A homegrown proposal that would allow Colorado's community colleges to give students who earn an associate's degree in nursing the chance to obtain an advanced bachelor's degree left the House floor Monday with "an enormous amount of momentum," said Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Republican from Monument who represents portions of El Paso County, where the proposal initiated.
On Monday's third reading, House Bill 1086 passed with 55 votes in favor of advancing it to the Senate and eight opposed.
Lance Bolton, president of Pikes Peak Community College, said he's encouraged by the bipartisan support.
"We're feeling pretty confident with the early votes," he said. "The genesis of this proposal came out of Colorado Springs because the nursing shortage is so acute here."
The Pikes Peak region has more than 1,300 openings for nurses, according to economic reports.
Lundeen, one of four sponsors of the bill, calls the nursing shortage a "substantial societal problem."
"Healthcare providers are preferring to hire BSN-qualified nurses, and this would provide the freedom and opportunity for students who are pursuing associate's degrees and already interested in nursing to continue on and earn that BSN," Lundeen said.
Billing it as a more affordable alternative, the proposal would permit the 14 schools in the Colorado Community College System to offer a bachelor of science degree in nursing to students who are earning an associate's degree in nursing. Ten community colleges, including PPCC, currently offer an associate's degree in nursing.
"The hospitals really want bachelor's-trained nurses," Bolton said. "And they want a lot more of them."
Children's Hospital Colorado only hires nurses with bachelor's degrees, he said, and while UCHealth and Penrose St. Francis Health Services employ nurses with an associate's degree, they must complete a bachelor's degree in three years.
Supporters, including bill co-sponsor Rep. Janet Buckner (D-Aurora), say many two-year students do not pursue the advanced BSN degree because of the expense and hassle of having to transfer to schools where the four-year degrees are offered.
"More nurses and better-trained nurses will translate into better health outcomes for Coloradans," she said in a statement.
The cost difference for students would be substantial, Bolton said.
PPCC charges nursing students $217 per credit hour, while a credit hour at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs' Helen and Arthur E. Johnson Beth-El College of Nursing and Health Sciences is $476.
Rebecca Hanson, a disabled veteran who's in her first year of nursing training at PPCC, said she likes the small classes and one-on-one attention from professors at PPCC and takes umbrage at criticm that two-year schools wouldn't be able to hold their own when it comes to four-year degrees.
"While major universities did not directly say they were concerned about losing income, their arguments were pretty invalid," she said. "They claimed neither faculty nor students at a community college were on the level to pursue a BSN, as though our faculty and students were sub par. I absolutely do not feel that way ..."
The version of HB-1086 that is advancing to the Senate contains amendments including that the degree would be a "completion program," at community colleges, meaning allowing existing associate's degree in nursing students to complete a four-year degree. Also added was a requirement that community colleges provide an annual report about their nursing degree programs to the Colorado Department of Higher Education.
The changes were enough to satisfy opposition from some of the seven schools that have four-year degree programs. The University of Colorado system, Colorado Mesa University and Regis University dropped objections that programs at four-year universities and colleges could be negatively impacted by a change.
"CU is neutral on the bill," CU system spokesman Ken McConnellogue said in an email. "We had some concerns with an earlier version, but we worked with sponsors and believe it is in a better place."
If approved, the new degree would take several years to institute at PPCC, according to Bolton, because of the accreditation process. The program likely would be a hybrid of online and classroom instruction, he said.
It would be PPCC's second four-year degree program. As a result of 2014 legislation allowing community colleges to provide four-year degrees, the school will begin offering in the fall a bachelor of applied science in emergency services administration.
Bolton said PPCC will be the first in the state to have the degree, which is geared toward people working as police officers, first responders and emergency personnel who want to advance in their careers.
"Both of these are a game-changer for us," said PPCC spokesman Warren Epstein. "The fact that we're able to offer the most affordable four-year options is going to create so many more opportunities for people to get into a middle-class lifestyle. Nursing is a priority because it's such as priority in the workforce."