The healthcare field has been challenged in recent years by physician and nursing shortages, made all the more pressing by an aging population in need of services as well as the COVID-19 pandemic. In response, many of New Jersey’s higher learning institutions are offering accelerated and flexible degree paths designed to get more people into healthcare jobs – nursing, in particular – to meet the state’s rapidly growing needs.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in healthcare is projected to grow 15% from 2019 to 2029, much faster than the average for all occupations, adding about 2.4 million jobs. At the same time, healthcare in general is moving away from hospitals to outpatient settings, which opens up more opportunities in private homes, nursing homes, and ambulatory care and surgical centers. There is also growth in fields like paramedicine, nutrition, dental hygiene, and medical billing and coding, as well as health IT jobs in cybersecurity, telehealth and other specialized areas.
“I think the entire community college sector is proud and honored to be educating front line health professionals whose impact is now more important than ever, as well as emergency responders,” says Dr. Chris Reber, president of Hudson County Community College (HCCC) in Jersey City, where nursing and health sciences are the fastest growing programs with nearly 1,800 students enrolled.
For those with an associate’s degree in nursing, HCCC is offering a more expedient and economical way to become a Registered Nurse (RN) through two “pathway partnerships.” The first allows students to take a third year of general education courses at HCCC’s tuition rate and the final year of specialized courses online through Ramapo College. The second gives them a chance to earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) through New Jersey City University in as little as 15 months.
HCCC is also seeing rapid growth in exercise science, which includes the option of becoming certified in personal fitness within a year. Beginning in January, the college will offer public health courses that include contact tracing and patient navigation, fields made all the more relevant by the pandemic. In addition, the school is supplementing its traditional weekday class schedule with a weekend nursing program that graduated its first 23 students in June, with enrollment up to 50 this school year.
“The weekend program allows our students to work around family and work responsibilities, taking a longer-term approach to education,” says Catherine Sirangelo, associate dean, nursing and health sciences at HCCC.
Adds Carol Fasano, HCCC’s director of nursing, “Most are full-time employed or full-time moms with a lot of responsibilities during the week, so this is a big support to them. Once they pass the exam, they can work as an RN, go into home health, or go on to get a BSN.”
Mercer County Community College (MCCC) in West Windsor Township is also promoting a variety of opportunities in nursing, such as hospice and dialysis nursing, as well as telehealth, nursing informatics (including quality and case management) and nursing education, which has experienced severe shortages in recent years. The school, which also offers weekend programs, readily accepts transfer credits and second-degree students, encouraging alternative degree paths and new ways of looking at issues, says Dr. Liz Mizerek, MCCC’s director of nursing education.
“The pandemic has opened up a discussion about social determinants of health, which is a hot topic in healthcare overall,” she says. “People are looking at how different groups are experiencing the pandemic differently as part of a conversation about diversity and inclusion.”
COVID-19 has also increased the emphasis on electronic resources at MCCC, such as more online classes and the creation of a virtual one-stop-shop for all student services, including registration, class signups, advisor meetings and financial aid assistance. “It’s no longer necessary for students to travel to campus to have a meeting; they can jump on the computer and do it electronically,” Mizerek says. “Our students have complicated lives – working, taking care of families – and they shouldn’t have to take a trip to the campus to fill out forms.”
Rider University’s Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) program, which opened for enrollment this school year with concentrations in family care and adult-gerontology primary care, is also exclusively online, with clinical hours completed close to where students live and no required on-campus residencies or courses. There are six start dates during the academic year, which allows prospective students the flexibility to begin their graduate education, and enrolled students have access to academic and library resources on campus or online.
“A nurse practitioner can complete his or her graduate education in three years, depending on the program and course sequencing,” says Dr. Lori Prol, assistant professor and director of Rider’s Master of Science in Nursing Program.
Similarly, the Thomas Edison State University W. Cary Edwards School of Nursing offers accelerated programs to allow students to become nurses in 15 months. “In terms of industry trends, cybersecurity and telehealth are very important in healthcare, and offer prime employment opportunities for skilled nurses,” says Dr. Filomela Marshall, dean of the W. Cary Edwards School of Nursing, which has approximately 1,000 students in the baccalaureate, doctoral and master’s programs – the latter of which offers graduate nurse educator, nursing informatics, and nursing administration certificates.
Marshall also emphasizes the migration of healthcare beyond the hospital walls as an increasing number of elderly Americans will require in-home care over the next decade. She says the pandemic has also given advanced practice nurses (APNs) more opportunities to provide care, adding, “Many APNs came out of retirement to help during this crisis. Governor Murphy’s Executive Order has allowed APNs to practice in New Jersey without a collaborating agreement. Now we need legislation passed and signed by the governor so this becomes statutory law,” she says.
While many of the fields discussed revolve around treatment, Dr. Kevin Duffy, MCCC’s dean of health programs, says healthcare education is also moving toward prevention in areas related to public health, dental hygiene, and exercise science, among others.
“Even before COVID-19, we started looking at reinventing the Public Health Program, recognizing we have to do our part to educate people to take better care of themselves,” Duffy says. “Treatment is always going to be there – physicians, nursing, radiology, occupational therapy, physical therapy – but we’re increasing the focus on areas like community health, exercise as a prevention strategy, and health coaching. You’re already seeing an uptick in enrollment at many larger four-year colleges, as people are starting to realize they can make a difference in their own communities and help the next generation.”
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