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As more nurses pursue bachelor's degrees, TCNJ bringing classroom to them

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Sharen Clugston, assistant director of the off-campus RN program at The College of New Jersey.
Sharen Clugston, assistant director of the off-campus RN program at The College of New Jersey. - ()

Hospitals are engaged in a major effort to get more of their registered nurses to earn their bachelor's degree, prompted by evidence that medical outcomes improve when patients receive care from a more educated nurse workforce.

But going back to school can be tough for nurses who are working full time, many with families to care for. And for baby boomers who earned their nursing diploma from a hospital nursing school or a two-year community college nursing program, it’s been years since they’ve been in a classroom.

But the nursing school at The College of New Jersey in Ewing is making that return trip to the classroom easier — by bringing nursing courses to the hospitals where the nurses work.

TCNJ started offering classes at Saint Peter’s University Hospital in New Brunswick in 2012, and has since expanded to Hunterdon Medical Center in Flemington and Capital Health Medical Center in Hopewell. Classes start this fall at University Medical Center of Princeton, and TCNJ is talking to several other hospitals in the state.

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The Institute of Medicine wants 80 percent of nurses have their bachelor of science in nursing by 2020; it’s estimated that about half of New Jersey nurses have their BSN.

Sharen Clugston, assistant director of the off-campus RN program at TCNJ, said, “Nurses know that if you want to get promoted, if you want to expand your horizons, you will need a BSN.”

Clugston and other nursing faculty from TCNJ go to the hospitals one night a week and teach for three hours; the nurses can generally finish the BSN program in about three years.

Clugston said some colleges offer a completely online RN to BSN program, but many older students “want that in-person classroom experience.”

She said a BSN gives nurses a wider perspective on health care and the role they play.

For example, an RN may have spent one day studying community health, “but we spend a whole year on it, and it’s a very big course,” Clugston said. The students spend a full day in various health care settings: “They go on a home care visit, and get that perspective of what happens to a patient once they leave the hospital.”

Clugston’s background is public health, and “I want them to look at vulnerable populations and see what services are offered; I want them to look at that patient lying in that bed and have a holistic perspective.”

The nurses learn why some patients are frequently readmitted to the hospital, what good case management is and how it can reduce excessive hospital admissions. The nurses take courses in statistics, ethics, epidemiology, research and legal issues. They study the history of nursing — and the future opportunities open to them to become nurse leaders of their organizations.

Clugston said, “We have the liveliest classroom discussions, because they have so much to offer.”

Linda Carroll, chief nursing officer, St. Peter's University Hospital.
Linda Carroll, chief nursing officer, St. Peter's University Hospital. - ()

Linda Carroll, chief nursing officer at Saint Peter’s, said that, in 2012, the hospital made the decision to hire only BSN nurses going forward, and gave staff nurses until 2022 to get their BSN.

Carroll said the BSN initiative is spearheaded by the Magnet program, which recognizes hospitals for high-quality nursing care. Saint Peter’s has been a Magnet hospital since 1998; Carroll said that, by 2020, at least 80 percent of a hospital’s RN staff will need their BSN if the hospital wants to apply for the Magnet designation.

In 2014, nearly 70 percent of Saint Peter’s nurses had their BSN, up from nearly 45 percent in 2010.

The hospital has a tuition reimbursement program and the nurses can enroll in the TCNJ program, or choose among any number of BSN programs.

“What was unique about TCNJ is that they were willing to offer the classes here, on site,” Carroll said. “Many of our older RNs really prefer that classroom setting, and the ease of having it right here at the hospital just made it that much more convenient.”

Saint Peter’s said 26 of its nurses enrolled in the TCNJ program; one graduated in 2014, one this past May and one will graduate this August; the rest will graduate in December 2015 or in 2016.

Saint Peter’s, like many hospitals, used to graduate RNs from its own three-year nursing school.

Carroll herself graduated from the Saint Peter’s nursing school in 1984; two years later, the hospital closed the school. “The trend in nursing was toward the BSN and it was in our best interest to really move in that direction.”

Carroll went on to earn her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing from Kean University.

While in nursing school at Saint Peter’s, Carroll said she received an intensive education in the clinical side of nursing: “Your clinical experience started as freshmen, and we had two or three days a week in the clinical setting.”

She said the BSN program gives nurses greater knowledge and insight into the theory behind what they do. For example, nurses learn why it’s important to get patients out of bed as soon as possible in order to hasten their recovery. “Nurses really need to understand the why behind the things that we do,” Carroll said.

Loris Murdock-Johnson, 54, has been an RN since 1984, and earned her BSN from TCNJ in 2014 while working at Saint Peter’s. She has since moved to University Medical Center of Princeton.

TCNJ “reignited my excitement about being a nurse,” Murdock-Johnson said. “They gave us the yearning for learning, for seeking knowledge and going further, because the more educated we are, the better job we can do, and our patients benefit.”

She now plans to pursue a nursing master’s degree in mental health: “I will further my education and my understanding of the dynamics of the human body and mind, and how I can more effectively help the community to remain healthy.”

Denise Bush, 42, has been an RN since 1999 and will get her BSN from TCNJ this year. A senior clinical documentation specialist at Saint Peter’s, Bush plans to go on for her master’s.

The BSN “has helped me to grow so much as a nurse,” Bush said. “It has really opened up new avenues for a leadership role.”

And she said getting her BSN helped her see “how big nursing is. We play such a big role in the welfare of patients: to have a good experience when they are in the hospital, and a healthy outcome when they leave the hospital and go back home.”

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Beth Fitzgerald

Beth Fitzgerald

Beth Fitzgerald reports on health care, small business and higher education. She joined NJBIZ in 2008 after a 34-year career at the Star-Ledger and has been reporting on business in New Jersey since 1978. Her email is beth@njbiz.com and she is @bethfitzgerald8 on Twitter.

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