June 30, 2023

Oregon Bill Allows Community Colleges to Offer BSN Degrees

Oregon Bill Allows Community Colleges to Offer BSN Degrees

Source: Youtube

The Oregon legislature passed Senate Bill 523 last week. This unusual legislation paves the way for community colleges to confer Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degrees. It is intended to increase access to nursing education across the state. 

When enacted, the law will allow Oregon's 17 community colleges to offer BSN degrees through approved programs. Opponents contend that it will do little to alleviate the nursing shortage. Instead, it might compound the faculty shortage that colleges and universities face. This article provides an overview of the bill and its potential consequences.

How Senate Bill 523 is unusual

Typically, universities and colleges offer four-year BSN degrees. This type of education offers a complete nursing curriculum that includes courses in sciences, research, leadership, and community health. In contrast, community colleges offer an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN). This two-year degree focuses on the necessary nursing skills and knowledge to become a registered nurse. 

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BSN-prepared nurses often have more chances for professional growth, leadership roles, and higher income potential, whereas ADN-prepared nurses typically begin their nursing careers faster but may encounter constraints in certain career choices that require a higher degree. The bill approved in Oregon would blend these programs, allowing nursing students to earn BSN degrees from community colleges. 

Source: Youtube

Background on Senate Bill 523

SB523 was introduced to clarify issues raised by SB3 during the Oregon legislature’s 2019 session. The measure permitted all of the state’s community colleges to offer applied baccalaureate (AB) degrees under certain situations and with the consent of the Higher Education Coordinating Commission (HECC). They were designed to provide higher-level skills to existing associate degree curricula.

Community college nursing schools didn’t seem to be covered under this new law since a bachelor of applied science in nursing, or BAS-N, would not be recognized by the nursing industry, state boards, or employers. Since the nursing sector would not accept that degree title, it would be far less valuable. 

“While we don’t see a qualitative difference (between a bachelor of art and a bachelor of science), it’s just the wrong terminology to be recognized in the field,” said Jessica Howard, president of Chemeketa Community College in Salem, Oregon.

Oregon’s community college officials were unable to implement bachelor’s degree programs at that time. The Oregon Community College Association (OCCA) began pursuing legislation to clarify that community colleges could confer BSN degrees if relevant requirements were met. 

The nursing shortage is a major concern in Oregon, particularly in rural areas where access to care is scarce. Plus, there aren’t enough BSN nurses in Oregon. According to the Institute of Medicine’s Future of Nursing Initiative, hospitals should aspire for 80% BSN-prepared nurses by 2020. Approximately 61-62% of Oregon nurses have a BSN or higher degree. Many people think that allowing community colleges to offer BSN programs will remove some of the obstacles that keep students from earning advanced nursing degrees.

Source: Twitter

Overview of Senate Bill 523

Senate Bill 523 would allow an applied baccalaureate degree in nursing to be conferred as a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN). The bill states: “‘applied baccalaureate degree’ means a bachelor’s degree designed to incorporate applied associate courses and degrees with additional coursework emphasizing higher-order thinking skills and advanced technical knowledge and skills.” It further specifies that “any applied baccalaureate degree for nursing must be conferred as a “Bachelor of Science: Nursing”.

Support for Senate Bill 523

Supporters claim the law will widen the pipeline of future nurses, particularly in locations outside of the state’s major cities. According to the OCCA, accessing BSN degrees at community colleges will offer rural students more affordable options.

“By enabling community colleges to offer the BSN degree, we are ensuring that our students have access to affordable and accessible educational opportunities,” John Wykoff, OCCA’s deputy director, said in a statement. “This legislation opens doors for students in rural areas and provides a vital local option for graduates to advance their careers.” Furthermore, many community college students who complete ADN programs acquire a BSN from “costlier out-of-state or online providers.”

In addition to these points, supporters of SB523 also say that it will:

  • Provide better, more equitable learning opportunities for students. 

  • Increase educational opportunities for underserved, marginalized populations.

  • Encourage more nurses to become educators by offering a BSN, one step closer to the master's degree required to teach.  

Wykoff asserted that since community college nursing faculty already have the credentials to teach the BSN curriculum effectively, they are well-equipped to provide high-quality nursing education at that level.

Counter-arguments and criticisms for SB523

Surprisingly, or maybe not surprisingly, many educators spoke out against the measure. The Oregon Alliance of Independent Colleges and Universities (OAICU) said they had little faith that SB523 would help address the nursing shortage. In addition, at least five institutions offering BSNs submitted testimony to the legislature opposing the bill. These included:

  • Oregon Health and Science University

  • University of Portland

  • Linfield University

  • George Fox University

  • Warner Pacific University  

Linda Campbell, Ph.D., RN, CNS, CNE Dean and Professor of the Department of Nursing at Warner Pacific University, expressed her concerns in a public letter. Her criticisms of the bill included the following:

  • It would increase competition for master’s prepared faculty and clinical rotation sites, taking limited resources from established BSN programs. 

  • Community college BSN programs would widen the wage gap for master’s prepared nurses, making it harder to recruit educators. (The wage gap between nursing faculty and a nurse practitioner is already around $50,000 per year.)

  • The bill would worsen faculty retention issues that nursing schools already grapple with.

  • Competition for instructors would lead to higher tuition costs so that underserved students would have fewer affordable options. 

  • Community colleges would also face significant costs for accreditation, including application fees, evaluator site visits, and annual dues. 

  • Instead of encouraging competition, the state would be better served to focus on building existing programs.

Campbell cited the Oregon Health Authority’s Nursing Workforce Study. Its analysis, funded by the legislature, provided an extensive, data-driven report of the nursing workforce challenges and recommendations. The report did not suggest allowing community colleges to offer BSN programs. According to Campbell, allocating resources to the SB523 initiative is “not a prudent use of public funds.” Instead, the study recommendations to ease the workforce shortage included the following:

  • Improve workforce retention,

  • Increase seats in current nursing programs,

  • Address the faculty wage gap by offering supplemental pay, tax incentives, or loan repayment programs, and

  • Increase access to clinical experiences through a centralized clinical placement system and funding the expansion of simulation education.

Paul Smith, Ph.D., RN, CNE Dean & Professor at Linfield University Good Samaritan School of Nursing agreed. He said that SB523 could potentiate Oregon's current nursing faculty shortage. Smith added that Oregon already offers ample flexible and affordable options to attain a BSN from accredited nursing programs — in-state and nationwide through online programs.  

According to Smith, Linfield University has national nursing accreditation, a conceptually based baccalaureate curriculum, an expanded simulation center, and clinical placements in community health, med-surg, and other settings to meet the increased clinical needs. Yet it doesn’t have qualified faculty willing to teach for lower salaries and who will stay long-term.

What’s next for SB523?

Senate Bill 523 was part of a flurry of bills passed by legislators following a six-week walkout from Senate Republicans. On June 20, 2023, the House Speaker and Senate President signed Senate Bill 523. Next, the governor may sign the bill, veto it or let it become law without signature.

In addition, other legislative actions could narrow the gap in Oregon's nurse shortage. House Bill 2926 would provide financial incentives to hospitals for providing clinical opportunities for nursing students. Senate Bill 485 and House Bill 2928 would add registered nurses to the list of approved healthcare providers for certain incentive programs.

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