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Picking Up the Pace — Accelerated Programs Speed RN Education

Monday January 1, 2007
Jennifer Coggin, left, and Felicia Spadini, both Georgia State University nursing students, listen intently to instructor E. JoAnn Bacon while examining a patient. GSU admits 56 accelerated nursing students annually.
Jennifer Coggin, left, and Felicia Spadini, both Georgia State University nursing students, listen intently to instructor E. JoAnn Bacon while examining a patient. GSU admits 56 accelerated nursing students annually.
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For motivated career changers, accelerated BSN programs fast-track the path to a rewarding and secure professional life.

“It was great to go through, get a BSN, and get out in a 15-month time period,” says Vincent Pair, RN, BSN, a recent graduate of Georgia State University’s (GSU) program. “Everything was cramped in, and there was a lot of time spent studying and preparing. But it’s worth it.”

Pair earned a bachelor’s degree in economics, but serving as a flight medic in the military convinced him to return to school to become a nurse. He now works for Johns Hopkins University as a research coordinator on an angioplasty study. Pair felt training at many different Atlanta hospitals gave him a broad range of experiences.

Another recent GSU graduate, Jing Wang, RN, BSN, had worked as a doctor in China. When she immigrated to the United States, she found it “almost impossible” to resume her medical career, so she turned to nursing.

“Nurses do a lot in this country, which is different from my country,” Wang says. “This was a great program to start. This is the kind of program to change a career and a life, make the process faster, and make money earlier.”

Georgia State University’s program

The Byrdine F. Lewis School of Nursing at GSU began its accelerated BSN program about four years ago to help address the nursing shortage by more quickly turning out high-caliber nurses. It was the first school in the state to receive approval for an accelerated program.

“Nursing is becoming a field that a lot of people, at least in the Atlanta area, go into for a second degree or a career change, and some want to do it faster,” says Krista M. Meinersmann, RN, PhD, APRN, BC, associate director of the undergraduate program at the Byrdine F. Lewis School of Nursing.

Tenet Healthcare Foundation and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta have provided assistance to grow the program, and this year it received extra funding from the Georgia Board of Regents. Tenet provided $528,000 in 2004 to expand the accelerated track. The funds enabled the school to hire two faculty members and double the number of students it admitted into the program. Children’s funds one faculty member, who also serves as a liaison with the hospital system.

GSU admits 56 accelerated students annually — 32 one semester and 24 the next. Its traditional program admits the same number of students, alternating with the accelerated track for the higher number of students in any one semester.

“If we doubled the [accelerated] class, we could probably fill it, but we don’t have the resources to do that,” Meinersmann says. “There are definitely students out there who are interested.”

Accelerated students attend GSU for four semesters. Those entering the program in the fall graduate the following December. Class content is similar to that of the traditional program. During the first and last semesters, accelerated students take coursework in a more condensed format. Content covered in each class equals about that taught during two traditional courses. Accelerated and traditional students take classes together during the accelerated track’s middle two semesters. They benefit from each other’s perspectives.

“Everybody helps everybody,” Meinersmann says. “Everybody has different strengths, and it’s neat when both groups are in the classroom. They blend well with some faculty creativity.”

The prior experience of the accelerated students also can prove challenging for faculty members. For example, students with experience in biochemistry may inquire about changes at the cellular level that the instructor cannot answer. He or she can teach material that a nurse needs to know and the pathophysiology but not the basic science.

“We as faculty have had to learn how to deal with the fact that students have an expertise in an area we are not talking about, and they know more about that than we do,” Meinersmann said. “Balancing a student’s expertise with a faculty member’s expertise and the material a nursing student really needs to know has been very interesting. We’re all finding it invigorating and challenging.”

North Carolina programs

North Carolina Baptist Hospital, faced with a serious need for more nurses, partnered with Winston-Salem State University to offer an accelerated program to second-degree students willing to work at the hospital after graduation. The five-year agreement calls for Winston-Salem to educate 45 students annually. The hospital pays for the students’ tuition, books, and some fees, and it includes a $500 monthly stipend.

The first year, the school admitted students in January and May, but now each cohort begins in January. All clinical experiences, except obstetrics and community and mental health, take place at North Carolina Baptist. Jerry Edwards, an accelerated student at Winston-Salem, finds the nurses at the hospital very receptive to helping students. Edwards has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and feels his prior area of expertise fits nicely with nursing. He enjoys applying what he learns in class into clinical rotations.

Classes contain material identical to Winston-Salem’s traditional program. Students from both programs take the same tests and may have the same instructors.

Accelerated students complete their studies with a higher grade point average (3.5) than traditional students, according to Cecil Holland, RN, EdD, PhD, director of special projects at Winston-Salem. And most accelerated students perform better on standardized tests and the NCLEX. Their average grade is about 95%. And the students do well once they begin working. Holland attributes success rates both to maturity and self-motivation.

