Faculty shortage means nurse shortage

Posted: Sunday, August 29, 2004

TRENTON, N.J. At nursing schools from New Jersey to California, a surge of applicants who could ease the nation's worsening shortage of nurses are being turned away because many schools can't find enough qualified professors.

That shortfall is driven by health-care jobs that offer better pay and by fewer nurses pursuing the Ph.D. required for full-time, tenured teaching positions.

And, just as with the nurse work force, the faculty is graying. A wave of retirements is expected in about a decade when more care will be needed for aging baby boomers.

''I'm in dire straits in terms of faculty right now,'' said Julie Bliss, chair of the Department of Nursing at William Paterson University in Wayne.

Two of her 15 full-time tenured faculty resigned barely a month before the fall term, she said. They're headed to health-care jobs paying more than $80,000 a year, roughly $30,000 more than she can offer.

''They can't pay their mortgages on what we're paying,'' Bliss said.

Another two professors are on long-term sick leave, forcing Bliss to rely heavily on low-paid part-timers without doctoral degrees while student demand skyrockets.

More than 1,200 students applied for 100 spots in her four-year bachelor's program this fall, up from 351 in 1999. To compensate, Bliss is cutting the number of sections of some courses, boosting some lecture classes from fewer than 30 students to as many as 70.

Meanwhile, the school's graduate program has fewer students, Bliss said, meaning less stress now but fewer educators later.

Without enough instructors, ''we have to turn students away and that exacerbates the nursing shortage,'' which is expected to reach 400,000 vacant nurse positions by 2012, said Carol Picard, president-elect of the Honor Society of Nursing. ''It's something for all of us to worry about as we age, because who's going to take care of us when we're older?''

The educational group is part of the Nurses for a Healthier Tomorrow coalition now running ads with real nursing educators urging others to join the profession.

Doctoral programs are only offered at 88 U.S. nursing schools, with about 3,500 students enrolled in 2003-04, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. Only 419 Ph.D.s graduated this spring, down 10 percent from the prior year.

''We're just not producing enough potential nurse educators'' and haven't for the last decade, said association president Jean Bartels.

While enrollments in graduate programs have just begun to edge up, that's not keeping pace with retirements and professors leaving for higher-paying health-care jobs, she said.

''The average faculty member is 51.5 years old, and they're retiring at 62,'' Bartels said, adding that several hundred are expected to retire annually over the next 15 years or so.

Already, the association says about 7 percent of the 10,200 full-time faculty positions at the 690 U.S. bachelor's and graduate nursing programs are vacant. In addition, 122 of those schools need more instructors; they turned away nearly 18,000 applicants last year for lack of faculty and, in some cases, classroom space.

Those figures don't include two-year degrees and hospital-based diploma programs, although their faculty vacancy rates are only about half as high, according to the National League for Nursing, which offers grants and runs programs to develop more faculty.

At California State University in Sacramento, Robyn Nelson, who chairs the nursing division, is recruiting for three teaching positions this year.

She blames high competing salaries: A new graduate with just a two-year nursing degree can start at $55,000 a year at local hospitals, and a hospital chief nursing officer with a master's degree can pull in well over $100,000.

''Even with a doctorate, I'm only able to offer someone $54,000 or $56,000,'' said Nelson, who has been making do with part-timers who make more working on the side in health care.

Not all schools are having such trouble, possibly because they are in places with a lower cost of living and less-mobile work force.

Julie Novak, professor and head of the Purdue School of Nursing in West Lafayette, Ind., has increased full-time faculty in the bachelor's degree program from 40 to 48 since the 2000-01 school year, as each entering class expanded, from 100 students in 2000 to 167 this fall.

''We have not had any difficulty,'' Novak said. ''We brought in nine new faculty this year,'' including three who replaced retirees.

She also has persuaded retirees to continue teaching part-time. Novak believes low cost of living and proximity to Indianapolis and Chicago help her with recruiting, and other factors may give her an edge over four competitive nursing schools within an hour of Purdue. Those include above-average salaries and popular clinics the nursing school runs for Purdue employees and for the public that allow nursing instructors to keep their skills sharp.

''We have been blessed,'' Novak said. But, ''there is a shortage across the nation.''

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