CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — As American health care continues to transform in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the University of Northern Iowa is attempting to grow as well, with plans to open a new nursing program by fall 2024.
The program will offer 4-year Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degrees. While UNI has not announced any official tuition costs yet, the school claims it will be more affordable than current public nursing programs in Iowa.
Just 24 students will make up the program's inaugural cohort, but the university plans on expanding that number to nearly 100 per semester over the next few years.
Following approval from the Iowa Board of Regents to move forward with the planning and development of the program in early November, Dr. Nancy Kertz was named its Executive Director. There also are plans to have no fewer than three faculty members in the program.
UNI is counting on utilizing an existing building on its Cedar Falls campus to house future classrooms and labs. That final destination is expected to be announced sometime in January.
"It's very unusual to have a public institution of this size that is just starting a nursing program," Kertz said. "But the shortage is also causing us to redefine our profession."
Like much of America, Iowa is facing a crisis in health care. According to the Iowa Board of Nursing, in 2021 roughly 80% of employers throughout the Hawkeye State have indicated it's difficult or very difficult to find and recruit nurses, particularly in rural areas.
But a closer look at the problem shows a two-pronged issue. Not only are nurses becoming increasingly harder to hire, but thousands of nursing hopefuls are also turned away before they can even begin their studies.
In 2021, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing found that nearly 92,000 qualified students were turned away from nursing programs throughout the country. Most of that, the study found, was due to a lack of space and staffing.
For the nurses currently working in the health care industry, a lack of new talent coming up through the ranks is contributing to high levels of burnout and fatigue, further exasperated by the ongoing pandemic.
"I tell you it's very dire," Kertz said. "If things stay the same, people will die."
She pointed to the long wait times experienced in hospital emergency rooms across the country. A lack of staffing puts patients at risk and heightens stress and pressure on the medical professionals already there.
"This shortage has really highlighted the need for a public institution to take on nursing, where historically, it's not been a part of their curriculum," Kertz noted.
She wants to fill the new program with students from Iowa, who will hopefully plan to stay in Iowa upon graduation.
"I can tell you that any health care system in Iowa would gladly take 24 new nurses," Kertz said. 'Believe me, every student, every nurse matters. Every nurse."
Currently, UNI offers a pre-nursing program. Students may start their studies in Cedar Falls, at UNI's campus, but then must finish the last few years of the degree by commuting to Allen College in Waterloo.
For sophomore pre-nursing student Kaylee Gerardy, it's not an ideal situation.
"I would have loved to be able to stay here and not commute to Waterloo every day," Gerardy, an Eldridge, IA, native explained. "I graduated with a lot of girls in high school that wanted to go into nursing and UNI wasn't really one they considered because a lot of people don't know about the Allen program."
Still, she says having smaller class sizes at UNI is better than going to the University of Iowa, which has one of the best nursing programs in the country.
"I never even considered Iowa as an option. It's huge! And it's always busy," Gerardy said. "I have friends that are doing nursing there and they're in classes where they say they're really struggling because you just don't get that one-on-one time like we do here at UNI."
Kertz agreed, stating the new program would be something the state currently lacks.
"We want to create access for students," Kertz said. "We want every seat in Iowa to be filled. Every seat. Because that's what Iowa needs."
Closer to the Quad Cities, nursing instructors at Black Hawk College say a new program isn't a threat to already-existing ones in the region.
"I don't see that as, really, competition for us here. I think it's very much needed because the nursing shortage is extreme across the country," said Trudy Starr, nursing department chair at Black Hawk.
Furthermore, she says the student pools each school will be drawing from is going to look a little different. At Black Hawk, a community college, students tend to be older, studying part-time or working another job while attending classes.
"I don't worry about what it would do to our program," Starr said. "But I don't even really feel like we're in a competition with the other local schools right now. We all need to work together to try and get as many students through our nursing programs as we can."
So, while the new nursing program might be too late for current UNI students such as Gerardy, the university says it'll be right on time for Iowa.
"I think UNI is really going to be a much more popular college when we offer nursing," Gerardy said. "It's gonna be a great opportunity for a lot of girls and guys too."
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