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OUR VIEW: Time to consider expanding access to BSN degrees

THE ISSUE: Rezin bill allows bachelor nursing degrees at community colleges
OUR VIEW: Proposal deserves the full attention of both chambers this session

Find any politician on the campaign trail, and there’s almost certain to be a part of the stump speech where they mention the importance of jobs. Creating new jobs, preventing existing positions from being transferred out of state or overseas, planning for the impact of increased automation on the workforce — if the candidate isn’t saying something about jobs, they’re probably missing the mark.

One flaw in this campaign strategy is that elected officials don’t have a lot of power to directly address the jobs problem. Oh sure, they can sign off on creating more positions at state agencies, but that runs counter to another political trope: assessing that government must be streamlined, that all departments must do more with less, that the budget is crushed under the massive weight of union contracts and pensions.

Beyond that, though, all the government can really do is make the conditions friendly for the private sector to actually create and fill jobs. They can’t force people to train for certain careers, can’t force a factory to hire a third shift, can’t demand a retailer stay open in the face of lagging sales. So all too often, the talk is just that: the candidate promises to deliver on jobs, and then the free market plays out as a result of countless other factors.

Still, on occasion a proposal surfaces that represents the best example of government trying to address a workforce issue with a heaping helping of practicality. And when that does take place, we hope voters take notice.

Once again, state Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, is the co-sponsor of a bill that would allow Illinois community colleges to offer Bachelor of Science in nursing degrees. She floated the plan in 2017 as well, but it didn’t make it out of the committee level.

Nursing is an important profession for many reasons. Nurses are on the front line of health care, and their skill and expertise can make or break any medical facility’s reputation. They work long, often odd hours, and do many tasks that not only can’t be replaced with a machine but simply must be performed with both technical expertise as well as a sense of the human condition.

And the field is changing. A recent Institute of Medicine report said 80 percent of the nursing workforce should hold BSN certification as soon as 2020. In a similar vein, the American Nurses Association said “that with more than 500,000 seasoned registered nurses anticipated to retire by 2022, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the need for 1.1 million new RNs for expansion and replacement of retirees, and to avoid a nursing shortage.”

Rezin knows the value of the nursing education program at Illinois Valley Community College and the other institutions in her 38th Senate District. Surely her colleagues are familiar with comparable curriculum throughout Illinois.

IVCC currently prepares nursing students for either Licensed Practical Nurse and Registered Nurse certifications, and college President Jerry Corcoran noted his school’s graduates perform better on the required state exam than some institutes’ graduates with a BSN.

Corcoran also expects backlash from four-year universities worried they would lose enrollees to two-year schools. But he and Rezin are correct that many students looking to switch into the nursing field find it difficult or impossible to take classes while also holding down a job, and making such programs available at more institutions would be a win for the state as a whole, even if it takes some time for things to stabilize.

“If someone has the skillset, knowledge and passion to help others as a nurse but can’t attend a four-year university for a variety of reasons, I think we owe it to them to provide them another way,” Rezin said.

We agree, and add that it’s not just about the student, but about the medical providers who will need to hire people with BSN degrees. This is an instance where elected officials can leverage the existing government structures to directly and positively affect the workforce climate throughout the state in a fashion that also will benefit the vast majority of the state’s residents who routinely see some sort of medical professional.

We urge the committee to advance the proposal and for both legislative chambers to give it their full consideration during the spring session.

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