New Iowa State degree to advance skills of nurses, improve patient care

Ginny Wangerin standing near nurses' station at Mary Greeley Medical Center

Virginia "Ginny" Wangerin says Iowa State's BSN program meets a need as more medical centers encourage nurses to continue their education. (Larger image) Photo by Ryan Riley

AMES, Iowa – The Iowa Board of Regents has approved plans for a new Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree at Iowa State University.

The RN-BSN is a continuation program designed for registered nurses – those working in the field as well as recent graduates of approved nursing programs – who want to earn their bachelor’s degree. Virginia “Ginny” Wangerin, a clinical assistant professor and director of nursing education at Iowa State, says the campus-based program meets a need as more hospitals and health care providers require or encourage nurses to obtain a BSN degree.

“Hospitals and other health care providers are recognizing there is a benefit. There’s an abundance of research demonstrating that when a hospital or health care provider has more BSN-prepared nurses on staff, there are fewer medical errors, deaths, infections or injuries for patients, and patients spend fewer days in the hospital,” Wangerin said.

That is one reason why several area medical institutions have expressed support for Iowa State’s BSN program. According to 2016 data from the Iowa Board of Nursing and the Iowa Organization of Nurse Leaders, only 46.5 percent of RNs have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 65 percent nationally. In rural parts of the state, that number is closer to 30 percent. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Institute of Medicine are working to increase the national average to 80 percent by 2020.

Neal Loes, chief nursing officer at Mary Greeley Medical Center in Ames, says Iowa State’s program will be an advantage for central Iowa nurses to go back to school while still working.

“Mary Greeley is a strong advocate of advancing education standards for registered nurses. Since 2011, we’ve required newly hired nurses to earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing,” Loes said. “The convenience and quality of education that Iowa State offers will benefit our employees working to earn their degrees, and ultimately this will benefit our patients.”

Immediately putting learning to use

Iowa State’s RN-BSN program will begin in fall 2018. The program, developed in partnership with Mary Greeley and Des Moines Area Community College, is open to anyone with an associate nursing degree. Jonathan Wickert, ISU senior vice president and provost, says the collaborative effort is consistent with Iowa State’s mission.

“This program helps meet a statewide need in health care to increase the number of nurses with a bachelor’s degree,” Wickert said. “It also opens opportunities for research and outreach with local school districts, residential living facilities and other providers focused on improving the health of our community.”  

Iowa State is developing core nursing classes focused on leadership, health care quality, caring for different populations and applying research in the workplace, Wangerin said. The intent is to broaden existing skills and knowledge to help nurses make better decisions and increase awareness of factors that affect quality. Students will have the opportunity to work in clinical settings on campus, in the community or at their workplace.

“We know classroom activities need to be meaningful and apply directly to what students are doing at work,” Wangerin said. “Students will complete projects and immediately put their learning to use in ways that benefit the organization.”

Wangerin understands the program must also be flexible for working students. Nursing courses will be taught on campus but with hybrid formats and alternative scheduling.    

Customized plan of study

Nurses with an associate degree will need approximately 40 credit hours to graduate, Wangerin said. However, that will vary depending on transfer credits (community colleges do not require the same amount of credit hours for an associate degree) or if a student already has a bachelor’s degree in a related field. The goal is to customize a plan of study based on individual student needs to limit redundancy and help each advance his or her career.   

Wangerin expects to start accepting applications by the end of the year and enroll around 50 students for fall 2018. The next step is to get approval for the program and curriculum from the Iowa Board of Nursing. Once the program is up and running, Iowa State will seek accreditation from the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education.