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How to counter a shortage of nurses? UR to launch free, fast nursing degree program

Image shows the School of Nursing at the University of Rochester Medical Center
Brian Sharp
School of Nursing at the University of Rochester Medical Center

Looking for a career change but don’t think you have the time, or the savings, to make that happen?

The University of Rochester’s School of Nursing might have just the thing.

“We are looking to attract … people who already have bachelor's in other careers, where they may be thinking, ‘Gosh, this isn't where I want to be,’ or, ‘I really want to be a nurse,’” said school dean Lisa Kitko.

Kitko and others at the University of Rochester Medical Center announced a new initiative Thursday that promises 100% tuition reimbursement for select students enrolled in the school’s accelerated, one-year bachelor’s of nursing degree program. In exchange, participants must commit to working at least three years at Strong Memorial or Highland hospitals after graduating and passing their licensing exam.

The goal is two-fold, to increase the number of graduates, and to increase retention.

Strong currently has about 500 nursing vacancies – upwards of 20% of positions, said Karen Keady, vice president and chief nursing executive at URMC. Most are being filled by traveling or contract nurses, who command a higher salary that officials say is unsustainable.

When Keady started five years ago, there were 10.

Burnout and attrition, coupled with a steady or declining number of new graduates is fueling the shortage.

Strong saw a 27% turnover in nurses in the last fiscal year – meaning just more than one in four left their jobs. Halfway through this fiscal year, turnover is tracking around 15% to 18%, she said.

That is better than the national average, of late. But normal churn is 10% or less, she said. And there’s more.

Image shows an entrance to the School of Nursing at the University of Rochester Medical Center.
Brian Sharp
Entrance to the School of Nursing at the University of Rochester Medical Center.

“Our (college) enrollment rates across the country are down,” Keady said. "We are all seeing empty seats in nursing school, which has me very nervous.”

Add to that a wave of looming retirements looms, as Baby Boomers age out. The projection is that New York state will have a shortage of 40,000 nurses come 2030. The pandemic only made matters worse.

“As we look at our pipeline, right now, it's really leaking at all areas," Kitko said.

The goal of the tuition reimbursement program is to enroll about 10 students per semester, beginning this fall, capped at 33 for the year – ideally from groups underrepresented in nursing. The accelerated program typically enrolls about 50 students each semester, and the school graduates between 150 and 200 each year.

Other colleges are similarly working to boost numbers:

  • Nazareth College officials say they saw an uptick in applications this past fall after waiving SAT and ACT requirements – having concluded the tests were more of a barrier than an indicator of success.
  • St. John Fisher University is seeing steady enrollment with "significant” growth in online learning.
  • Monroe County is offering financial assistance, and Monroe Community College is expecting to see an increase in applicants as a result — after a dip attributed to accepted students who refused to get the COVID-19 vaccine. That is a factor when it comes to clinic hours, as hospitals like Strong require vaccination.
Brian Sharp is WXXI's investigations and enterprise editor. He also reports on business and development in the area. He has been covering Rochester since 2005. His journalism career spans nearly three decades.