With many industries reporting astronomical numbers of lost jobs and slim prospects for the future, the nursing profession continues to thrive. In keeping with that trend, programs at the Kansas University School of Nursing are thriving as well.
Enrollment in spring 2009 totaled 750 students, a number fitting for a profession that represents the largest segment of the nation’s health care work force. As of 2004, about 2.5 million Americans were employed as RNs.
Today’s enrollment is a vast increase from a century ago this year, when the nursing school graduated its first class of four women. Interest in the program is consistently high, creating a highly competitive admissions process. In each of the last five years, 450 to 500 undergraduate students applied for spots in a first-year class of 120. Although a 2.5 grade point average is required to apply, incoming students average a 3.7 GPA.
But according to Rita Clifford, associate dean for student affairs, changes in the field have gone far beyond just the number of students. Nursing has seen dramatic advancements with each decade and continues to evolve with changes in research, technology and social issues.
Unlike the diploma program of its early years, the school now offers degrees at the undergraduate, master’s and doctorate levels, as well as a post-master’s certificate level. More than half of KU’s nursing students are graduate students seeking to specialize in advanced practice majors, such as nurse practitioner, nurse midwife, nurse management and public health.
Another change is the demographic makeup of students. Today’s enrollment comprises a diverse range of ethnicities, and about 8 percent of undergraduate students are men.
Clifford said since graduating with her bachelor’s degree in 1962, she has personally witnessed fundamental changes, especially regarding the degree of professionalism offered nurses today. She said the profession has transcended the stereotype that the nurse’s role was to simply take doctors’ orders.
“Nurses certainly still take orders,” she said. “But they are also prepared to solve problems, make decisions and use critical thinking skills, perhaps most importantly in the area of patient assessment.”
Adding to the preparedness of today’s nurses are advancements in training technology. The clinical skills lab at KU offers a computer birthing model, three interactive mannequins and a highly advanced human patient simulator, “SlimMan.” Students use wireless personal data assistants as part of their baccalaureate program. In addition to the traditional learning environment, many courses are offered online.
Clifford said the current job market has shown only a slight decrease in nursing opportunities, and job prospects for KU’s new graduates remain good.
“Five years ago, entry-level nurses had a great deal of selection and received multiple offers as they entered the work force,” Clifford said. “Now, with fewer turnovers and many experienced nurses returning to work for economic reasons, the selection is slightly diminished, but there is definitely no job shortage.”
She said many student nurses receive job offers prior to graduating. Currently, students travel to several area hospitals for clinical training, which also provides an opportunity for professional networking.
Katie Herrera, who graduated with her bachelor’s degree in May, was hired in the KU Hospital’s telemetry and progressive care unit, which provides care one step below intensive care.
“The last semester of school, I completed a practicum there, which was one-on-one practical training with a nurse who served as a mentor,” she said. “I think that experience helped me land the job.”
Herrera said new graduates can have trouble finding a job because many employers, finding the training and hiring process too expensive, opt for in-house candidates to promote or hire nurses returning to the workplace. But she said the schooling she and her classmates received prepared them for the challenge of competing for jobs.
“Our training included work in pediatrics, obstetrics, adult care, mental health, critical care and community health,” she said. “I know a few people who are still looking for jobs, but a lot of my friends landed good positions with competitive pay.”
The U.S. Department of Labor expects nursing employment to rise 27 percent or more by 2014. Average earnings for a full-time registered nurse are about $57,000, with most RNs working in hospitals. Career opportunities are also found in home health nursing, corporate nursing, ambulatory care facilities and education.