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Trends, limited resources prompt end of associate nursing program

In response to national trends and tightening resources, Lamar University officials announced the ending of its Associate of Applied Science in Nursing degree program. The last students will begin the two-year program this fall.

Lamar had become the only university in Texas offering the two-year degree, said Brenda Nichols, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “The university has evolved and nursing in this region has evolved to a level where it is important for us to focus on the baccalaureate and master’s levels,” Nichols said. In addition to the associate degree program being eliminated, the JoAnne Gay Dishman Department of Nursing offers the Bachelor’s of Science in nursing, the RN to BSN track, the Master’s of Science in nursing, and a MSN/MBA dual degree.

Lamar has admitted 40 students into the associate program each fall. The department admits students into the bachelor’s program in fall and spring semesters totaling 130 annually. While the department has increased the number of students it admits without substantially increasing its faculty, it still turns away between 80 and 120 applicants a year. “We will increase the number we admit into the bachelor’s program beginning fall 2013,” said Eileen Curl, chair of the JoAnne Gay Dishman Department of Nursing.

The elimination of the associate program follows health care industry trends, Nichols said. A January 2011 report released by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, titled The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health, stressed that nurses should achieve higher levels of education and training to meet the challenges facing national health.

The report concludes that “a more educated nursing workforce would be better equipped to meet the demands of an evolving health care system, and this need could be met by increasing the percentage of nurses with a BSN.” The report includes a recommendation that the proportion of nurses with baccalaureate degrees be increased to 80 percent by 2020.

Research has shown that the higher the level of education of the nurse, the better the outcome, Nichols said. “The less time patients spend in the hospital, the greater the importance of having the best possible person at the bedside.”

“Care within the hospital continues to grow more complex,” the 2011 report states, “with nurses having to make critical decisions associated with care for sicker, frailer patients and having to use more sophisticated live-saving technology coupled with information management systems that require skills in analysis and synthesis. Care outside the hospital is becoming more complex as well.”

Beyond the hospital setting, nurses are being “called on to coordinate care among a variety of clinicians and community agencies; to help patients manage chronic illnesses, thereby preventing acute care episodes and disease progression; and to use a variety of technological tools to improve the quality and effectiveness of care.”

“We don’t discount the value of the associate degree as for many this has been a stepping stone toward continued advancement in the field,” said Nichols, whose own educational journey began with an associate degree. To help those who already have an associate degree become BSN prepared, the nursing department has expanded its RN to BSN track.

“We are making it very user friendly for RNs to pursue their bachelor’s degree,” Curl said. The program is available entirely online and working nurses are finding the program’s flexibility works with their demanding schedules, she said. LU’s master’s level nursing program is also offered online.

“The Magnet recognized hospitals in this region as well as Houston and beyond aren’t hiring associate-level graduates, only bachelor’s graduates,” Curl said. Two area hospitals, Baptist Hospitals of Southeast Texas and Christus Hospital-St. Elizabeth and St. Mary, hold Magnet Recognition from the American Nurses Credentialing Center for quality patient care, nursing excellence and innovations in professional nursing practice. Hiring the best-qualified nursing staff is part of keeping those credentials, Curl said.

For many years, Lamar’s nursing faculty has “worked diligently to address teaching needs in all three, very different programs. We simply don’t have the resources to keep up,” Curl said. Keeping pace has meant unrelenting overloads on a faculty that also participates in growing levels of research and scholarship. In the past decade, Lamar’s nursing faculty has brought in more than $3 million in external funding for research helping contribute to the university’s Carnegie status as a doctoral research university.

The curriculum of the associate and bachelor’s degree programs are quite different, Curl said. The associate-level curriculum focuses on preparing graduates to implement proper techniques and procedures. Bachelor’s level graduates “learn more about the research process and how to consume research,” Curl said. “They gain more leadership abilities and are given more opportunities to learn about nursing theories that guide practice, as well as nursing care for groups of patients and communities.”

“This change is not a reflection on the quality of our associate degree program, or on the quality of our graduates, or the quality of our applicants,” Nichols said. “It is about managing our resources and meeting the needs of the health care system.”

“We’re very proud of our associate graduates,” Curl said. “They’re doing a great job in the health care system, and we encourage them to work toward their bachelor’s degree.”