When Stephanie Berman of Round Rock earned her associate degree in nursing at Austin Community College, it marked a turning point in her life. A single mother emerging from an abusive relationship, with three young children, she was finally able to earn a decent paycheck.
But Berman soon realized that a bachelor’s of science degree would make her better prepared for the field’s growing demands. ACC doesn’t offer that degree, and most four-year schools in the area don’t have nursing programs set up to accommodate students who already hold a two-year degree. So, like many other nurses across the state who decide to pursue a bachelor’s, she enrolled in an online program — in Berman’s case, at the University of Texas at Arlington.
“I got my BSN that way, but I also came out with $26,000 in student debt,” she testified at a state Senate hearing last month. To have been able to earn the bachelor’s at ACC, where two years of tuition and fees now totals $5,100, “would have been great.”
Now, after years of debate, the Legislature seems poised to allow some community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees in a handful of workforce-oriented fields, including nursing, applied science and applied technology.
A pilot program enacted a number of years ago permitted just three of the state’s 50 community colleges — Midland College, Brazosport College in Lake Jackson and South Texas College in McAllen — to offer limited baccalaureate degrees. ACC wants to offer a nursing bachelor’s for graduates of two-year programs who have passed a licensing exam to become registered nurses.
The possible expansion comes at a time when community colleges have also extended their reach in the other direction as well, with early college and dual credit programs in high schools. Community colleges, which are public, enroll nearly half of all students attending public or private institutions of higher learning in Texas.
“I believe this bill will go a long way toward addressing the workforce needs of this state,” said Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, who chairs the Higher Education Committee and who authored Senate Bill 2118, which would authorize the expansion.
Concerns about the quality of baccalaureate offerings at two-year schools and about “mission creep” — the prospect that those schools might try to emulate four-year institutions — are well addressed by the proposed legislation, said Raymund Paredes, the state’s higher education commissioner, who called it “a good bill.”
A community college would have to secure approval from Paredes’ agency, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, before it could offer a bachelor’s degree. Requirements would include a taxable property value of at least $6 billion, a positive assessment of overall financial health, an accreditation plan, sufficient faculty and, in the case of nursing, a good track record in licensing exam scores and job placement for graduates of the two-year program. What’s more, the program would have to address a clear workforce need.
“It’s going to be hard for community colleges to offer baccalaureate degrees, and there’s not going to be a stampede for expansion,” Paredes said. “They will have to meet the same accreditation standards that universities do.”
Still, there are concerns, Paredes said. “Some people are worried about cost. Some people are worried about competition between universities and community colleges,” he said. “If community colleges have a different salary scale for faculty in baccalaureate programs, will there be pressure on institutions to raise salaries for all instructors?”
The Legislative Budget Board’s analysis said the measure’s fiscal implications are uncertain. One possibility is that some students who would otherwise enroll at four-year schools would instead attend community colleges for their bachelor’s degrees, resulting in a decline in tuition and fee revenue at the four-year schools.
For Aimee Oldaker of Blanco, who earned her two-year nursing degree at ACC this month, the opportunity to study another two years at the college for a bachelor’s degree is appealing. She has lined up employment at St. David’s HealthCare’s South Austin Medical Center and would be able to continue working full-time because ACC offers classes at night and on weekends.
“They are very aware that this program is going to be geared toward working nurses,” Oldaker said of ACC officials. “I think this is so very important, coming at a highly crucial time when a lot of our nurses are going to be retiring in the next 10 years.”
A report in 2010 by the Institute of Medicine, now known as the National Academy of Medicine, recommended that the proportion of nurses with a bachelor’s degree rise from 50 percent at the time of the report to 80 percent by 2020. Currently, 55 percent have four-year degrees, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing.
The higher credential introduces students “to a wider range of competencies in such arenas as health policy and health care financing, community and public health, leadership, quality improvement and systems thinking,” the institute’s report said. Research shows that hospitals with higher percentages of nurses holding bachelor’s degrees have lower mortality rates.
With “one of the best nursing programs in Texas” at the associate degree level, ACC should be “relatively well-positioned” to offer the baccalaureate degree, Paredes said, adding that, assuming the legislation passes, it would be at least two years before his agency would authorize any program.
“Nurses with an associate degree need an affordable, accessible pathway to get the last two years,” said Richard Rhodes, ACC’s president and CEO. “The reason we’re looking at this is that’s what the industry is telling us they need.”
There are more than 2,000 open nursing positions in Central Texas, said Antoinette Rowin, senior director of clinical practice and professional development for the Seton Healthcare Family. The area’s business community is “thrilled” that ACC might be able to offer the higher credential, said Shaun Cranston, chairman of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce’s education council.
State Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, a co-sponsor of SB 2118 in the House, has been mindful of issues such as mission creep and cost but says the measure takes the right approach. “The legislation is narrow,” she said. “It limits what can be done.”