Northwestern Michigan College (NMC) continues its fight in Lansing to promote legislation to allow community colleges to offer four-year degrees in nursing, arguing that it could help meet high demand for qualified candidates.
“Eventually I think it will happen. It makes sense,” NMC President Tim Nelson says of his push he began five years ago. “There’s a need for nurses. That’s been our contention all along,” though he’s reluctant to provide a timetable. “I don’t have a crystal ball.”
That caution is borne of seeing previous efforts to pass such a bill fail. In 2012, the state passed legislation allowing community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees in four specialized occupational areas: energy production, concrete technology, maritime marine technology and culinary arts. NMC became the first community college in Michigan to do so, awarding bachelor degrees in maritime/marine technology majors in 2013.
Missing from that list: a bachelor of science in nursing. It was originally included, but was removed due to opposition from the state’s 15 public universities. That stance hasn’t changed, much to Nelson’s chagrin, who notes, “Universities have said it is mission creep for community colleges.”
He disagrees, saying it is simply incumbent upon community colleges such as NMC to provide the kinds of training needed in their local communities. “We want to provide relevant (training), and relevant changes over time. Western Michigan started as a two-year teachers’ college. Ferris started as a trade school. We’re meeting needs.”
A year ago, such legislation appeared once again to be on the cusp of passage, with a proposal to allow local voters to determine if community colleges in their districts could offer four-year nursing degrees. That bill died on the floor of the Michigan State Senate.
Traverse City’s State Senator, Wayne Schmidt, who has co-sponsored every bill in favor of the change, says he remains optimistic.
“We’ve come close, but not quite gotten there. Every year we pick up some votes. Downstate at public universities they do a great job,” he says. “But let us have that opportunity up here. We need qualified healthcare professionals.”
Now Nelson says Munson Healthcare has joined the fight, trying to convince legislators to pass such a proposal. “Munson has been a big supporter for us,” he says.
“We’re supportive,” agrees Gabe Schneider, director of government relations for Munson Healthcare. “A four-year degree is becoming standard for the profession.”
Though each Munson affiliate hospital has its own requirements, Traverse City’s Munson Medical Center requires all nurses to either have a bachelor’s degree or acquire one within five years of being hired. “Munson Medical Center is designated as a magnet hospital,” says Schneider, a status by only 432 other hospitals in the country. “With that comes the requirement that a greater percentage of staff acquire it (a four-year degree).”
Schneider says the ability to get that degree locally would be a boon to Munson and its staff. Like most hospitals, Munson has nursing vacancies virtually year-round; currently 40 slots remain open for registered nurses.
Across the country, community colleges in 19 states can confer baccalaureate degrees. Of those, nine states permit the schools to grant BSNs. Nelson says he sees such a development potentially benefiting not only community colleges, but residents of the state far removed from four-year institutions. He believes it could at least partly address the need for higher-paying jobs in areas such as ours. “How do we create 500 new jobs that pay $75,000 to $80,000 a year? They’re in technology, healthcare, what I call emerging (fields).”
He acknowledges that staff at community colleges such as NMC will have to be similarly qualified as those at four-year colleges. “If we offer the programs, staff will have to be certified,” he says. “We will follow national accreditation policies. Our board will not authorize us to offer a program if we can’t offer quality.”