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Wanted: More nursing educators

Frostburg State University hopes to introduce a Master of Science in nursing program, which school officials say will help ease the state’s shortage of nursing department faculty, an issue bedeviling much of the country and particularly rural areas like Western Maryland.

Last week, a committee of the University System of Maryland Board of Regents approved FSU’s proposal to establish the master’s program, which would have two tracks — Nursing Education and Nursing Administration — to help guarantee a steady pipeline of nurses trained to enter the state’s workforce, university officials said.

The full Board of Regents will vote on the plan at the governing body’s April 11 meeting.

The program would be designed to attract registered nurses who already have bachelor’s degrees but aspire to careers in higher education or to leadership roles in nursing homes, hospital nursing departments or other clinical settings.

Nationwide, there are current and projected shortfalls for both nursing administrators and nursing educators. The latter is significantly more urgent, said Heather Gable, an assistant professor and chair of the nursing department at FSU.

“In Maryland and in other states, we’ve really invested in the nursing shortage, in getting nurses by the bedside, and we’ve made some good progress,” Gable said. “But then we realized, schools of nursing are turning away tens of thousands of qualified students every year because there’s no one to teach them.”

“We got the bedside nurses,” she continued, “but now we don’t have the educators. So what’s going to happen? We won’t have the bedside nurses again! It’s a vicious cycle.”

According to a 2013 study by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, 61 percent of nursing schools reported at least one full-time vacant faculty position. Another 14 percent said they had no vacancies but needed additional professors.

At nursing schools in the mid-Atlantic region, the average vacancy rate was 12 percent, the report found. Those vacancies lead to tens of thousands of qualified students being turned away from nursing programs every year, according to AACN data.

Another issue is the collective aging of the nursing-education workforce. The average age of nursing professors is between 52 and 61, depending on their education level, the AACN’s annual report found. And in Western Maryland, there’s an alarming number of nurses nearing retirement age, Gable said.

To exacerbate the problem, nursing is projected to be one of the fastest-growing jobs in Maryland and nationwide. About 13,000 new registered nurse positions are projected to be created in Maryland by 2020, according to the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. Additionally, 9,000 nursing jobs are expected to open up due to retirement or other forms of attrition.

The same pattern is visible nationally — the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the number of employed nurses will grow from 2.74 million in 2010 to 3.45 million in 2020, an increase of 26 percent.

Other schools in the state, such as Notre Dame of Maryland University, are also working to address the nursing educator shortage, and state officials are behind the effort. The state offers an array of scholarship and grant programs aimed at boosting the number of both bedside nurses and nursing faculty.

Before Frostburg can launch the master’s program, the Maryland Board of Nursing and the Maryland Higher Education Commission also must approve the plan. MHEC will soon launch a 60-day public comment period for other USM institutions to review the proposal and determine if adding another M.S. in nursing would pose any issues.

For example, other universities with similar programs could claim there is not sufficient demand to warrant creating a duplicative program.

In Maryland, 12 schools offer degree-granting programs for registered nurses, 10 of which offer master’s degrees, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing.

Many of those schools also offer nursing education tracks, but Gable said what sets FSU’s proposed program apart is that the education track would be fully online.

At least one other school — Stevenson University — offers an online master’s in nursing education, but Gable said FSU’s would be the first within the University System of Maryland, which is what’s relevant for purposes of MHEC approval.

In 2008, Frostburg established a bachelor’s of nursing program for R.N.s, which grew from nine students that year to 269 students enrolled for the spring 2014 semester, Gable said. Under FSU’s proposal, students could enroll in an accelerated program to earn their bachelor’s and master’s at the same time.