The statewide demand for nurses is growing, but budget cuts are forcing UNC-system universities to limit opportunities for undergraduate nursing students.
Seven years ago, a state task force projected a potential nursing shortage, and the UNC-system Board of Governors responded by recommending doubling the number of students completing undergraduate nursing programs.
But now administrators must re-evaluate their goals.
“We may have to pause for a year or two in that progress,” said Alan Mabe, senior vice president for academic affairs for the UNC system. “In this environment it’s very difficult to try to hold any one kind of program from cuts.”
For the 2009-2010 academic year, UNC-system nursing programs gave out 1,112 undergraduate degrees, a 34 percent increase from the 2004-2005 year.
But UNC-CH announced Feb. 14 that its School of Nursing will reduce enrollment by 25 percent for the upcoming year.
“Let’s hope that this is not going to be a trend,” said Ernest Grant, president of the N.C. Nurses Association. “If this is the beginning of a trend, it’s going to create a crisis.”
A growing need
The economic downturn forced many nurses who were near retirement age to continue working, said Kristen Swanson, dean of UNC-CH’s School of Nursing. When they retire, they will create a large hole that must be filled, she said.
According to a 2011 report to the N.C. General Assembly, the number of state residents age 65 and older will grow by about 900,000 people between 2010 and 2030.
The state must produce more nurses and other health care practitioners to meet the new retirees’ need, said Sen. James Forrester, R-Gaston, who served on the commission that produced the report on aging.
“That costs money to do that, but I don’t know where we’re going to find the money in our state or any other states,” he said.
“Education and health care are the two biggies in our budget and they’re going to take the biggest hits in the budget when we make the cuts,” he said.
Many UNC-system campuses are in the process of formulating plans to address budget cuts of up to 15 percent, Mabe said.
Some schools might choose to take larger cuts in some areas to protect their nursing programs instead of enacting across-the-board cuts like UNC-CH plans to do, he said.
UNC-CH’s School of Nursing will not renew some faculty contracts that run out in July in order to make the mandated budget cut, Swanson said.
Chancellor Holden Thorp told administrators to plan to enact cuts of at least 5 percent.
Even if universities don’t directly reduce enrollment, cuts in faculty or course offerings would hinder students from completing a nursing degree on time — if at all, Grant said.
“It may not seem like it’s going to be such a big impact here in the Triangle, but it definitely will in other parts of the state where they’re already grossly under-served,” Grant said.
Western Carolina University’s School of Nursing will not cut enrollment, course offerings or full-time faculty members, said Vincent Hall, director of the school.
They will re-configure class schedules and faculty responsibilities to shoulder the cuts without affecting students, he said.
WCU produced 56 undergraduate students in 2010. UNC-Charlotte graduated 111 students last year — the fourth highest in the system.
The university’s chancellor has saved funds to offset up to a 5 percent cut to the nursing school, said Dee Baldwin, director of UNC-C’s School of Nursing.
But if cuts exceed 5 percent, school administrators would first increase class sizes, ask faculty members to teach more classes or decrease the number of part-time faculty members, Baldwin said.
If those measures don’t save enough money, the school will consider cutting enrollment, she said.
“When you start cutting student enrollment, that means you’ve got to cut faculty,” she said.
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