Forcing Nurses to Earn Bachelor’s Degrees

From the Wall Street Journal comes news that New York State is considering a bill to require nurses to earn a bachelor’s degree in order to keep working in the state. According to an Associated Press article:

New registered nurses would have to earn bachelor’s degrees within 10 years to keep working in New York under a bill lawmakers are considering as part of a national push to raise educational standards for nurses, even as the health care industry faces staffing shortages.

Currently, most registered nurses have two-year associate’s degrees. No state requires a four-year degree for initial licensing or afterward, though New Jersey and Rhode Island have considered proposals similar to New York’s over the past several years. New York’s legislation died in committee last session, but it has bipartisan support in both chambers this year and could be debated as early as January.

While the proponents of the law cite a 2003 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association finding that a “10 percent increase in staffing by nurses with bachelor’s degrees results in a 5 percent decrease in surgical deaths,” it’s hard to demonstrate that requiring bachelor’s degrees will actually result in healthier New Yorkers.

The Healthcare Association of New York State apparently opposes the bill, indicating that more education requirements would cause staffing problems in hospitals and other health care facilities.

That’s because New York State now has about 170,000 working nurses. According to the article, there’s likely to be a shortage of 54,000 nurses in New York by 2020. This is even with the lower education requirements for nurses in place currently. Raising the education levels required might not actually result in more nurses with bachelor’s degrees; it might just result in fewer nurses. And that would almost certainly cause more surgical deaths, not less.

So what’s the reason for this bill? According to the article the bill’s main sponsors, Assemblyman Joseph Morelle of Rochester and Sen. James Alesi of Monroe County, explained that “the bill is needed to further professionalize nursing.”

Well perhaps. But Morelle and Alesi also represent districts that include the University of Rochester and St. John Fisher College. Both of these institutions have bachelor’s degree programs in nursing. Forcing every nurse in the state to earn a bachelor’s degree could send a whole lot of new money over to these institutions.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer