Too many nursing grads? A closer look at two-year programs

Our posts on the supply and demand for nurses are driving some good discussion. As always, tell us what you know and we’ll make it part of the conversation.

Today, we turn the prism a bit to look at a new facet: Two year nursing programs.

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As we drill down into the data on graduations and degrees, we’re seeing how the recession and the promise of a well paying, flexible job in nursing are attracting lots of new students to two-year programs.

But there’s also concern that the supply of nurses from those two-year programs is growing too fast.

“I think [the US is] probably at this point overproducing associate-degree nurses,” said Mary Bennett, director of Western Kentucky University’s School of Nursing, who’s been following the discussion here and on the blog of the the research group EMSI.

Bennett told EMSI that graduates from WKU’s baccalaureate program aren’t having trouble finding jobs, but the issue might be at the two-year level.

Minnesota’s public two-year colleges have seen a huge jump in nursing grads the past few years.

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The numbers are higher if you look at the associate’s and bachelor’s degrees in nursing for all Minnesota institutions. According to the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, a total of 3,146 degrees were issued for associate’s and bachelor’s programs in the registered nurse category, a 50 percent increase from 2004.

At the same time vacancies for new nurses have plummeted.

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(The charts were produced by the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, responsible for roughly 8 of every 10 nursing graduates from Minnesota schools. )

There’s no doubt the number of openings will rise again with economic recovery. But that’s a big drop in the past year or so and we don’t have good data on how long it’s taking to place new graduates of two year and four year programs.

We checked in with Janis Hollenbeck, interim dean of nursing and allied health programs at Minneapolis Community and Technical College.

She told us that MCTC pulled back its nursing admissions from 120 to 90 in the school year that just ended in response to nursing layoffs in the Twin Cities. For the fall, though, admission slots returned to 120.

She wrote:

MCTC reduced the number of admissions to the Nursing Program from 120 to 90 last academic year (fall semester 2009 – spring semester 2010). This was in response to layoff of Registered Nurses by Twin City hospitals that occurred during the previous academic year (fall 2008 – spring 2009).

All programs must be sensitive to the employment opportunities of their graduates and when local employment numbers reduce and/or layoffs within a vocation occur, institutions should be responding by reducing output of graduates in the area of reduction. That is what MCTC did in direct response to the layoff of RN’s in the Metro area.

There have been no additional layoffs of RN’s in the Metro area during academic year 2009 – 2010 and some rehiring of RN’s and thus MCTC has responded by returning admission to the Nursing Program during academic year 2010-2011 to the former number of 120.

MCTC’s program is unique in that students in the Nursing Program can attend part-time (most programs require full-time attendance by nursing students) and thus the 120 persons admitted in the coming academic year will graduate anywhere from 2 to 4 years in the future, and there is indication through a slightly improving economy, and the prediction of need for RN’s, that there will be employment opportunity during the time frame when these students will graduate.

“My current reading, based on what December 2009 and May 2010 graduates are telling us, is that employment of new graduates is slow and graduates are participating in many interviews and applying for positions that are not their priority interest in order to gain employment in-field.

“The current metro area nursing labor dispute is further muddying the picture so it is quite difficult to know what to anticipate with regard to employment for new graduates.”

As MinnEcon and EMSI continue to explore the issue of supply and demand in nursing, I’ll admit I’m concerned about graduates from two-year programs.

Are their job prospects as good as RNs with a bachelor’s degree or higher? Could we end up in a circumstance where there’s a shortage of nurses with four-year degrees and an oversupply of nurses with associate’s degrees?

Without complete data on placements, it’s hard to know.

So the next step in our reporting is to try to talk to new graduates of two-year nursing programs about their experiences.

If you’re a recent graduate of a two-year RN program or know someone who is, please contact us and tell us about the job market you’ve seen. We’ll post your responses and add to the discussion.

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It’s worth pointing out again that most experts dismiss the idea of an oversupply of nurses in the pipeline.

We contacted the National League for Nursing, a nursing education group, looking for job placement data for two year nurse graduates (we thought they kept that data but they did not.).

“What we do know from anecdotal evidence is that the current recession has encouraged many experienced RNs to work more hours and has brought retired nurses back into the labor force,” said Kathy Kaufman, a senior researcher with the group, wrote us.

At the same time, economic pressures have forced many Americans to cancel elective medical procedures and to postpone non-acute medical care. As a result, in some regions and job markets newly licensed RNs are momentarily facing a difficult job market.

However, the underlying conditions that created projections of a shortage of over one million RNs by the year 2020 have not changed, and there is broad agreement among analysts that the tight job market for new RNs is merely transitory.

It seems like an unquenchable demand. But if we need a million nurses in 10 years, that’s 100,000 new grads a year and nationally we had 148,266 (.pdf page 19) U.S. and international students passing a key test for the first time last year for U.S. RN credentialing, a number that’s been growing significantly.

Those are people prepared to enter nursing for the first time. Will they all find work?

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