By Karen Roush, MSN, RN, FNP-C, AJN clinical managing editor
My daughter is about to start her nursing career. She’s got all her prereqs out of the way and she’s waiting to hear from the half-dozen colleges she applied to. Among them is the community college where I started my career 35 years ago. That’s right—a community college that confers an associate degree.
I hope she gets in.
Community colleges are seen by many as the bottom of the ladder of desired schools of nursing. Not only do they offer only a two-year degree, but they’re not seen as being as selective as four-year colleges and they don’t have the big name professors.
But community colleges can and do produce great nurses. Programs are rigorous, so a more liberal admission standard at the onset doesn’t necessarily change the caliber of student who graduates at the end. And once they graduate, they must meet the same standards as students from four-year schools to attain licensure as an RN—everyone takes the same NCLEX. At the time of my graduation, my school had a 98% pass rate, one of the highest in the country.
Community colleges even have some advantages over a lot of four-year programs. They may not have the big names—but really, how many of those big name professors actually teach full courses? At community colleges, teaching is the focus. Community colleges are affordable; students don’t leave burdened with astronomical debt to start a career that, while setting them down firmly, and often permanently, in the middle class, can also saddle them with a burden of debt on top of all the expected financial struggles. And in many places, community colleges are truly embedded in their community; this can provide a level of support and open up opportunities for students that is not possible at larger detached universities.
I agree that all nurses should have a BSN, eventually. There is a lot of evidence that it improves patient outcomes. But the two-year community college can be a great place to start—two years of reasonably priced education that gives you a solid base of skills and knowledge to practice while you continue to take courses toward a bachelor degree. I remember when I returned to school for my bachelor’s: the wonderful sense of discovery that I was not just a nurse but a professional, and part of a profession with its own history and body of knowledge.
We need more nurses. All the experts agree that there is a shortage just waiting for the rest of the Baby Boomer nurses to hang up their stethoscopes. An education that starts at a community college can take a nurse far. I know mine has, from acute care staff nurse to long-term care educator, from oncology to urgent care to the IV team. Here in the U.S. and in India and Africa. As a nurse scholar at the WHO in Geneva, Switzerland, and as an NP in the Adirondacks of upstate New York.