UNION COUNTY, NJ — A proposal on whether to implement bachelor’s degree programs at two county colleges, including Union County College in Cranford, pitted the haves against the have nots on Monday, Jan. 25 at an advisory board meeting involving public college and university presidents
Four-year schools, which have the authority to grant BSN degrees in nursing, including Kean University, voted 19-18 against those who do not, leaving the request in bureaucratic limbo for the time being. The vote was split down the line with all four-year schools voting against, and all two-year schools voting in favor of the measure.
Union County College and Passaic County College — the other institution which applied for a bachelor’s program in nursing — must now wait on the state’s Higher Education Secretary, Rochelle Hendricks, for a verdict. But the narrow vote was encouraging to Union County College administrators, who are actively raising awareness about the issue with state legislators and difference makers.
“We were quite pleased with the vote. It was quite close, and the reason it did not go in our direction is because the baccalaureate sector was united in their opposition to this proposal, regardless of its merits,” said Maris Lown, the Vice President for Academic Affairs at Union County College. “It’s difficult for me to understand how anyone could argue against a lower-cost, quality program, particularly when student debt is the topic of a national conversation.”
At community colleges in New Jersey, students can only earn two-year, Registered Nurse, or RN, degrees, which cuts them off from higher-paying positions in the field. Four-year colleges are also failing to produce enough BSN-qualified nurses to meet statewide demand, according to Union County College, leaving a yawning gap between the supply and demand of such nurses.
Giving county colleges the license to issue BSN degrees would also allow lower-income families to access a higher standard of nursing education, rather than limiting the industry to those who can afford expensive college degrees. If Union County College’s application is approved by Hendricks, it would let students with RN degrees to apply to BSN programs in a “seamless” transition, says Lown.
“The entire profession is trying to move toward the baccalaureate as an entry level degree. So it provides opportunities for those graduates, who have the RN but not the BSN,” said Lown. “It’s not a new movement. There are over 20 states who already have baccalaureate degree-granting authority in their community colleges, and we’ve been talking about this for over a decade. It’s not a new idea. New Jersey would not be an early adopter.”
Across the country, 22 states have given at least some community colleges the license to grant baccalaureate degrees. But the voices against this being the case in New Jersey, where Union and Passaic County Colleges would be the state’s pilot programs, argue that county colleges can’t handle the demands of a BSN program, citing higher costs and a lack of quality nursing faculty as their primary evidence.
That thinking didn’t hold water with Lown, who said that Union County College’s facilities are more than qualified for the jump to a BSN program, and added that community colleges can have an easier time recruiting faculty because of their close ties to their clinical partners — local hospitals and medical centers, for example. And as an unlicensed program, Union County College has already experienced more “clinical oversight” than licensed schools, she added.
In terms of higher costs, “I thought that was a pretty specious argument, because RN to BSN completion programs have fewer clinical hours and these are licensed nurses who practice on their own recognizance. There is no clinical tradition in RN to BSN nursing programs, and frankly I have no idea where that came from, because it is not rooted in fact,” said Lown. “I don’t see this program as costly at all. We have a huge nursing laboratory that is fully equipped, for just about any level of practice.”
In a statement issued on Tuesday, Feb. 2, the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders endorsed Union County College’s application in emphatic terms.
Freeholder Chairman Bruce Bergen said that BSN degrees “would provide more Union County residents with the opportunity to advance professionally in a high demand field, and it would benefit the community at large by helping to relieve the ongoing nursing shortage.”
For Union and Passaic county colleges, a lot is on the line, depending on what Hendricks decides. At Union County College alone, the 2,448 students enrolled in cooperative nursing programs could earn better degrees and be worth considerably more on the job market, says Lown.
So any sign of support, such as a declaration from the freeholders, goes a long way.
“It was nice to get that support. We were extremely happy with that report, and we are obviously trying to make the data and the information available to as many individuals as possible, including anybody in the assembly, anyone in state government,” said Lown. “For me, the bottom line is it expands access for our licensed nurses, at a lower cost. It’s just very hard to argue against a quality program at a lower cost, that has geographic proximity with your residence. I don’t know how anyone can not agree with that.”