The University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill School of Nursing began its accelerated BSN program about five years ago.

“One thing that has been important to us is to ensure that they have the essential content and are not shortchanged in any way,” says Beverly B. Foster, RN, PhD, director of undergraduate programs at Chapel Hill School of Nursing.

One way Chapel Hill has accomplished that is by incorporating more technology into the program. Students in the accelerated track were the first to practice their response to clinical situations on a patient simulator, programmed with different case scenarios. Now all nursing students can learn from their mistakes without harming real patients. Instructors and students meet as a team to analyze what could have been done differently to achieve a better outcome.

“The human patient simulator and cases you can do related to clinical applications are very effective in helping people integrate the content and apply it to a clinical problem, and do it in a safe environment,” Foster says. “The simulator is very responsive to your interventions.”

Chapel Hill receives at least five or six applicants for every available slot in its BSN program, Foster says. It currently admits 43 students once a year in May. Come January, the school will expand enrollment and admit students in January as well as the spring. Chapel Hill’s accelerated and traditional programs require 65 credit hours for graduation. Both groups attend school all summer.

“We’ve never wanted to compromise the quality of the students’ preparation,” Foster says. “Students pass the NCLEX at high, steady, and enviable rates. And from employer satisfaction, we have been able to ascertain they are desirable employees.”

Fast track gains in popularity

Throughout the country, nursing schools are finding increased interest in their accelerated programs. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) has noted the trend and attributed it, in a 2005 Issue Bulletin, to “shifts in the economy and the desire of many adults to make a post-Sept. 11 difference in their work,” according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing website at www.aacn.nche.edu.

AACN reported 168 schools offered accelerated baccalaureate programs in 2005, up from 31 in 1990. An additional 46 schools planned new accelerated BSN programs. Other schools in Georgia offering an accelerated option include Georgia Southwestern University in Americus, Kennesaw State University, and Valdosta State University. Students can typically complete an accelerated BSN program in 12 to 18 months, depending on the school.

Many program applicants aim high, planning to continue their studies to become nurse practitioners, nurse midwives, or nurse anesthetists. Most accelerated programs require an incoming student to hold a bachelor’s degree in another field and build on that experience. GSU is an exception. Students at the Georgia school must have a higher grade point average than its traditional track students and prior work experience.

“I liked the atmosphere,” says Rosalyn Harris McCormick, RN, BSN, who graduated from GSU’s accelerated track in 2004. “There was diversity. There were the young, the middle-aged, and grandmothers in there.”

Although one might expect second-career students to be older, that is not always the case. At GSH, the average age of its nursing students, for both programs, is 28. For just the accelerated track, it is 27. Meinersmann expects this is because many students who apply for the accelerated track and are not accepted, generally because of their grades, will enter the traditional program.

Students must successfully take a number of prerequisites, typically anatomy and physiology, microbiology, and other science courses. Once accepted into the accelerated program, all coursework pertains to nursing.

Occasionally students will start off in the GSU accelerated program and then, because of the workload, request a transfer to the traditional track after the first semester, which GSU allows. It does not, however, let students switch from the traditional to the accelerated program.

Learning at a swift pace

As the name implies, accelerated nursing programs move swiftly through coursework. Most of the programs recommend that students not try to work while in school or, at the very most, work just a few hours a week. Some students earn scholarships, and others save up.

“It’s a tough program,” Meinersmann says. “They are going to have to spend an intense amount of time not only in class, but if you take the recommendation that you study three hours for every credit hour, there is nothing left time-wise for much eating, sleeping, or spending time with family. Trying to work, you are really doing yourself in.”

Meinersmann estimates students must devote 81 hours per week to the program, 54 to study, and 23 for class and clinical, with a two-hour buffer before and after clinical assignments in case the student has to stay late or come in early.

Despite the heavy load, some students complete supplemental honors projects in order to graduate with an Honor in Nursing degree. One team researched perceived stress and cortisol levels in students in both programs and did not find a significant difference. Another group completed a community outreach project.

“We had to stay on it,” says McCormick, who had a prior associate degree in biology and felt the program prepared her well to work in an intensive care unit. “For a lot of people, me included, it was a major change. It’s totally different.”

Elizabeth Van Cleve, RN, BSN, graduated from Chapel Hill’s accelerated program last year and now works on an adult hematology/oncology unit at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C. Her prior career was in health care consulting.

“The accelerated program prepared me very well academically to be a bedside nurse,” Van Cleve says. “A lot of the hands-on skills have come during the first few months of practice.”

Debra Anscombe Wood, RN, is a freelance writer. To comment on this story, e-mail hcygan@nursingspectrum.com