Growing RMU nursing school poised for expansion

(TribLive) Phyllis Wolfe McDonough knew she could elevate her work as a nurse practitioner with a doctorate, but it took a postcard from a Pennsylvania university she had never heard of in 2007 for her to begin her long-distance journey.

Today the 66-year-old Long Island woman, who flew to Pittsburgh six times in two years to study at Robert Morris University’s Moon campus, is among dozens of nurse practitioners who have graduated from the university’s distance-learning doctoral program.

The nation’s growing demand for nurses and the increased earning potential for nurses with advanced educations — nurse practitioners earn median salaries of $90,000 a year with master’s degrees — are fueling a boom in applications at some Western Pennsylvania nursing schools.

Enrollment in RMU’s nursing and health sciences program, which began with 18 students in 2003, grew to 793 this year. On Friday, RMU officials broke ground on a $12 million, 30,000-square-foot facility to house the program that now offers bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral programs, including wholly online degree and certificate programs.

“The School of Nursing and Health Sciences has been one of the great success stories in RMU’s recent history. In a relatively short period of time, the school has established itself as a leader in health care education and medical simulation, clinical research and community service on a global scale,” RMU President Gregory G. Dell’Omo said.

At least part of that success may be timing. The school’s nursing program began as demand for highly trained nurses was exploding.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the nation will need 1.1 million more nurses by 2020 to meet the demands of an aging population. In Allegheny County, where there are about 19,500 registered nursing jobs, the Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board estimates there are about 630 new openings for nurses a year. Demand is expected to grow 12 percent in the next decade.

Nearby universities also have been adapting to the changing demands of a growing marketplace.

Enrollment at Duquesne University’s School of Nursing increased by 32 percent in the past two years. Most of that growth occurred in a new program that allowed college graduates with other degrees to earn a nursing degree in an intense yearlong program, said Mary Ellen Glasgow, dean of the School of Nursing at the university.

At the University of Pittsburgh, 1,632 students — an increase of 44 percent during the past three years — applied to its undergraduate nursing program, which caps enrollment at 110. At the graduate level, Pitt’s doctorate of nursing practice, which enrolled eight students in 2006-07, had 189 this year, said Sandra Engberg, associate dean for graduate and clinical education at the School of Nursing.

The demand for additional nursing credentials has grown as many hospitals and health care providers, which once jumped to hire registered nurses with associate degrees or diplomas, are seeking RNs with bachelor’s degrees.

A 2010 Institute of Medicine Study that documented stronger patient outcomes with college-educated nurses called for increasing the percentage of registered nurses with bachelor’s degrees to 80 percent from 55 percent and doubling the number of nurses with doctoral degrees.

Valerie Howard, dean of Robert Morris’ School of Nursing and Health Sciences, said RMU scrambled to heed that call. In addition to traditional four-year nursing degrees, it established a program for registered nurses to earn master’s and bachelor’s degrees in two years.

In 2008, RMU started a two-year hybrid curriculum that allowed working nurse practitioners such as McDonough, who had a master’s degree, to earn doctorates in a program that requires them to spend one week on campus during each of six 15-week semesters.

“We are small. We are innovative,” Howard said. “We have the ability to move and respond to what is happening in health care.”

Howard said 95 to 99 percent of the school’s recent graduates are working, and about 80 percent stayed in the Pittsburgh area.