By Susan Huard
New Hampshire faces a critical shortage of nurses. The reasons vary, from our state’s aging population to the demands of COVID-19, but the challenge is real. All around our state, demand for skilled and qualified nurses is high.
It’s precisely why state lawmakers are examining new ways to enhance the nursing workforce pipeline. It’s also why the NH House Education Committee in Concord is reviewing a bill to allow K-12 schools to hire nurses with associate degrees rather than the current bachelor’s degree requirement. Given the extensive training necessary for anyone to earn an associate degree in nursing, this could be a logical way to respond to an immediate need. New Hampshire’s community colleges offer programs that equip graduates with the training needed to fill challenging Registered Nurse roles across the state and nation.
Unfortunately, not everyone understands what it takes to become a Registered Nurse or the rigor of the programs offered by NH community colleges. One recent comment made at a public hearing compels me to respond. A state representative and member of the House Education Committee was quoted in the media as being “very distressed” by this school nurse bill, specifically because she sees associate degree nurses as not competent to fill that role.
I hardly know where to begin.
According to the NH Journal, the representative said, “I don’t know about you, but when I’m in the hospital and a nurse walks in the room, I don’t want just some ‘Jeannie Smith off the sidewalk’ that’s maybe taken two years at a community college with basic education and I have something that’s very technical.”
I think Brendan Williams, President of the NH Health Care Association, put it best by calling this statement “elitism.” It’s disappointing to see a comment like this come from a state lawmaker; even more frustrating that it came from a former teacher. However, this provides a teachable moment.
First, Associate Degree in Nursing programs at our seven community colleges are a critical part of our state’s Registered Nurse (R.N.) workforce. If a student wants to become an R.N., they can do so by enrolling in a two-year Associate of Science in Nursing program at a community college, or they can enroll in a Bachelor of Science in Nursing program offered at a four-year college.
Here is the key point: upon graduation, these individuals sit for the very same R.N. licensure exam whether they have an associate degree or a bachelor’s degree. It’s the same test, and leads to the same job: R.N. And community college students’ pass rates are in line with pass rates from four-year programs, and well above the national average for all nursing candidates. Our graduates leave our programs qualified and ready to work.
Ironically, if this legislator has ever been cared for in a local hospital, chances are extremely high she did have a nurse with a community college degree from right here in New Hampshire, since we graduate a large proportion of the R.N. workforce in the state.
Community colleges are constantly fighting the stigma of somehow being a lesser path, a shortcut that does not produce outcomes similar to four-year colleges. Hogwash. In a broad range of highly technical professions, our graduates leave NH community colleges and excel in their careers, while having made the smart choice to learn locally and save thousands of dollars in tuition costs.
It’s time people recognize the contributions our community colleges make: they provide an affordable and high-quality pathway for thousands of people in countless professions.
So, who exactly is the “Jeannie Smith off the sidewalk” associate degree nurse the Representative hopes to avoid?
She is Kerri Broas, named ER Nurse of the Year in 2020, who started working at Concord Hospital a decade ago because of her love of the healthcare field. She enrolled in the associate degree nursing program at NHTI in 2012 while working full-time, raising her two kids, and realizing at 36 years old that she was meant to be a nurse. Since becoming an R.N.
Kerri has enjoyed every day of the last five years working at Concord Hospital, where she trains new people in the ER and can always tell who the NHTI nursing graduates are because of their skills and hands-on knowledge.
He is Nicholas Blanchard, an experienced Emergency Medical Technician with advanced prehospital experience before he even entered the nursing program. He selected the associate degree nursing program at River Valley Community College to expand his knowledge in emergency medicine and is presently working as an emergency room nurse at a hospital in western New Hampshire.
She is Rae Mello-Andrews, who worked for years as a Licensed Nursing Assistant and an Emergency Medical Technician responding to life-threatening situations, before she entered NHTI’s nursing program, and who, as an associate degree R.N., worked as a Certified Emergency Registered Nurse in a Level I Trauma Center. Later, she went back to school for advanced degrees and is now an NHTI nursing faculty member training others to follow in her footsteps.
She is Julia Kelly, a wife, mother, and medical researcher with a prior baccalaureate degree. She selected an associate degree nursing program to meet the demands of her work and personal life and is presently working at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, a world-renowned academic medical facility, in acute care.
It’s not right to speak of these talented nurses the way they were spoken of this week. Community college nursing programs are rigorous. Nursing graduates from NH’s seven community colleges are well prepared, and they pass the same licensing exam as those who went through a four-year program. The fact that many community college nursing graduates are a bit older – more seasoned – than their four-year program counterparts can be a benefit at a workplace where people need to multitask, respond to quickly emerging crises and employ judgment that is often honed by experience. As I said in my initial response to the Representative’s unfortunate comment, “there is something to be said for maturity.”
Dr. Susan D. Huard is the Interim Chancellor of the Community College System of NH and chaired the Governor’s Commission on the Healthcare Workforce in 2017.