LANSING — Lawmakers in Michigan have renewed an effort to allow community colleges to award bachelor’s degrees in nursing — a move that could change the way nursing education is delivered in the state as industry preferences evolve to favor nurses with more advanced training.
The state’s 28 community colleges support the idea as a natural extension of their mission. But four-year public universities oppose the measure, arguing the change would undermine existing agreements between community colleges and traditional four-year programs.
Senate Bill 98, introduced by state Sen. Mike Shirkey, is pending in the Senate after a committee approved it in June.
The fight will be uphill. A similar bill was signed into law in December 2012, allowing community colleges to award their first-ever bachelor’s degrees in four technical fields, but nursing was ultimately taken off the table to win votes in the Senate for passage.
Supporters don’t yet know if they have enough votes this time.
But they say the issue makes sense given the changing industry landscape, one shaped by an aging population that requires more medical care and health care reforms that have expanded the number of residents who have health insurance.
Community colleges and hospitals from Dowagiac in Southwest Michigan to Ironwood in the Upper Peninsula are on board, saying the issue mainly is about improving access to higher education. Not all students can afford university tuition or to relocate to attend a four-year school, said Mike Hansen, president of the Michigan Community College Association. The problem is especially pronounced in rural areas, where commute times to universities are longer.
For example, Gogebic Community College in Ironwood, in the western U.P., is more than two hours away from both Michigan Technological University in Houghton and Northern Michigan University in Marquette, where many students choose to transfer.
If community colleges could offer their own bachelor’s degrees, Hansen said, students would be able to work full time as registered nurses while continuing their education at home — saving both time and money.
“The mission of a community college has always been to serve the community,” he said. “The mission has been expanding and growing.”
In metro Detroit, Henry Ford College in Dearborn and Schoolcraft College in Livonia are among two of as many as 12 with serious interest in offering bachelor’s degrees in nursing, Hansen said.
Henry Ford College graduates about 240 nursing students each year, President Stanley Jensen said.
The college would introduce the bachelor’s degree component as soon as it could if the bill is adopted, and could make up the extra faculty costs by charging slightly higher tuition rates for the upper-level courses.
“It is really kind of a jobs bill for us,” Jensen said.
Wayne County Community College District also submitted testimony in support of the bill.
Michigan’s public four-year universities — the main opponents to Shirkey’s bill — fear approval would undermine existing partnerships with community colleges that let students transfer credits to complete their degrees, and force them to compete with one another for students.
“In the long run, there may be a concern about market erosion,” said Daniel Hurley, CEO of the Presidents Council, State Universities of Michigan, which lobbies on behalf of the state’s 15 public universities.
But, he said, nursing programs inherently are expensive, requiring faculty with master’s degrees or doctorates, labs and clinical space, new curriculum development — and staff time. A shift to community colleges could cost students more in the long term, which would counter statewide policy efforts to maximize efficiency of taxpayer dollars.
“There’s no magic bullet in terms of education delivery. Higher-cost programs cost more,” Hurley said. “From an efficiency standpoint, it’s bad public policy.”
Michigan’s 15 public four-year schools renewed a pledge in June that they would “collaborate with our community college colleagues and will provide locally any new baccalaureate or degree completion program for which there is a need within that community college district.”
The idea, they say, is to eliminate duplication of programs already offered in Michigan. Many already have transfer agreements in place with community colleges that help students transfer credits to finish bachelor’s degrees in a number of fields.
Shirkey, R-Clark Lake, could not be reached for comment last week.
But an analysis by the nonpartisan Senate Fiscal Agency found that colleges’ total funding from state aid or local property taxes would not be affected. It would be up to colleges to decide whether to cover any new costs by charging higher tuition rates to bachelor’s degree students or to all students, or to redirect money from other programs without raising tuition.
The bulk of nursing program expenses is in clinical practice. But colleges already offer clinical training as part of their associate degree programs and won’t need to build more labs, Hansen said.
Much of the additional coursework is lecture-based and so extra costs likely will come from hiring new faculty.
Nursing programs aren’t the only educational focus area included in Shirkey’s bill. The legislation would also allow community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees in allied health professions such as technicians, information technology and manufacturing technology and also add a bachelor’s degree in ski area management.
Those fields would be in addition to cement technology, energy production technology, maritime technology and culinary arts, which were part of the law Gov. Rick Snyder signed two years ago.
Shirkey’s bill would require any community college wanting to offer a bachelor’s degree program in nursing to meet state requirements for evaluation and inspection of the program, as well as seek accreditation from the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing.
A possible benefit of expanding the number of schools that offer bachelor’s degrees would be sending more students into the pipeline for advanced degrees given by universities, Hansen said.
Community colleges can fill their own faculty needs with adjunct instructors, including working nurses, a process he said would be easier if more master’s- and doctorate-qualified faculty existed.
Tim Nelson, president of Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City, said the college paid “a significant portion” of the tuition for two of its faculty members to enroll in university doctoral programs in order to fill NMC’s teaching gaps.
The goal is to reduce turnover by training nurses in the same region where they will work.
Industry leaders say that pipeline — of bachelor’s-trained nurses to hospitals, and later to universities for advanced degrees — has been necessary as health care grows more complex.
The Institute of Medicine recommends that 80 percent of the country’s registered nurses hold bachelor’s degrees by 2020.
Said Chris Mitchell, vice president of government and public affairs for the Michigan Health and Hospital Association: “Having a bigger pot of nurses that are looking for jobs, I think, would benefit everybody, but more in particular folks in rural communities.”