CANTON - Enrollment in SUNY Canton's on-line nursing courses could spike if a proposed state law is approved that requires new registered nurses to earn bachelor's degrees within 10 years to keep working in New York state.
State lawmakers are considering the bill as part of a national push to raise educational standards for nurses even as the health care industry faces staffing shortages.
Nurses already working in the field would be grandfathered in and wouldn't have to meet the requirement. Nursing students who graduate with an associate's degree could be hired as registered nurses, but would have to earn their bachelor's degree within 10 years.
Currently most registered nurses have two-year associates degrees.
John F. Conklin, director of SUNY Canton's associate program, said the college has about 180 students enrolled this year in its associate nursing program and had to place additional students on a waiting list. Another 50 students are enrolled in the college's one-year practical nursing certificate program.
In 2009, the college created a four-year degree program known as the RN-to-BS program with the last two years completed through on-line courses. Roughly 90 students are enrolled in the on-line bachelor's degree nursing classes.
"It's specially designed for individuals who graduated from a two-year associate's nursing program," Mr. Conklin said. "Most of the people enrolled are working registered nurses who are taking the on-line classes on a part-time basis."
On-line classes are popular with employed nurses who often work alternating shifts that make it difficult to get to campus for classes on a regular basis, he said.
Mr. Conklin said if the beefed-up requirements are approved, enrollment in the RN-to-BS program would likely increase, but it's uncertain how much. The bachelor's nursing program now has one full-time and two part-time faculty members.
"The college would have to explore how best to accommodate increased enrollment," Mr. Conklin said. "We're already set up really well to assist individuals who want to obtain their bachelor's degree. We recognized that this might be coming. We're ahead of the curve."
He said the proposed legislation "shouldn't cause panic" because it only applies to new students rather than those who have already earned their associate's degree in nursing.
"At the time it passes, it would really pertain to future students," Mr. Conklin said.
The state legislation died in committee last session, but has bipartisan support in both chambers this year and could be debated later this month.
Demand for more skilled nurses is increasing as the population gets older and has more chronic diseases. Also, 32 million more Americans are expected to gain access to health insurance from the new federal health care law.
The bill has garnered support from the New York State Nurses Association which has cited a 2003 University of Pennsylvania study that found that every 10 percent increase in staffing by nurses with a bachelor's degree results in a 5 percent decrease in surgical deaths.
Mr. Conklin said upgrades in technology and medical advancements have increased the volume of information that nurses should be familiar with as they treat patients in various healthcare settings. There is also a demand for nurses with higher degrees to serve as nurse managers, administrators and to teach at nursing schools.
"We recognize that nursing education is vastly different now than when I went to school 30 years ago. With the breakthroughs in healthcare and technology there is a lot of information that nurses have to have," he said.