Carol Ashton, associate dean and director
of the Idaho State University School of Nursing
Image Credit: ISU Photographic Services

Web Extras

Bookmark and Share

ISU Responds to the Nursing Crisis

Long before the Idaho Department of Labor sounded an alarm in January about the state’s potential nurse shortage, Idaho State University’s faculty had been laying the groundwork to answer the problem.

The mounting crisis comes largely from an aging population, both amongst those who require care and those who provide it. ISU’s solution has been to prepare more nurses both to teach and to practice.

In the Department of Labor’s report – the Idaho Nursing Workforce Advisory Council’s “Summary of Findings and Recommendations” – its authors note “that on a per capita basis, the size of Idaho’s nursing work force is smaller than all surrounding states except Nevada, falling more than 20 percent below the national average.”

That shortage could become much worse, due to a perfect storm of factors affecting our ability to educate nurses for the workforce, according to Dr. Carol Ashton, associate dean and director of the ISU Kasiska College of Health Professions School of Nursing.

“We knew the ‘age-wave’ of baby boomers needing more health care services was coming and now it has started to arrive,” Ashton said. “And it will arrive with hurricane-force waves by 2016 when the population of those 55 and over peaks, along with their health care needs. The primary care needs for them will be astounding.”

At the same time baby boomers are aging, so is the nursing faculty at our universities. The report notes, “No other factor influences the state’s capacity to educate nurses more than the availability of nursing faculty.” Ashton agrees, and that is where one of the primary challenges for solving the shortage exists.

“Fifty percent of nursing faculty members nationwide are over 50 years of age, and 40 to 50 percent of nursing faculty are expected to retire over the next five years, just when the demand for them is peaking,” Ashton said. “You can’t educate nurses to address the shortage if you don’t have the faculty to educate them.”

Faculty teaching undergraduates must have at least a master’s degree or be in the process of earning one, while faculty teaching master’s students must have a doctoral-level degree or be in the process of earning one.

Idaho State University’s Kasiska College of Health Professions School of Nursing is responding to that demand, offering a variety of nursing advanced degree options in Pocatello and online. During spring semester 2009, there were 256 students enrolled in undergraduate nursing programs and 106 in graduate-level programs in the ISU School of Nursing. Each year, ISU produces about 36 master’s-prepared nurses, eight in the nurse-education field.

No other Idaho university produces more nurses with advanced degrees and Idaho State University will become the first to offer doctoral-level nursing degrees. The ISU School of Nursing is ready to begin offering a Ph.D., perhaps as early as fall 2010, and that program will soon be followed by a Doctor of Nurse Practice degree option.

ISU offers two “Pathways to Masters” programs one for current nurses holding associate degrees, the other for nurses with nursing bachelor degrees.

Idaho State offers five fully online master’s degree programs – family nurse practitioner, clinical nurse specialist, nursing education, clinical nurse leader and nursing leadership.

“All our master’s programs are fully online and allow any nurse, regardless of geographical location, to have access to a graduate education,” Ashton said.

The School of Nursing offers baccalaureate-level degrees for nursing, the first step nurses must take to pursue the advanced degrees, in Pocatello and Boise. At the undergraduate level, the School of Nursing offers a traditional four-year baccalaureate degree; a bachelor of science degree completion program for associate degree registered nurses and licensed practical nurses; and a “fast-track,” four-semester nursing B.S. degree program in Boise for students with a degree in another field who have their prerequisites completed.

On the main campus in Pocatello, the School of Nursing increased its undergraduate B.S. enrollment by 12 students — from 58 to 70 — three years ago, and has increased its enrollment in the Boise fast-track program from 20 to 30 students.

“We’re responding in every way we can to help avert the nursing shortage,” Ashton said.

Offering advanced degrees won’t solve the nursing and nurse faculty shortage in itself, however, due to the level of nursing faculty salaries.

“Nursing graduates with a master’s degree or an advanced practice certificate working as faculty make from 35 to nearly 45 percent less than their counterparts working in the private sector,” Ashton said. “And for those with a Ph.D. or doctoral level degree, the pay differential is much worse for those working in academia.”

Because of this pay differential, there is a lesser financial incentive for practicing nurses to enter academia to teach. Additionally, younger nurses entering the profession find little reason for pursuing advanced degrees.

“We must deal with the inequities of salary,” Ashton said. “And we must provide more incentives for students to pursue advanced degrees and careers in teaching by offering more loans, scholarships and tax incentives to facilitate younger nurses coming in to be nurse educators.”

Andy Taylor
ISU Magazine