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Finances, time and career path impact nurses’ education choices

Monday March 10, 2014
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For nurses who pursue higher education, new doors often open and career opportunities can be enhanced. With an increasing emphasis on the necessity of a BSN — and the profession’s underlying momentum to move nurses to the master’s and doctorally prepared levels — many in the field are grappling with how they can afford, make time for and pursue higher education.

As a result, schools in New York and New Jersey are offering bridge-type programs designed to help RNs make the transition between degrees as seamless and efficient as possible.

One of the challenges for nurses, however, is taking the first step. The options for pursuing higher degrees are vast, according to Kathleen Neville, RN, PhD, a professor at the Kean University School of Nursing, Union, N.J., and program coordinator for the Kean and Raritan Valley Community College offsite RN-to-BSN program.

“Bridge programs are really diverse,” Neville said. “There’s not one universal bridge program.”

Nurse.com asked a group of local nurse educators what advice they would give experienced nurses about advancing their educations. Here are their responses:


What are some of the challenges nursing students going back to school might face, and what is your best advice for overcoming those challenges?

According to Patrick R. Coonan, RN, EdD, NEA-BC, FACHE, dean of Adelphi University’s College of Nursing and Public Health, Garden City, N.Y., among the challenges is many students do not meet Adelphi’s admission requirements.
“There are other schools that may not have as high admission requirements as we do, so the solution is to shop around,” he said. “[Students here] have to have a 3.0 to transfer in. They have to be licensed and pass an admission test.”

Adelphi has an RN-to-BSN program but no direct bridge to the MSN level, according to Coonan. However, for students in the baccalaureate program, Adelphi will waive some credits toward an MSN if students continue to pursue higher nursing education at the university, he said.

Financial constraints are challenging for many nursing students, according to Elaine L. Smith, RN, EdD, MSN, MBA, NEA-BC, ANEF, vice president for system nursing education, North Shore-LIJ Health System, Manhasset, N.Y.

“I think nursing students should explore the tuition reimbursement programs at their facilities prior to making a commitment to any program so that they clearly understand the guidelines of the program and the amounts of money that are available to them on a semester or yearly basis,” Smith said.
Neville suggested students not go it alone.

“One tip for their success and timely completion is to attend with a colleague,” she said. “Nurses are very busy balancing work, family and school, and going with a colleague can really help facilitate that timely completion. Tip two: Always take at least one course per semester. No matter what’s going on — you’re getting married, you’re getting divorced, you’re having a baby, there’s a death in the family — you can always manage one course. Tip three, find a collegial program. You need faculty mentors. You need to have a supportive faculty environment. Tip four, there are tons of programs popping up all around the country, but I think it’s important that nurses attend a rigorous program that will help in their professional development.”


What information have you found helpful to give RNs choosing between an RN-to-BSN program and an RN-to-MSN program?

“I would have to say that it would be entirely [dependent] on their number of years of clinical experience,” said Christine M. Marsiello, RN-BC, MSN, CCRN, director of professional nursing practice and education and Magnet Program director, Winthrop University Hospital, Mineola, N.Y. “If [nurses] have only a couple of years of clinical experience and are looking to advance their education, I would say start with the BSN degree. ... There are several different graduate nursing program concentrations, including nursing administration, nursing education, clinical nurse specialist and nurse practitioner. If they have not had a lot of experience, they may not know what program is right for them.”

Smith added that nurses should first determine what their ultimate career goal is.
“Perhaps the nurse is anticipating the BSN will be the final degree and wants an entry-level leadership position or to go into community or public health. Then that would be a fine option,” she said. “If the nurse expresses an interest in, perhaps, higher level nursing management and leadership positions, or exploring a career as an advanced practice nurse or in nursing education or nursing informatics, I would strongly suggest that the person go into an RN-to-MSN program.”

Christine C. Mihal, RN, EdD, serves as associate dean and chairwoman, Fast Track RN/BSN program, Felician College School of Nursing, Lodi, N.J. Felician’s RN-to-BSN program is 15 months and students attend class once a week on the same day each week.

“The best advice I can give RNs is that it’s imperative that they choose and enroll in a BSN program, and the sooner the better,” she said. “There’s no question that doing so is complicated from a financial and time perspective. That being said, it’s likely never going to get any easier to do so, and at some point you just have to bite the bullet and enroll.”

Numerous options are available in terms of delivery (face-to-face, online or hybrid), schedule (full-time, part-time or a cohort style program like Felician’s) and cost (public or private), according to Mihal. “The important thing is to do your research and find a program that best fits your learning style and lifestyle,” she said.

Nurses thinking about getting a master’s degree should explore career options.

“Nurses often have preconceived notions about what they plan to study on the graduate level,” Mihal said. “I have seen those plans change over the course of our program. Typically, [nurses] are not aware of the many opportunities that exist at the graduate level. Many nurses think only of advanced practice options, but there’s a myriad of other possibilities: clinical nurse leader, forensic nurse specialist, nurse anesthetist, nurse executive, informatics specialist.”


What are specific nursing opportunities available to RNs who have BSNs and MSNs?

“You’re not even considered for a management or education position unless you have a minimum of a baccalaureate degree,” Coonan said. “Baccalaureate nurses can be research nurses. They can do clinical trials. They do a lot of different things, and those doors aren’t open to associate degree nurses.”

Smith said her health system — along with others in the region and nationwide — see a BSN as a minimum entry level for nursing practice.

“Nurses here are prepared to provide care to very complex patients in a very acute care setting,” Smith said. “We are also greatly expanding the role of registered nurses in the ambulatory care setting and other practice environments. The other area where I think BSNs are favored is in leadership — for example, nurse managers, charge nurses and those seeking to develop others, such as preceptors.”


What career experiences can you share with nurses who are contemplating whether to pursue their bachelor’s or master’s degrees?

“I was looking ahead and making career decisions early on and said, ‘I’m going to do this the rest of my life, and I don’t want to stay as a staff nurse the rest of my life,’” Coonan said. “You really have to think about what the future holds.”

Lifelong learning in nursing is essential and offers rewards, according to Neville, whose career path went from “LPN to associate-degree RN, bachelor’s, master’s and PhD in nursing,” she said. “I love learning and love nursing, so it was a natural evolution.”

Ultimately, Smith said, “education broadens horizons.”

Lisette Hilton is a freelance writer.


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