Billings-Berg: More nursing seats are coming to Vermont State University

by Sarah Billings-Berg, VTSU Dean of Nursing and Health Sciences Ready for some good news about nursing in Vermont? I bet you are. I know—reports haven’t always focused on the good news. As recently as last year, news reports focused on nurses retiring, how we don’t have personnel or facilities to educate new nurses, the high cost of education and how all these factors plus burnout resulted in a shortage of nurses in Vermont and across the country. This leads to the use of expensive travelling nurses to provide essential staffing in our hospitals and community care settings. In short, the news focused on the problems with developing and maintaining our nursing workforce in Vermont.

Here's the new picture—Vermonters listened to those reports and took action. Our lawmakers, governor, employers and education leaders—at the state and national levels—went to work on breaking down barriers to educating more nurses and invested in new initiatives and creative solutions to make it easier. 

As a result, I get to share some really good news about what Vermont has been able to accomplish—the net result is that we will be able to enroll more than 50 percent more nursing students in Vermont State University (VTSU) nursing programs within the next three years. When this expansion is fully realized, we’ll have nearly 1,000 nursing students in our programs at a given time, paving the way for future caregivers who are desperately needed here.

How does that happen? First, more than $6 million in Congressionally directed spending funds secured by Senator Patrick Leahy is going to build more VTSU nursing classroom spaces. Funds will be used to create more facilities to educate students for practice in clinical settings, such as improved labs in our existing Lyndon campus settings and brand-new classrooms in Williston and Johnson. These spaces feature new technology, like a virtual reality immersion room for students to learn clinical judgement in a virtual hospital room, and equipment and software to run full interactive simulations. At our Castleton campus, we were able to create a full telepresence classroom, which will particularly help our practical nursing and associate degree nursing programs who learn with multiple classrooms connected to one instructor. We owe a special thanks to Senator Leahy and our entire delegation for working to bring more resources for nursing to Vermont.

We also thank the Vermont legislature and Governor Scott—first for providing funding in the amount of $800,000 that made acquisition of new simulation equipment possible at VTSU. Items such as additional low-, medium- and high-fidelity human patient simulators, lab equipment, beds, headwalls, IV pumps, code carts, defibrillators and furniture allow our students the state-of-the-art learning experience they deserve. Lawmakers previously created forgivable loan programs to support nursing students who choose to work in Vermont.

Support from state leaders and the agency of human services will also allow us to enroll more students in master’s-level programs to become nurse educators, who are essential  for educating more nurses. The state also allotted more than $3 million to create scholarships, administered through VSAC, for nursing faculty candidates. Thanks to all our elected officials who listened to their community and helped us overcome obstacles to creating a pipeline for the nursing workforce because it’s paying off and it’s exactly the way we’ll begin to turn the tide on our workforce shortage.

Partnerships with employers have also eased the path to becoming a nurse. Local hospitals and other employers have provided funding and employee flexibility for programs that create opportunities for students to work and learn at the same time. For example, a program run through a partnership between VTSU, Community College of Vermont (CCV) and University of Vermont Health Network’s Central Vermont Medical Center (CVMC) allows a student to work full-time to retain full-time salary and benefits while studying to become a Licensed Practical Nurse. Their pre-requisite courses are completed at CCV in year one. Students are then able to apply for admission at VTSU’s Practical Nursing program and begin that coursework in year two. Academically - eligible students then have the option to advance through the Direct Progression for their Associate’s Degree in Nursing to become a Registered Nurse. These programs allow the students to study to advance their careers with a RN—all while working full-time with a flexible working schedule and supportive environment through their employer at CVMC. Students are able to complete some of the coursework and clinicals onsite at CVMC, which reduces the barriers for access to transportation.  Apprenticeship opportunities abound at other hospitals and facilities in every corner of the state. Truly good news for both students and their employers.

Want even more good news? You got it. These hundreds of new students are entering a program with proven success. I’m filled with so much pride to share that our nursing students at all levels passed their National Council Licensure Examinations (NCLEX®) at a significantly higher rate than the national average. The exams assess critical thinking and clinical judgement skills students learned in nursing school, so it’s a testament to our VTSU programs that nearly all of our graduates passed on the first attempt—whether they were testing at the practical nursing or RN level. I am so proud of our students and faculty and so eager to welcome even more of them to our campus community.

Thank you, Vermont for contributing to our advancements, our success, our increasingly good news. Our students look forward to taking care of you when you most need it.