The United States is experiencing a shortage of healthcare workers.
According to a 2017 study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the gradual emergence of an aging population is projected to exponentially increase the demand for nurses.
The projected demand for nurses by 2021 was 3.1 million. The population of employed registered nurses, or RNs, that year was 100,000 short. The National Institute of Health notes that there has been a significant increase of nurse turnover since the pandemic’s onset.
Several factors can discourage students from pursuing or completing their nursing degree. Lack of faculty is one problem, said Stephanie Richardson, associate dean in SLCC’s Division of Nursing.
“If there is a nursing shortage, there is also a faculty shortage. All these things come together in a perfect storm,” she said. “We don’t have enough educational programs to fill the projected need. We turn away 60% of our applicants nationally. We could make a difference if we had more programs.”
Brian Hoskins, an emergency department nurse and SLCC assistant professor, credits the cost of higher education as a barrier to potential nursing students.
“The big issue is having access to affordable education,” he said. “Costs are always of concern for people whenever they’re just trying to pay their rent and get their kids fed.”
Richardson also said outside factors, like pay, even in non-nursing jobs as they prepare to attend school, could influence interest in the female-dominated profession.
“These women already don’t make a lot of money from the start,” she said. “Compared to a man, it’s 70 cents on the dollar. So it’s hard for them to afford school.”
Cindy Marietta, a fourth-semester nursing student, said the cost of the program lured her to the college over other institutions.
“The thing about SLCC that’s great is it’s really affordable,” she said. “A lot of nursing programs [are more expensive, and people] end up coming out $80,000 in debt.”
Compared to other schools, SLCC is one of the most cost-effective schools in the state. A search on collegetuitioncompare.com reveals the average in-state undergraduate tuition and fees for Utah Colleges is $4,863, whereas SLCC’s in-state tuition for full-time students is $2,128.25.
In addition to its affordability, SLCC recently stopped requiring certain prerequisites to enter the nursing program in order to accommodate more students. Previous job experience is encouraged but not necessary. Grade point average requirements have also been dropped, Hoskins said.
“We’re doing a good job [supporting students] now, and I think a lot of it is because we really have removed some of these barriers that have prevented people from getting into the program,” he said.
But it’s not just cost and understaffed schools that are a deterrent. Hoskins believes the Covid-19 pandemic as well as the healthcare worker shortage itself has stopped people from seeking a nursing degree.
“Increased patients, more workload,” he said.
A 2021 study by The American Association of Critical-Care Nurses found that 67% of nurses plan to leave their current nursing position within three years. This was up 54% from the last time the survey was conducted in 2018, prior to Covid-19.
The shortage, however, is also part of the appeal, Marietta said.
“It’s a double-edged sword. I’m going to graduate into a world where I can walk on to any unit I want with minimal experience, and I can pick the shift I want, and I have a little more power as an employee to get what I want out of the experience,” she said. “However, I may walk on to units that are under-staffed, already stressed, and may not want to teach a new nurse what’s going on.”
Marietta praised SLCC’s support of its nursing students.
“It’s one of the best programs I’ve heard of,” she said. “Small class sizes, [and] all of our instructors are very open and available to us. They keep a pretty close eye on us so if they feel like we’re struggling or not going to succeed in that semester, they pull us aside and work with us to remedy what’s going on.”
SLCC’s nursing program boasts a completion rate of 98%, as of 2017, though Richardson said she’d like to see SLCC make its nursing program available year-round.
“We only admit in the fall and the spring, and summers we don’t teach very much at all,” she said. “We need to admit three times a year and teach all the way through summer, so we can admit another cohort and get people out sooner.”
One way the nursing program wants to increase student success is by instituting a bachelor’s program for its students, Richardson said.
“If the ratio of baccalaureate to associate’s prepared nurses is high, morbidity and mortality rates are low,” she explained. “Doesn’t mean you don’t get great care from an associate degree nurse, but there is an advantage to getting the baccalaureate degree.”