'Extra Push' toward Diversity Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Scholarships Boost Diversity among Second-Career Nursing Students

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The accelerated master's degree in nursing program at the Georgia Health Sciences University, formerly the Medical College of Georgia, has seen its minority student enrollment grow from just a smattering when it launched in 2006 to 16 percent last fall.

"In the very first class, I think we had one male, two African-American females...." recalls Annette Bourgault, director of the Clinical Nursing Leader program.

Incremental increases in minority student enrollment--GHSU's nursing program currently enrolls 18 minority students, compared with eight in 2008--are due, in part, to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's New Careers in Nursing (NCIN) program. The Foundation awarded the school $260,000 over the past three years to administer scholarship money to second-degree students. GHSU also has boosted its male nursing student enrollment to 17 last fall, from four in 2008.

The Foundation, in partnership with the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), launched the scholarship to improve diversity in the field and to address the national nursing shortage. The only program to focus solely on underrepresented students--racial and ethnic minorities, men and the economically disadvantaged--in accelerated bachelor's or master's programs, NCIN awards funding to schools, which in turn have to demonstrate a commitment to diversity.

Programs that tie foundation funding to a diversity goal are not unusual, but Bourgault says NCIN provided the "extra push" the College of Nursing needed to improve its diverse student recruitment efforts.

"Since being involved with NCIN, our recruitment efforts have become more targeted to racial/ethnic minorities and males. This program also has increased our awareness of the minority representation in our program and has encouraged us to look at strategies for recruitment and retention of these underrepresented applicants and students," says Bourgault. The school now heavily recruits from historically Black Spelman and Paine Colleges, in Atlanta and Augusta, Ga., respectively.

Since 2008, the Foundation has awarded $19 million in NCIN funding to 101 nursing programs, including California State University-Fullerton, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Michigan. The schools apply for between five and 30 scholarships a year, which translates into a $10,000 award for each selected underrepresented student. To date, NCIN schools have awarded 1,635 scholarships. Some 721 awardees have graduated and are practicing nurses.

Estimates vary, but health care industry reports put the nursing vacancy at long-term care facilities and hospitals at 8.1 percent. Concerns are increasing that the health care system could be overwhelmed as baby boomers age and experienced nurses from that generation retire. Adding to the urgency is the health care reform law that will enable millions of uninsured Americans to get health care.

NCIN program officials say accelerated degree programs are key to addressing the nursing shortage because they place professionals from other fields on the fast track to second careers as certified nurses. The programs are significantly shorter than traditional bachelor's degree programs, usually running between 12 and 18 months, but require the same or more clinical hours.

The fast-track programs widen the pool of potential nurses; offer expedited training to equip more nurses, faster; and prepare students for careers as clinical leaders and sorely needed nursing faculty, experts say.

Nursing experts also note the importance of developing a workforce that more accurately reflects the racial makeup of the nation. Although census data indicate one in every three Americans is a minority, the AACN reports that minority students make up less than one quarter of those enrolled in nursing programs.

According to the National Advisory Council on Nurse Education and Practice, a multi-ethnic nursing population is essential to meet the health care needs of the nation and reduce health disparities among the historically underserved. …