With the Bureau of Labor Statistics projecting the need for more than a million new and replacement registered nurses by the year 2012, nursing schools around the country are exploring creative ways to increase student capacity and reach out to new student populations. The challenge inherent in these efforts is to quickly produce competent nurses while maintaining the integrity and quality of the nursing education provided.
One innovative approach to nursing education that is gaining momentum nationwide is the accelerated degree program for non-nursing graduates. Offered at both the baccalaureate and master's degree levels, these programs build on previous learning experiences and transition individuals with undergraduate degrees in other disciplines into nursing.
Shifts in the economy and the desire of many adults to make a post-September 11 difference in their work has increased interest in the nursing profession among "second-degree" students. For those with a prior degree, accelerated baccalaureate programs offer the quickest route to becoming a registered nurse with programs generally running 12-18 months long. Generic master's degrees, also accelerated in nature and geared to non-nursing graduates, generally take three years to finish. Students in these programs usually complete baccalaureate-level nursing courses in the first year followed by two years of graduate study.
Though not new to nursing education, accelerated programs have proliferated over the past fifteen years. In 1990, 31 accelerated baccalaureate programs (BSN) and 12 generic master's programs (MSN) were offered around the country. Today, 168 accelerated BSN programs are operating and the number of generic master's programs has increased to 50. According to AACN's database on enrollment and graduations which is based on responses from 590 of 687 institutions (85.9%), 46 new accelerated BSN programs are now in the planning stages. This number far outpaces all other types of entry-level nursing programs currently being considered at four-year nursing schools. Twenty new generic master's programs are also taking shape.
Graduates of accelerated programs are prized by nurse employers who value the many layers of skill and education these graduates bring to the workplace. Employers report that these graduates are more mature, possess strong clinical skills, and are quick studies on the job. Many practice settings are partnering with schools and offering tuition repayment to graduates as a mechanism to recruit highly qualified nurses.
Changing Gears: Second-Degree Students
The typical second-degree nursing student is motivated, older, and has higher academic expectations than high school-entry baccalaureate students. Accelerated students excel in class and are eager to gain clinical experiences. Faculty find them to be excellent learners who are not afraid to challenge their instructors.
"Our accelerated students are a remarkable group," said Nancy DeBasio, PhD, RN, Dean of the Research College of Nursing in Kansas City. "Their mean GPA is 3.3, they come from a wide array of backgrounds, and the experiences they bring with them enrich their nursing." The compressed program format is a key motivator for this group of students. "Our exit surveys indicate that the one-year program completion time is a primary reason for enrollment in our program," Dr. Debasio explained.
Second-degree students bring new dimensions to nursing and a rich history of prior learning. "We are seeing a steady increase in applicants to our accelerated program this year, and those accepted come with backgrounds that are varied and impressive," said Janet B. Younger, PhD, RN, Associate Dean of the School of Nursing at Virginia Commonwealth University. "We welcomed several PhDs, some MDs from other countries, and a few fine arts majors. These students excel in class and perform very well post-graduation."
Students in accelerated programs are competitive, maintain high grade point averages, and almost always pass the NCLEX-RN licensure exam on the first attempt. "Second-degree candidates are excellent students and are very likely to see the program through to graduation," said Afaf Meleis, PhD, RN, FAAN, Dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing. "These students are committed to their studies, are actively engaged in research, and very often involved in university organizations."
Susan M. Di Biase, CRNP, MSN, a faculty member at Jacksonville State University in Alabama, knows a thing or two about second-degree students. She was one. "As a nurse educator, I have taught dozens of second-degree students who often distinguish themselves as class leaders," explained Di Biase. "When I was taking classes, I thought the students were strong academically and many said nursing was harder than their first degree. My first employer made a custom of hiring second-degree students because she thought they were good thinkers and strong patient advocates."
Accelerated Baccalaureate Programs
Accelerated baccalaureate programs accomplish programmatic objectives in a shorter time frame than traditional four-year programs, usually through a combination of bridge courses and core content. Instruction is intense with courses offered full-time with no breaks between sessions. Students receive the same number of clinical hours as their counterparts in traditional programs. Admission standards are high with programs typically requiring a minimum of a 3.0 GPA and a thorough prescreening process.
Typically, students with a prior degree are not required to take the liberals arts content included in a four-year BSN program. Accelerated programs do require prerequisites, many of which may have been completed during the student's initial degree program. "Before students can begin our program, their college transcripts are reviewed to assure that all prerequisites are met," stated Maureen C. Creegan, EdD, RN, Nursing Program Director at Dominican College (NY). "Almost all students meet the arts and social sciences requirements; most do not meet the natural sciences requirements, including anatomy and microbiology. To assist students, we offer back-to-back prerequisite courses just prior to the start of the accelerated program."
Accelerated programs require a heavy credit load and intense clinical experiences. Identifying students who will flourish in this environment is a priority for administrators. "Due to the intensity of the program, an interview was added to the admission process to better screen students," explained Maryann Forbes, PhD, RN, Accelerated Baccalaureate Program Director at the State University of New York-Stony Brook. "Faculty feel that the interview and ongoing mentoring are key components to student success."
"The most successful accelerated students are bright, inquisitive, and sophisticated consumers of higher education who actively pursue learning opportunities," said Harriet Feldman, PhD, RN, FAAN, Dean of the Lienhard School of Nursing at Pace University (NY), whose Combined Degree Program (BSN/MS) has been in existence since 1984. "As adults, these students tend to know what they need and aggressively pursue programs that best meet their needs: fast-tracked, competitive, and well respected. While some students do attend part-time, most are full-time students who want to reach their career objective as quickly and efficiently as possible."
"Our accelerated BSN program attracts second-career seekers who are unable to make the time and financial commitment to a generic master's program," explained Elizabeth McGann, DNSc, RN, CS, Dean of the Department of Nursing at Quinnipiac University (CT). "Our program gives students the option of entering basic nursing practice now with graduate education as a potential future step."