotteries for the high dropout rate in junior college programs - roughly 25 percent in 2003. Critics argue that lotteries allow less-qualified students to be admitted.

A bill signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in October, however, would make it easier for schools to accept students based on grades, life experiences, foreign language ability or other factors. But since the bill doesn't require schools to change their admissions procedures, some, such as Ohlone College in Fremont, are not.

Ohlone uses a lottery to fill its 30 seats each year, program director Gale Carli said, but the school's 95 percent completion rate doesn't cry out for a makeover. Instead, she said, the college will give lottery winners a written test; if they fail, they will have another year to study.

"The whole point of this is to make sure students have every chance to succeed in our nursing program," Carli said. She added that she expected more than 90 percent of lottery winners to pass the test.

The other good news is that with wages so high, Spetz said, there will be no shortage of interest in nursing. (Spetz' previous research in 2003, however, does suggest that wages will decrease, relative to other fields, as the shortage declines).

The problem remains in finding enough teachers who want to leave behind nursing to instruct the newcomers. And with so many of the state's growing programs relying on temporary grants, Spetz said, lawmakers must find a way to assure funding remains strong even as the picture improves.

"If people think that we've solved the nursing shortage before it's actually solved, and pull the funding," she said, "then we'll be right back to where we started."