New Hampshire nursing programs see more applicants

Brad Spiegel

It would be difficult to say that there has been a lot of good to come out of the Covid-19 pandemic. In the field of nursing, however, there may be a positive: the pandemic has focused attention on nursing careers, and schools around the Granite State are seeing more people apply to become nurses.

“The pandemic has shined a light on how difficult the job [of a nurse] is,” said Pamela DiNapoli, executive director of the New Hampshire Nurses Association, a not-for-profit advocating for all nurses in the state. “I was thinking the younger population may not want to go into a job so difficult. But I have been pleasantly surprised that there is a real resurgence in the role.”

Since the early days of the pandemic, the sometimes unappreciated work that frontline nurses do has been brought to the forefront. The media converged on the subject when healthcare facilities were overrun due to the huge number of people affected by Covid descending on hospitals. The tireless and compassionate care by nurses gave the profession respect that was long overdue, as shown by the World Health Organization naming 2020 The Year of the Nurse.

In New Hampshire, that has led to a rise in the number of applications for nursing and related higher education programs. The increased interest is a welcomed trend with so many nurses burnt out from the continuous work during the pandemic and a need for new nurses in the Granite State and worldwide.

At Saint Anselm College in Manchester, 843 people had applied for the nursing program beginning in the fall of 2021, according to Steve Goetsch, vice president of enrollment. That is up from 799 applicants for 2020 and 796 for 2019.

“We would attribute the interest in the nursing program … to the pandemic, and the desire for students to serve their community by becoming a nurse,” Goetsch said. “And then, of course, when they start looking for a program, they learn about the success that our program has had over the most recent timeframe.”

At Colby-Sawyer College in New London the number of applications for the undergraduate nursing program has increased at a slightly slower clip: 355 this year compared to 342 last year, with two weeks left until the deadline. However, compared to this time last year, 34% more people have committed to the program by sending in their deposit, said Kevin Finn, dean of the School of Nursing & Health Sciences, who was hired in mid-2020.

The school recently intensified its longstanding partnership with Dartmouth-Hitchcock medical system, which has been a contributing factor to increased interest in Colby-Sawyer’s nursing programs, Finn said.

“Our numbers have jumped up dramatically the past few years,” said Finn. “I can’t say with much scientific data but [the pandemic] certainly has contributed to the increase in applications and deposits. It’s not the sole reason, but the combination of that and our partnership with Dartmouth-Hitchcock has played a part.”

‘The reality of nursing’

Rivier University, a private school in Nashua, offers an associate degree in nursing. Sister Paula Marie Buley, president of the university, has also witnessed a jump in interest in the program. Acceptances have doubled and deposits have tripled compared to last year.

“We’ve definitely seen an impact of Covid in our nursing applications and deposits,” Buley said.

She believes that since the pandemic started, more people recognize the impact nurses can have.

“I think the reality of nursing – the reality of the dedication and the devotion of nursing – during the pandemic has come out in our homes through the media every night. We see the dramatic focus on what nurses do and how critical they are to healthcare and the health and wellness of their patients,” she said. “I know I have been struck by the admiration of nurses worldwide. The increase in interest here at Rivier comes down to [the fact that] students who aspire to be nurses really aspire to serve.”

At Keene State College, incoming students must commit to the undergraduate nursing program by May 1. Last year by that date, the school saw 27 incoming freshman out of 223 applicants enroll and put down a deposit. This year there were already 223 applications by mid-March, and 17 students had put down a deposit.

It isn’t only undergraduate programs that are seeing heightened interest.

Currently, Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester is only offering online programs for post-licensure degrees, which allow current registered nurses to complete their bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) or a master’s degree in nursing. Those programs have seen a small uptick in interest, said Peggy Moriarty-Litz, chief nursing administrator at SNHU.

“I was surprised because I thought nurses were so strained (due to the pandemic) that they wouldn’t decide to come back to school,” she said. “But it shows that students are interested and dedicated to nursing and want to get to the next level in their profession.”

While the added interest can be attributed to would-be nursing students seeing the pandemic play out firsthand, there are other perks drawing people to nursing at New Hampshire schools.

Most nurses are able to find a job after graduation, and many in-state schools have close to 100% of students succeed at the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX), which nurses are required to pass, school officials point out.

Unfortunately, due to the number of clinical positions remaining unchanged at most schools and the need for a certain teacher-to-student ratio, the number of people accepted into nursing programs has not increased at the majority of schools that spoke with the Granite State News Collaborative.

However, some institutions are adding new programs or classes that are a direct result of the pandemic.

Franklin Pierce University in Rindge launched a Master’s Entry Program in Nursing in fall 2020. It allows someone with a bachelor’s degree or higher in another field to enter the field of nursing, obtaining an RN license and a master’s degree in nursing in just 18 months. The school also has plans to grow its master of physician assistant studies and doctor of physical therapy programs.

“Franklin Pierce has seen the increased need for highly skilled healthcare leaders, and the Covid situation has only brought that to the forefront,” said Paula McWilliam, director of nursing education at the university. She pointed out that the Master’s Entry Program in Nursing is one of the first of its kind in New England.

Two new tracks will soon be part of the Colby-Sawyer’s master of science in nursing program: nursing education, and nursing management and executive leadership.

For the past four years, students in Plymouth State University’s nursing program have participated in a disaster drill that involves triaging patients during a pandemic. It certainly has been time timely for what has happened during the past year.

“Graduating seniors have been involved in the disaster drill and a lot of the skills needed are ones used during a pandemic,” said Jean Coffey, director of nursing at the school. “They learn the skills of managing an unpredictable situation, how to provide care for the sickest, and who needs care right away. It’s a fairly unique program.”

Now, other nursing programs are incorporating that type of learning.

“Since the pandemic began, a lot of schools are adding that to their curriculum,” Coffey said. “We are proud to say we have been doing that the past four years.”

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