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SPRINGFIELD — In response to a looming shortage of registered nurses and growing demand from employers for nurses with four-year degrees, Illinois community colleges are pushing for the ability to award bachelor’s degrees in nursing.

However, the idea has been met with opposition from the state’s public universities. They say they’re willing to work collaboratively to address the issue but don’t believe community colleges should be in the business of awarding bachelor’s degrees.

An Illinois Senate committee held a hearing on the proposal earlier this month, but its sponsor, Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, said he doesn’t intend to move forward until after the new General Assembly is seated in January.

The hearing was held to encourage conversation among community colleges and universities, Manar said, adding that he plans revise the bill, possibly limiting it to certain high-need areas.

“This bill isn’t about going after universities; this bill isn’t about trying to inject controversy into the nursing community,” he said. “This bill is straight up about making sure that underserved communities have health care."

A report last year from the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation found that nearly one-third of registered nurses 55 and older planned to retire within the next five years, which could lead to a shortage in the near future.

Under Illinois law, registered nurses can have either an associate degree or a bachelor’s degree. But nationally a bachelor’s degree is now the typical entry-level education required for a job as a registered nurse, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Manar said communities across his district, which stretches from Decatur to the Metro East suburbs of St. Louis, are having trouble finding enough qualified nurses to fill positions at hospitals, nursing homes, doctors’ offices and other health care facilities.

“Today’s policies are leaving those communities behind,” Manar said.

Supporters say the change would make it possible for students and working nurses to earn bachelor’s degrees while staying closer to home, saving both time and money.

Matt Berry, a spokesman for the Illinois Community College Board, said the council representing presidents of the state’s 48 community colleges have endorsed the idea. However, it would be up to individual schools to decide if it’s something they’re interested in doing, Berry said, adding that he expects a half-dozen to a dozen would pursue it.

“We really look at this as an access issue and as an employer-driven proposal to meet workforce needs,” he said.

Berry pointed to a report from the Department of Financial and Professional Regulation that showed 44 percent of qualified applicants weren’t admitted to Illinois bachelor’s degree programs in nursing in 2013 due to lack of capacity.

But John Charles, director of government and public affairs for Southern Illinois University, said four-year schools offer robust nursing programs with room to expand.

“The programs are in existence, they’re up and running, and they’re successful,” Charles said.

In addition to its traditional program, SIU’s Edwardsville campus has the potential to provide “virtually unlimited access” through its online program, he said.

Enrollment in the program is up more than tenfold in recent years, from 50 students in 2014 to 560 students this year.

While the program has an on-campus component, Charles said, the university is willing to work with community colleges to bring those courses to students on their campuses rather than requiring them to come to Edwardsville.

The university also wants to work with community colleges to strengthen transfer programs for nursing students.

Meanwhile, as Berry noted, not all community colleges are looking to take advantage of the possible opportunity.

Ellen Colbeck, dean of health professions at Richland Community College in Decatur, said there doesn’t appear to be a local need at this time.

Major employers in the area, including Decatur Memorial Hospital and HSHS St. Mary’s Hospital, hire registered nurses with associate degrees.

“They are very happy with our graduates,” Colbeck said.

She said the school also has strong partnerships with schools like Eastern Illinois and Millikin universities. Benedictine University even offers bachelor’s degree courses on Richland’s campus, Colbeck said.

Rob Widmer, president of Heartland Community College in Normal, said his school supports the proposed change statewide but hasn’t had in-depth discussions about creating a bachelor’s program.

“Our graduates are very successful coming out of the (associate degree in nursing) program,” Widmer said, noting that the school has close partnerships with Illinois State and Illinois Wesleyan universities for students who want to pursue a higher degree.

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