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‘Extra Push’ Toward Diversity

The accelerated master’s degree in nursing program at the Georgia Health Sciences University, formerly the Medical College of Georgia, has seen its minority student enrollment grow from just a smattering when it launched in 2006 to 16 percent last fall.

“In the very first class, I think we had one male, two African-American females …,” recalls Annette Bourgault, director of the Clinical Nursing Leader program.

Incremental increases in minority student enrollment — GHSU’s nursing program currently enrolls 18 minority students, compared with eight in 2008 — are due, in part, to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s New Careers in Nursing (NCIN) program. The Foundation awarded the school $260,000 over the past three years to administer scholarship money to second-degree students. GHSU also has boosted its male nursing student enrollment to 17 last fall, from four in 2008.

The Foundation, in partnership with the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), launched the scholarship to improve diversity in the field and to address the national nursing shortage. The only program to focus solely on underrepresented students — racial and ethnic minorities, men and the economically disadvantaged — in accelerated bachelor’s or master’s programs, NCIN awards funding to schools, which in turn have to demonstrate a commitment to diversity.

Programs that tie foundation funding to a diversity goal are not unusual, but  Bourgault says NCIN provided the “extra push” the College of Nursing needed to improve its diverse student recruitment efforts.

“Since being involved with NCIN, our recruitment efforts have become more targeted to racial/ethnic minorities and males. This program also has increased our awareness of the minority representation in our program and has encouraged us to look at strategies for recruitment and retention of these underrepresented applicants and students,” says Bourgault. The school now heavily recruits from historically Black Spelman and Paine Colleges, in Atlanta and Augusta, Ga., respectively. 

Since 2008, the Foundation has awarded $19 million in NCIN funding to 101 nursing programs, including California State University-Fullerton, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Michigan. The schools apply for between five and 30 scholarships a year, which translates into a $10,000 award for each selected underrepresented student. To date, NCIN schools have awarded 1,635 scholarships. Some 721 awardees have graduated and are practicing nurses.

Estimates vary, but health care industry reports put the nursing vacancy at long-term care facilities and hospitals at 8.1 percent. Concerns are increasing that the health care system could be overwhelmed as baby boomers age and experienced nurses from that generation retire. Adding to the urgency is the health care reform law that will enable millions of uninsured Americans to get health care.

NCIN program officials say accelerated degree programs are key to addressing the nursing shortage because they place professionals from other fields on the fast track to second careers as certified nurses. The programs are significantly shorter than traditional bachelor’s degree programs, usually running between 12 and 18 months, but require the same or more clinical hours. 

The fast-track programs widen the pool of potential nurses; offer expedited training to equip more nurses, faster; and prepare students for careers as clinical leaders and sorely needed nursing faculty, experts say.

Nursing experts also note the importance of developing a workforce that more accurately reflects the racial makeup of the nation. Although census data indicate one in every three Americans is a minority, the AACN reports that minority students make up less than one quarter of those enrolled in nursing programs.

According to the National Advisory Council on Nurse Education and Practice, a multi-ethnic nursing population is essential to meet the health care needs of the nation and reduce health disparities among the historically underserved.

“We know from the literature that persons from disadvantaged and minority backgrounds are more likely to serve persons in those underserved communities,” says Dr. Vernell DeWitty, deputy program director for AACN. “If we want to address some of the issues of equity and access to care, it is very important to have health care professionals and health care providers that are like members of the community.”

Offering funding directly to schools rather than students can be a useful approach when trying to meet a diversity goal, says Dr. Mitchell Chang, a professor of higher education and organizational change at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“The chances of diversifying the composition of the student body for programs that are oversubscribed and highly competitive, for example, increase substantially when those programs have the funds to carry out a very specific set of charges,” Chang says. “This funding may help those programs develop a stronger culture of valuing the educational benefits associated with diversity, which would in turn help to sustain the practice of recruiting and admitting a more diverse spectrum of talents even after the funding expires.”

Despite the nursing shortage, many schools turn away tens of thousands of students due to a lack of capacity.

A change of culture seems to be taking place at the Georgia Health Sciences University. The program now charges its NCIN scholars to actively recruit prospective students who look like them.

“The part that touched me the most is that you are required to do recruiting to try to get more minorities to join the program,” says recent graduate Aleisha Edwards, a 24-year-old African-American. “I was able to go back to my alma mater, Savannah State University, and we were the first people to ever go and recruit there.”

While programs like NCIC are helping to boost the nursing student pipeline, diversifying the faculty represents the next frontier for diversity advocates, with minorities representing just 11.5 percent of full-time nursing faculty members, according to AACN.

DeWitty says she hopes the effort starts with NCIN scholars, who “are more apt to go on to positions in higher learning and therefore become nursing faculty. That’s another aspect of the nursing field that is in much need of more diverse people.” 

— Toni Coleman contributed to this report.

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