The Senate continues to work on higher education. This week, a bill to make it easier to apply for student loans and strengthen support for low-income students is under consideration. The same measure includes a provision by Senator Bernie Sanders to boost enrollment in nursing schools.
Late last week, the Senate passed a bill to increase grants to low-income students, make more students eligible for the maximum Pell Grants, lower the penalty for students who work and receive financial aid, and forgive the student loan debt for many who make a career in public service. Sanders played a major role in writing the loan forgiveness program for college graduates who stay in public service jobs - including nursing, education, and law enforcement - for a decade.
Sanders' nursing provision in the new bill would address a crisis in health care staffing that is getting worse.
Baby boomers make up much of today's physician and nursing work force. Looming retirements are expected to thin the ranks significantly in the next few years. By 2020, according to a recent report, the United States could face a shortage of 24,000 doctors and nearly one million nurses.
It is not for lack of interest by students that medical and nursing schools aren't turning out enough new graduates. At a time when U.S. hospitals need 118,000 registered nurses to fill vacancies, nursing schools turned away 41,683 qualified applicants from baccalaureate and graduate programs in 2005. Among the reasons: faculty shortages, the lack of adequate clinical facilities, inadequate classroom space, and budget woes.
The obvious solution -- instead of importing nurses from abroad from places like the Philippines and Africa -- is to provide the resources to train more nurses. Health care is a profession that offers both gratification for serving the community and good pay. The median annual earnings of registered nurses was $52,330 in 2004, with salaries for the top tier in the nursing profession paying more than $74,760 a year.
Under the bill, colleges would receive $3,000 for each additional nursing student they enroll. Sanders' provision would enable schools to accommodate 10,000 additional students per year. His proposal is supported by Health Committee Chairman Edward M. Kennedy and by Senator Barbara Mikulski.