Mercer expands nursing program, part of local trend

jmink@macon.comNovember 4, 2012 

Amber Tippett has always wanted to be a nurse. Her aunt was a nurse, and when she went to the hospital after her cousin had a baby, Tippett knew it was the gig for her.

So when her college of choice, Mercer University, recently announced that it is expanding its nursing program to the Macon campus, Tippett was relieved.

“I’ve always enjoyed helping people,” said Tippett, a 20-year-old nursing student from Lawrenceville.

When Mercer’s local nursing program begins next fall -- allowing students to finish their nursing degrees at either the Atlanta or Macon campus -- it will be part of a surge of nursing programs in Middle Georgia.

Many of the region’s colleges and universities already offer nursing degrees, and others are jumping aboard. Wesleyan College in Macon is slated to begin its Bachelor of Science nursing program next fall.

And on Oct. 23, the Georgia Board of Nursing approved the Mercer expansion. Currently, pre-nursing students at Mercer can take general education classes in Macon, but must transfer to Atlanta to take required nursing courses. When the program begins on Macon’s campus next year, it will enroll up to 45 students, said Linda Streit, dean of Mercer’s Georgia Baptist College of Nursing.

“We have been in Atlanta for 110 years. ... We thought, instead of expanding (the Atlanta campus), why not offer it in the Macon area?” she said.

But, even in the midst of a projected nursing shortage, are there too many local nursing programs? Administrators and nurses say no. In fact, too many aspiring nurses cannot get into college programs because of a lack of space, they say.

“There’s always a demand for nursing programs,” said Deborah MacMillan, assistant director of the nursing graduate program for Georgia College & State University. “Very often, we’ve had a waiting list.”

At Macon State College, where students can get associate and bachelor’s degrees in nursing, there is a waiting list every admission cycle. About 60 students are in each nursing class, and the college gets 350 to 500 applications for those 60 slots, said Rebecca Corvey, dean of the school of nursing and health sciences.

“That shows there are so many who want to go into nursing, but there are not enough slots,” she said.

Meanwhile, experts say a serious nursing shortfall is on the horizon.

By 2025, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a national nursing shortage of 260,000. It’s estimated that Georgia will face a shortage of 40,000 registered nurses by 2020, according to a University System of Georgia study. But the current shortage recently got some short-lived relief, said Jeremy Arieh, spokesman for the Georgia Nurses Association.

When the economy tanked about 2008, the industry experienced a temporary ease in the nursing shortage. At that time, nursing retirees -- many of whom were still working on a temporary or part-time basis -- returned to their careers full-time. So, when nursing students graduated, many found it difficult to snag an ideal job because hospitals were “flushed with experienced staff,” Arieh said.

“People started saying, ‘What nursing shortage are you talking about?’” he said. “Now the economy is coming back a little bit ... and you’re starting to see those nurses who came out of retirement ease back off that full-time schedule and start planning for full retirements.”

Now, close to 94 percent of the nursing work force is made up of women ages 50 to 55, Arieh said.

That growing number of nursing retirees -- combined with new health-care legislation and aging baby boomers who will need more medical care -- will create a bigger demand for nurses. Meanwhile, more than 50,000 qualified students across the nation were turned away from nursing programs in 2010, according to the latest data from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing.

That long waiting list is mainly due to a lack of faculty and clinic space, where nursing students practice, according to the AACN. In fact, though Corvey says the expansion of area nursing programs is a positive step, more competition for cramped clinic space can be a downside.

“Yes, by all means we need (more programs). But the downside is there already have been a significant number of nursing programs in existence for a very long time that are needing the clinical space,” she said. “And now that’s going to have to be shared.”

But Corvey says she is encouraged that some of the newest programs will likely be smaller than Macon State’s program, which teaches an average of 580 nursing students each year, she said.

Wesleyan College in Macon, for example, looks to enroll 30 students in its first nursing classes next fall. Administrators wanted to offer a nursing program partly to fill the demand for nurses with bachelor’s degrees, said Judy Wright Lott, dean of nursing at Wesleyan. There is a national push for 80 percent of nurses to have bachelor’s degrees by 2020.

“In addition, Wesleyan is a women’s college,” Lott said, “and nursing is predominantly a woman’s field. ... we thought it would be a really good fit for Wesleyan.”

The program will begin with three faculty members, and that number will increase as more students are admitted, Lott said.

At Macon State, administrators want to increase the number of nurses who are qualified to become college faculty. The nursing program recently snagged two state grants totaling about $800,000, which will fund five new faculty positions and help current faculty pursue master’s and doctorate degrees, Corvey said.

Additionally, when Macon State and Middle Georgia colleges merge in January, Macon State will inherit Middle Georgia’s associate nursing program. When the two schools’ programs combine, the four campuses of the new Middle Georgia State College will be able to enroll an estimated 150 additional nursing students, Corvey said.

At Georgia College, the first group of students in the doctor of nursing program will graduate this December, MacMillan said.

And, at Mercer, pre-nursing students can finish their degrees at the Macon campus beginning in fall 2013. The college has signed contracts with Coliseum Medical Centers, Houston Medical Center, The Medical Center of Central Georgia and Oconee Regional Medical Center, according to a news release. The Macon nursing program will start with about four faculty members, Streit said.

“Many of (Macon’s pre-nursing) students are traditional, straight out of high school students,” Streit said, “who really would prefer to stay in their sororities or fraternities and not come to the Atlanta campus because they want the campus that is in Macon.”

That’s the case for Tippett, who now plans to stay in Macon to finish her nursing degree.

“It’s very convenient for us because now the nursing kids, instead of moving to Atlanta we can stay here all four years,” she said. “And you don’t have to leave your friends.”

To contact writer Jenna Mink, call 256-9751.

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