Proposal to Expand Nursing Bachelor’s Degree Programs to California Community Colleges

Community colleges leaders are once again making an effort to introduce bachelor’s degrees in nursing, reigniting a debate with the state’s universities on whether extending into the two-year sector would alleviate California’s shortage of nurses or intensify competition.

A proposed legislation by state Senator Richard Roth, D-Riverside, aims to grant permission to 15 community college districts, yet to be identified, that already confer associate degrees in nursing to offer bachelor’s degrees in the field.

Despite California State University’s neutral stance on Roth’s bill so far, it is evident that the system has a vested interest in whether community colleges are granted the ability to cater to students who might otherwise opt for CSU or private school programs.

Most bachelor’s and advanced nursing degree programs are currently provided by independent and private colleges, holding a portion of about 51% of the market share. Statewide data indicate the presence of 48 nursing programs at the bachelor’s level, with at least 17 Cal State campuses and six University of California campuses hosting either bachelor’s or master’s nursing programs within their respective systems.

Enrollment in bachelor’s nursing programs statewide has shown an increase, particularly within the private sector. In the year 2021, a total of 9,179 new students enrolled in these programs, marking an uptick of nearly 2,500 compared to the previous year. Conversely, there has been a decline in students enrolling in associate degree nursing programs, predominantly offered by public community colleges.

“The demand in the workforce has grown significantly,” mentioned Kaylie Schmidt, spokesperson for the Community College League of California, a nonprofit entity advocating for the bill SB 895. “We are witnessing nursing shortages like never before, and many of our districts reside in communities facing severe workforce shortages.”

In certain state regions, nursing students are compelled to leave smaller communities in dire need of healthcare professionals and migrate to other areas offering them the opportunity to pursue a bachelor’s degree in nursing.

Approximations suggest that California is grappling with a shortage of around 36,000 licensed nurses, a gap anticipated to expand substantially by 2030, as per Andra Hoffman, a trustee for the Los Angeles Community College District. “This vast discrepancy continues to widen given that current nursing baccalaureate degree programs experience demand surpassing their enrollment capacity,” she emphasized.

This isn’t the first occasion where community colleges have lobbied the Legislature for the approval to offer nursing baccalaureate degrees. A decade ago, the state’s community colleges initiated the offering of bachelor’s degrees in select programs and specific institutions to address unmet workforce requirements. At that time, community college leaders cautioned that nursing shortages would persist without California authorizing the community colleges to provide nursing degrees. Consequently, the state sanctioned the pilot community college bachelor’s degree program while excluding nursing due to legal restrictions on programs already available at universities.

The bill SB 895, aimed at altering this ruling, is slated for consideration by the Senate Education Committee on April 10.

Rehman Attar, Cal State’s director of health care and workforce development, highlighted that CSU has refrained from taking a formal stance on the bill but is open to legislative intervention to address issues like clinical placements and faculty shortages in nursing education across all three systems.

While registered nurses are not formally mandated to possess a bachelor’s degree for practice, an increasing number of employers and health facilities are demanding registered nurses to hold or be pursuing a bachelor’s degree. A 2010 Institute of Medicine report recommended elevating the proportion of registered nurses with bachelor’s degrees to 80% by 2020, while in California, a 2021 Health Impact report indicated that over 54% of the state’s hospitals preferred hiring nurses with bachelor’s degrees.

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