More than 100 students apply to Eastern’s new nursing program as demand for health workers soars

Friday, March 17, 2023

(as reported in the Spokesman-Review by Treva Lind)

More than 100 students applied for 40 seats in Eastern Washington University’s new four-year nursing program to start upper-division classes this fall.

That inaugural class begins Aug. 21 in the SIERR building, or Spokane Inland Empire Railroad site, being renovated in the University District. Spaces will hold EWU nursing, and communication science and disorders programs.

In 2022, the state Legislature funded $6.1 million over two years for EWU to expand from a two-year to a full four-year program. Legislators cited the need to train more nurses, as the COVID-19 pandemic worsened health care worker shortages. A second EWU class of 40 will be admitted in spring 2024.

“This is the worst nursing shortage that I’ve seen in my career,” said Donna Bachand, EWU’s nursing program director. “The pandemic just sort of intensified the workforce shortage. Some nurses just grew fatigued or disillusioned.”

Each year, it’s typical to see a large pool of bachelor’s of science in nursing applicants, Bachand said. There is room for another regional option, she said. Other BSN programs are at Washington State and Gonzaga universities.

“That application to the upper division is always competitive at every school,” Bachand said. “We have this year 132 completed applications for 40 seats, which is more than three times more than we can accommodate.”

Finalists will be selected after a review of leadership skills and other strengths, she said.

There are other issues, however, that limit admitting more students to regional BSN programs, including enough faculty and clinical training availability, area educators say.

This fall, 257 students applied to WSU’s nursing program, but only 228 met requirements for studies at Tri-Cities, Yakima and Spokane campuses.

That pool will narrow to about 120 students, said Gail Oneal, WSU clinical associate professor and interim BSN director. The finalists include spots for 20 Whitworth University students per semester through a consortium agreement. Previously, WSU accepted a cohort of EWU students under that consortium.

Gonzaga receives more than 700 nursing applicants each year seeking its direct-admit program, meaning students are admitted to nursing and the university simultaneously , said Joan Owens, a Gonzaga associate dean. Based on available clinical training resources, Gonzaga can enroll about 85 nursing students a year, Owens said.

“We only do admissions once a year in the fall, not per semester; the 700 is for the upcoming fall semester,” Owens said.

“The clinical spaces are negotiated for all of the regional nursing programs through a consortium so that opportunities at facilities are shared and the facilities are not overloaded.”

GU nursing students complete all four years at Gonzaga, said Owens, adding, “While we would love to increase our enrollment to accept more of the annual applicants, we are not able to do so at this time based solely on the spaces offered to us for clinical practice at our community partner facilities.”

Oneal cited two challenges to its program – training availability at hospitals and clinical sites, and a nationwide faculty shortage.

“One of the problems of trying to grow out programs and make them larger is that there are just not enough people willing to become nursing faculty,” Oneal said.

“Part of that has to do with salary, because you can work the same number of hours at say a clinical setting, a hospital, but if you’re coming in with a master’s, those folks who are eligible to teach are not going to make as much money as probably a new nurse who has graduated.”

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing says that for more than a decade, nursing programs have struggled to increase enrollments primarily because of shortages in faculty and clinical placement opportunities for students.

Recruiter Nursing Solutions Inc. found registered nurses exited the bedside at an alarming rate in 2021, as hospitals shed more than 2% of their RN workforce. An experienced nurse typically supervises student nurses for hospital training. Oneal said medical schools unaffiliated with a university hospital system face similar challenges.

“It’s not just for nursing, but also other health professions,” Oneal said. “When you have a nurse student needing to learn how to take care of a hospital patient, if we don’t have a hospital willing to take a student and let them learn how to do that, then the student is at a disadvantage.

“A number of hospitals due to various reasons are closing up those opportunities.”

Some ideas being explored nationally include having BSN programs pay hospitals to have their students do on-site training with nurses, Oneal said, partially to help cover some of the nurse preceptors’ time. But there’s a paradox.

“There is a problem in that there are not enough nurses in the first place to be able to precept the student or to give up the hours of taking care of the patients,” Oneal said.

“A lot of the older nurses left during COVID, so a lot of the hospitals are working with nurses who maybe have two or three years’ experience. They are still getting their feet on the ground, really, to get that depth of experience so that they’re comfortable precepting a student.”

Ideas still are being debated, she said. Oneal said she also understands that hospitals are trying to protect nurses from burnout.

“A few years ago, before COVID, up to 50% of nurses were only lasting two to three years after graduation. Then COVID hit.”

EWU has hired about half of its BSN faculty and has started to recruit second-year instructors, Bachand said. Students doing nursing prerequisites still do so in Cheney.

Its upper-level studies will have an emphasis on aging, behavioral health concepts, health care for rural and underserved populations and community-based clinical experiences, Bachand said.

Knowing acute-care training is tight, she said, “we’re preparing to be creative,” such as by getting students into smaller community clinics for experience.

An overall hope is to get more graduates into nurse jobs.

“We care about the regional workforce, and health care is a major employer in Eastern Washington,” Bachand said.