Nursing Backlog Hits California Community Colleges

California needs 10,000 nurses, but the waiting list is so long at the state's community colleges that prospective nursing students are waiting for years to get in. Some are turning to private schools despite much higher costs.

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California, like many states, is suffering a shortage of nurses. How short? Ten thousand vacancies and counting. But the problem is not a shortage of people who want to be nurses. Most are trained in the state's community colleges.

And as Elaine Korry reports, these nursing programs are forced to turn away thousands of qualified students every year.

(Soundbite of conversations)

ELAINE KORRY: The Nursing Skills Lab at Contra Costa College, a community college east of San Francisco. This looks like a real hospital ward, complete with high-tech instruments and monitors. But instead of real patients, the beds are filled with life-sized mannequins used by students to practice procedures.

Mr. SEAN MCNEAL (Registered Nurse, Contra Costa College): Put your hand on the catheter tip. OK.

KORRY: A half-dozen students are huddled around instructor Sean McNeal, learning how to delicately insert a catheter.

Mr. MCNEAL: Advance it how much further?

Unidentified Man: One inch.

Mr. MCNEAL: Another inch.

Unidentified Man: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Mr. MCNEAL: OK, right. Now, remember, this hand is dirty.

Unidentified Man: Yeah.

Mr. MCNEAL: Keep these hands separated.

Unidentified Man: Mm-hmm.

KORRY: These students are a highly selective group, the rare ones who were accepted into this two-year associate degree program. Once they graduate, they'll sit for the state licensing exam to become registered nurses.

It's a goal Kimberly Hall(ph) thought she'd never achieve.

Ms. KIMBERLY HALL (Nursing Student): I felt it was near impossible.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HALL: I was getting ready to give up.

KORRY: Hall is finally in - but only after three miserable years of waiting. The problem was never her grades, says Hall, but a simple lack of space.

Ms. HALL: You have 300 people applying for 30 spots. And rejection letter after rejection letter, it starts to wear on you after awhile.

KORRY: California has 75 community college nursing programs, and every one of them is full. Many have a three or four-year waiting list. Others, including Contra Costa, rely on a lottery system which requires applicants to reapply every year.

Program Director Maryanne Werner-McCullough.

KORRY: California has 75 community college nursing programs, and every one of them is full. Many have a three- or four-year waiting list. Others, including Contra Costa, rely on a lottery system, which requires applicants to reapply every year.

(Soundbite of slam)

Ms. LISA HILL(ph): There they are: transcripts, applications, notes, ready to reapply for next fall.

KORRY: Lisa Hill has taken that advice to heart. College application season just ended, and Hill has a thick folder of forms to show for her efforts. She's been inching toward nursing school for years, having aced all her prerequisite courses at Contra Costa and then applying to the nursing program last year.

The school accepted 70 students, including a dozen who made it onto the alternate list. Hill was unlucky number 13.

Ms. HILL: When I didn't get in, it was just - it was a shock, really. I was devastated.

KORRY: For now, Hill's vocational dream is stalled.

Ms. HILL: I heard, wow, what a great career to get into; the population is getting older, there's going to be a need for nurses, nurses are retiring.

KORRY: And so, Hill won't give up. At less than $5,000, a community college nursing degree is a true bargain. And California is trying to address the backlog. Hill does have another option: She could attend a private nursing program at a for-profit school, such as the University of Phoenix.

In recent years, market-based or proprietary programs have moved in to fill the gap left by overwhelmed state schools. That should surprise no one, says California's Community College vice chancellor, Jose Millan.

Mr. JOSE MILLAN (Vice Chancellor, California Community College): If I were in the position of a proprietary school, I'd take a look at those same numbers that you're looking at: huge demand, not enough supply. And I'd say, ah, here's an opportunity. And I'd offer the same thing at a high cost.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KORRY: Nursing is an expensive program to run, what with low faculty ratios and high-tech lab requirements. So for-profit schools do cost more - up to 10 times more than a state school.

Lisa Hill says she hates the idea of running up a huge debt. But if she doesn't get into a public program soon, she may not have a better choice.

For NPR News, I'm Elaine Korry.

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