Online nurses prove skeptics wrong

Pratt Community College has done what few colleges or universities even attempt, what skeptics doubt can be done well, and has achieved a high level of success.

Last November 94 percent of students enrolled in PCC’s online nursing program passed their national examination to become registered nurses on the first try. Four classes have graduated since the online course was initiated in 2006, with an overall first-time pass rate of 85 percent, above state and national averages, and identical to the rate for students in the traditional on-ground program.

“There are plenty of skeptics who think that quality student learning cannot be delivered via online instruction. The number of skeptics grows even larger when the program is one as demanding as nursing,” Vice President of Instruction Jim Stratford said. “The way to counter the skeptics is to demonstrate a high level of student learning outcomes.” 

The instruction, both theory and hands-on, is the same, whether students are in a classroom or in their homes at whatever hour they can fit into their schedules, according to Gail Withers, dean of nursing and allied health. Online students come to campus for skill labs and participate in the same number of clinical hours at four sites across the state.

Nearly 100 percent of them are non-traditional, Withers said. They have families, jobs, are older than most campus students, and may have been out of school for a number of years. Most are female, though every class includes a few males. Classes are also becoming more internationally diverse. Many students are not close enough to a campus to attend college in the traditional way. 

PCC has become a pioneer in largely uncharted territory for a fairly mundane reason.

The college serves the largest geographic area of the state, but with the smallest population.
Funding is tied to credit hours, so the college had to look outside its service area to increase enrollment, Withers said.

On a more altruistic note, nursing programs are being challenged to increase capacity to fill 2,000 to 4,000 additional nursing positions in Kansas. Nursing is at the top of the job outlook projections, Withers said. An additional 800,000 registered nurses will be needed nationwide by 2020.

Three years ago the PCC nursing program had an approved capacity of 60 students; with expansion at the Pratt campus, the establishment of a PCC nursing program in Winfield and the development of online courses, the number has grown to 220.

Students start in allied health, earning certification as a nurse aide, medication aide, home health or restorative aide. Those classes are also available online and many high school students take them for concurrent credit. Success rates are good for those classes as well, Withers said. More than 90 percent pass certification exams the first time. 

Certification is a prerequisite to the nursing program. After the first year, students are eligible for licensure as practical nurses; completion of the second year allows an LPN to take the registered nurse exam.

Because “life happens,” students can stop at any point with marketable skills, work for a while and come back for more education, Withers noted.

Future expansion of the program includes certification in health occupations, available next fall. The 16-credit hour course allows an LPN or RN to move into some management positions without a bachelor’s degree. Also available in the fall is a program to allow a paramedic to transition to registered nursing.

The program has outgrown Chandler Hall on the northeast corner of the campus, and a 3,000 square foot addition is being constructed to include offices, a simulation hospital, two classrooms and additional storage.

At one time, 90 percent of registered nurses at Pratt Regional Medical Center were PCC graduates, Withers said, and three graduates are now on the PCC nursing faculty.