Nursing school plans to end associate degree program

Emma Collins

In response to an increased demand for nurses with bachelor’s degrees, the School of Nursing has decided to phase out the Associate of Science in Nursing degree in an effort to increase enrollment of the Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree.

The change came after a 2010 study conducted by the Institute of Medicine found that hospitals in which a majority of nurses had bachelor’s degrees in nursing had better patient outcomes. As a result of the study, employers are looking to increase the number of nurses with bachelor’s degrees they hire, and the demand for nurses with an associate degree is decreasing.

“More and more employers are hiring BSNs, or, if they do hire the ASN, they tell them they only have a limited amount of time to get their BSN completed; otherwise, they won’t have a job,” Dr. Mary Bennett, the director of the School of Nursing, said. “We really want to make sure that we give the best degree possible to as many people as possible in our area.”

The last class for the associate degree will be admitted in January 2017. During the fall 2017 semester, the School of Nursing will begin to transition away from the associate program. The school will graduate the last nurses from the associate degree program in 2019. With the program’s removal, the number of spots available for students in the baccalaureate program will increase.

Bennett said this will allow an additional 60 students to be accepted each semester into the baccalaureate program.

“We’ll use the classroom spaces that used to be occupied by the ASN students and the faculty who used to teach in the ASN program and use them to enlarge the capabilities of the bachelor’s program because we’re currently maxed out,” Bennett said.

WKU is one of only six public and private universities in Kentucky to still have an associate program for nursing. Bennett said it was rare for a university to have both an associate program and a bachelor program.

 Other universities have transitioned away from an associate program to meet the increasing demand for nurses with a bachelor’s degree.

The five other Kentucky universities that still have associate programs include Morehead State University, Kentucky State University, Eastern Kentucky University, Campbellsville University and the University of Pikeville. All have been encouraged to make a transition to a baccalaureate program to meet the state’s demand for nurses with baccalaureate degrees.

Despite the decreasing interest in nurses with ASN degrees, the University of Pikeville has decided to maintain their ASN program. Since 1983, the university has had an associate program; however, in response to the increasing demand for nurses with a bachelor’s, the university is beginning the process of creating a baccalaureate program.

“We’re looking at the process of what it takes to start a traditional BSN program,” Mary Simpson, the dean of Pikeville’s Elliot School of Nursing, said. “We plan on keeping our two-year program, but then again, we haven’t had a BSN program as competition within our own school.”

Associate professor Kacy Harris, coordinator of WKU’s Associate of Science in Nursing Program, said that while the school will be saddened to lose the ASN program, WKU’s budget will prevent the School of Nursing from maintaining both degree programs. The budget, unlike the University of Pikeville’s budget, will only allow for one program to grow at the expense of the other program.

“If you build or grow one program, you need faculty and staff to make that happen, and our university, as you know, is not in a position to grow programs in that way right now when we have faculty who are very excellent and prepared to go ahead and teach,” Harris said.

Bennett said it will be more beneficial to WKU to increase enrollment in the BSN program instead of attempting to maintain both programs.

The faculty and staff currently involved in the associate program will be absorbed into the bachelor program which will ensure the School of Nursing will not need to hire a high number of additional faculty members.

Harris said she will be sad to see the program end because it caters to students who might be unable to pursue a four-year degree.

“Our program and other associate degree programs meet a real, unique need in nontraditional students,” Harris said. “Associate degree nursing students are nontraditional students, meaning they’re over 25 [and] working full time. They have families, and they’re just trying to improve their life status.”

Such students often do not have the time or the money to earn a bachelor’s.

An associate degree in nursing is unique because it requires only two and a half years of education, and graduates are still registered nurses just like graduates with a bachelor’s.

Harris said nurses with an associate degree, however, are often ineligible for higher positions.

“As far as bedside nursing and what you think a nurse does, there isn’t a difference because they’re both registered nurses, and they both take the same licensure exam,” Harris said. “However, graduates with a baccalaureate degree have opportunities in management.”

Students wishing to pursue an associate degree instead of a bachelor’s degree will still have educational opportunities. Many of the state’s technical and community colleges, including Southern Kentucky Community  and Technical College, offer associate programs.

“Our hope and desire would be that those students who don’t choose to go ahead and get their bachelor’s degree at WKU would hopefully find a spot at one of those schools,” Harris said.

Bennett said she does not expect this change to affect the enrollment in the nursing school.

“Essentially we’ll still be graduating the same number of nurses every year, but more of them will have the preferred degree, which is the baccalaureate,” Bennett said.