IACN Virtual Hill Day: Challenges in Nursing Higher Education

On Monday, April 5, a number of Illinois Association of Colleges of Nursing members participated in the AACN Virtual Hill Day, meeting with legislators from Illinois. Throughout the meeting, participants discussed many of the challenges that nurses in higher education face. IACN is devoted to tackling challenges in higher education through every available avenue. After Virtual Hill Day, we reached out to some of our members for ideas on how some of the challenges discussed could be solved. Read on for our members’ thoughts!

Attracting a Diverse Student Body

The first challenge discussed was how to attract a diverse population of students for nursing schools. Vickie Folse, Director and Professor, Illinois Wesleyan University; Holly Farley, Chair and Professor, at Eastern Illinois University; and Tina Decker, Chair Department of Nursing at Trinity Christian College all stated that their institutions had moved to making entrance exams optional for prospective students. This is an important step because entrance exams, and standardized tests more broadly, have been shown to reflect existing inequalities in American society. 

Beyond this, other member institutions have also been taking important steps, including collaboration with high schools and community colleges. 

“Institutions should work with high schools to make sure students understand the options available in nursing and other healthcare professions, and partner with community colleges, particularly those serving diverse populations ” said Diane Salvador, Executive Director and Professor in Nursing and Health Sciences at Elmhurst University.  

Judy Neubrander, Dean of Illinois State University’s Mennonite College of Nursing, agrees. “We have Dual Enrollment and Pathways Academic Progression partnerships in place with 16 community colleges state wide. These programs allow students options to seamlessly progress up the educational ladder.”

COVID-19 Challenges

The next, especially important, topic of discussion was related to challenges students were facing related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Tiffany Greer, Associate Dean for the School of Nursing at Olivet Nazarene University stated that “Many students have lost income, childcare, and/or family support. Other students have had a hard time adjusting to the new challenges of different classroom teaching modalities or helping their children learn at home. These added strains have caused many students to pause their own schooling.”

Tina Decker added that “Some students who have decided to do 100% remote learning are struggling to engage with school and report having difficulty focusing in the different environment, creating additional barriers to academic success.” 

While many schools in Illinois made major adjustments at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, students continue to face challenges. IACN hopes that, as people continue to get vaccinated and virus rates continue to fall, these problems will lessen. 

Retention and Success of Students

The third discussion at Virtual Hill Day revolved around issues related to what nursing programs are doing to promote the retention and success of students. Member Tiffany Greer shared, “At Olivet Nazarene University, all nursing students have their own academic advisor to help them navigate coursework as well as life issues that arise. We also have a chaplain available for students needing additional emotional support. Our traditional nursing students have access to robust counseling services and the Center for Academic Excellence for specialized tutoring. All of this is free of charge to students.” 

Academic advisors can be valuable assets for students, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, sometimes retention can be based on student needs unrelated to academics. For example, Eastern Illinois University, Elmhurst University and Illinois State University have food pantries for their students. In addition, universities are utilizing funds from the CARES Act to provide emergency funds for students. 

Federal Funding Usage 

Lastly, the ways in which additional federal funding could remove barriers for students was discussed. While there were many excellent ideas, there was much agreement that cost of tuition is one of the largest barriers. 

Tina Decker stated, “More scholarships would be instrumental in lightening the financial burden for students. They would  minimize the need for students to try to work while being full-time nursing students. Additional funds could also be used to pay for adequate equipment such as computers in addition to internet access.” 

“Illinois State University’s Mennonite College of Nursing gives away over 80 private scholarships every year. These are paid for by private donors, and help lighten the load for MCN’s students. However, it is never enough,” agrees Judy Neubrander. 

While federal funds are important for removing barriers for students, using the funds for faculty would also remove barriers. For example, Connie Zak, Dean of the College of Nursing at Resurrection University stated that the funds could be used for faculty development. This would, by extension, allow faculty to become more knowledgeable and provide a better experience for students. 

IACN Works Through Nursing Challenges

At the recent Virtual Hill Day, IACN members did what they do best: identified challenges in nursing education and proposed solutions. We consider these discussions to be a starting point. As we move forward, IACN will use the tools that we have, such as strategic initiatives, partnerships, advocacy and education to continue addressing these challenges. 

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