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Empowering Diversity and Advancement in Nursing Education

AdobeStock_July 10, 2024

To provide industry with a skilled workforce, higher ed institutions must offer flexible and stackable learning pathways that make skills and credentials accessible for learners. 

Nurses have consistently been at the forefront of critical moments in recent years, and the global pandemic has had a profound and far-reaching impact on their profession. The United States has experienced a significant shortage of nurses, presenting a unique opportunity for higher education institutions to play a pivotal role in addressing this pressing issue. In this interview, Ruth Wittmann-Price discusses enrollment trends in nursing education, the flexible pathways required and the key role partnerships play in helping nursing professionals stay relevant in the workforce.  

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Can you describe the value of flexible academic programs, especially when it comes to nursing? 

Ruth Wittmann-Price (RWP): Many people come to the nursing profession through various pathways outside the traditional postsecondary route, and they are attracted to it for different reasons. They have often witnessed someone in their life experience a hospitalization, and that makes them want to become a nurse. They were so impressed with what nurses did within that realm that they decided it was their calling too. Sometimes they’re working adults, and some have already earned non-nursing degrees. So, you have to accommodate an array of educational levels and motivations and people from different walks of life and be inclusive of all of them. 

Evo: How have you seen enrollment evolve at your institution, particularly when we’re hearing of this nursing shortage? 

RWP: The pandemic was an asset as well as a deficit because some people viewed nurses as heroes during the pandemic, and they emulated to be like them and make an impact in society. It impressed people positively, but there were also negative aspects for those in the profession dealing with the pressure. Of course, education and healthcare still had to be orchestrated from a distance, which had both good and bad consequences.  

Since the pandemic, we have seen nursing enrollments creeping up systematically across the nation. They’re down from what they were pre-pandemic but recovering now. The positive outcome was the demand for increasingly flexible academic programming that gives students the option of completing a nursing program on the weekends, in the evenings and remotely. This is all helping us to staff the nursing crisis. 

Evo: How can institutions help nursing professionals upskill and reskill through flexible pathways? 

RWP: First, having seamless educational programs that are stackable, one on top of another, is critical. Our baccalaureate program, for example, includes three courses that can be applied toward the master’s program. We also move our nursing students directly into the doctorate nursing practice program if that is what they aspire to. So, we make moving through programs as seamless as possible, and we make them as stackable as possible. We have certifications that, once earned, can be applied to a degree program

Evo: What role do partnerships play specifically at your institution when it comes to your nursing programs? 

RWP: I was just at a national conference in Washington where the topic centered on the value of partnerships in nursing education. It was amazing how nursing programs are innovatively partnering with healthcare organizations, large and small community hospitals, as well as medical centers—and we all benefit from those relationships. Our students gain expertise from direct patient care experiences, and in return the healthcare organizations have students in their facilities who may eventually become employees.  

So, partnering is the way to go. We benefit from our innovative affiliations with Cooper University Hospital and Capital Health Hospital in New Jersey, and our students fulfill their clinical requirements resulting in direct patient care experiences at these and other partner sites. They become enculturated into these environments and have direct interactions with staff at these sites. That is so important because those nurses serve as role models for our students. 

We also do projects with our partners and sit on each other’s advisory boards. We frequent the healthcare organizations to check in on our students and their clinical instructors. There are nurse preceptors there to make sure the learning is optimal at all points. We build the academic programs at TESU with our practice partners, and these collaborations really become ingrained.  

Evo: What impact do these partnerships and the resources you’re providing have on reducing the skills gap? And what impact does that have on student success? 

RWP: I don’t know exactly how to address the term skills gap because most students coming through accredited nursing programs are very well prepared. Our students, for instance, have excellent pass rates for the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN). If you expect someone in any profession who just graduated from school to start at their first job and not need orientation, staff development or mentorship along the way, then you’re not being realistic. Nursing is no different. 

I suspect that some healthcare facilities may be short on staff because they’re not prioritizing orientation and mentorship. But our clinical partners are excellent, and they focus on orientation and mentorship for students who have graduated from our programs. It’s worked out well and our prelicensure students have taken jobs with our partners. And retention of our graduates at our partner organizations has been excellent. 

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add?  

RWP: We’re really innovative at Thomas Edison State University. We try to decrease as many barriers as possible and turn out excellent professionals. We have the support of the whole system here, and my practice partners are amazing. I can’t wait to see what’s ahead for the institution and our learners.