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Oregon colleges rethink approach to nursing educator gap

Programs like OHSU’s Oregon Nursing Education Academy aim to make education more accessible.
Students at the OHSU School of Nursing Ashland Campus learn, practice and refine nursing skills at the campus’ Simulation and Clinical Learning Center. | COURTESY OF OHSU/ALLEN HALLMARK
January 31, 2023

State lawmakers have introduced a slew of bills to tackle the nursing shortage in Oregon — including one of its root causes: a lack of nurse educators. 

But some colleges aren't waiting — they’re tackling the problem now.

A 2020 study from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing showed Oregon had a 14.8% vacancy rate for nursing school positions, the third highest in the nation. The top reasons for the nationwide gap, according to the study, are underfunded programs, job competition in other markets, and faculty retirement or resignation. 

Contributing to the problem, the pay for nurses working in health care has far outstripped what they make in education.

The shortage of educators means there aren’t enough nurses being trained to meet what is an increasing nationwide demand, Oregon educators told The Lund Report. The resulting shortage of new nurses is helping to drive up nursing wages in health care settings and this, they said, compounds the problem because it widens the gap between what practicing nurses and nurse educators earn even more. 

Oregon produced the third-lowest number of nursing graduates per capita among states, a state research collaborative found in 2020

“Vacant faculty positions are an issue for nearly all nursing schools throughout the United States,” Franny White, an Oregon Health & Science University spokesperson, told The Lund Report. At OHSU, for instance, about  9% of its faculty positions were vacant late last year.

In an effort to produce more nurse educators, OHSU has launched the Oregon Nursing Education Academy — a school for nurses who want to be nursing instructors. With nearly $4 million in funding from a federal Health Resources and Services Administration grant, the academy boasts two programs: one for clinical nurse faculty and one for enhanced instructors. The clinical nurse faculty program is inaugurating its first class of 13 nursing educators this month, while the preceptor program will begin with 23 students in March.

The program tackles what nurse educators like Rogue Community College Nurse Administrator Margaret Brewer and the school’s interim Dean of Instruction David Koehler call one of the highest barriers to becoming a nursing instructor: having the necessary degree and experience.

Nursing educators are required to have a master’s degree in nursing or a bachelor’s degree in nursing with a master’s in a related field. In addition to meeting degree requirements, instructors must have relevant teaching and nursing experience related to their teaching assignments, a minimum of three years of full-time patient care nursing experience, and documented competency in teaching through experience, educational preparation or continuing education.

High vacancy rates extend beyond Oregon to other states in the western U.S., according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. For this reason, the OHSU program accepts students from Washington, Idaho and Alaska, as well as Oregon. By the fall of 2026, the academy hopes to graduate 63 faculty and 92 preceptors, “all of which will help OHSU and other nursing schools enroll more nursing students and better prepare the next generation of nurses,” White said.

The program has a low barrier to entry, a professor for the academy, Joanne Noone said, because “almost 100% is virtual.” Funding support will be provided for students who need to travel to OHSU for a summer course that teaches simulation practices.

OHSU will also help graduates find clinical positions within the western U.S. through five clinical partnerships they have in the region with medical institutions. Most of the academy’s enrollment slots will be reserved for nurses who currently work for Salem Health Hospital & Clinics, La Grande-based Grande Ronde Hospital & Clinics, Sky Lakes Medical Center in Klamath Falls, Asante in Southern Oregon, or OHSU Hospital in Portland.

“We also want the nurse educators to be able to educate nurses to address health equity,” Noone said. 

Several bills introduced in this year’s long session of the Oregon Legislature are also aimed at tackling the lack of nurse educators and related issues. They include: Senate Bill 493 and House Bill 2744, which would make nurse educators eligible for income tax credits; Senate Bill 484 and House Bill 2926, which would direct the state to set up a program to increase clinical training opportunities for nurses; and Senate Bill 485 and House Bill 2928 would make health care workers enrolled in nurse licensure programs eligible for incentives.

Chemeketa Community College is experiencing a different problem with the educator gap — a lack of instructional training among their nursing program staff. Several years ago, Dean of Health Sciences Sandi Kellog said the college had several nurses retire within a year of each other. The college filled the positions, but was left with a new problem. 

“This leaves us with fairly new educators who have never taught in the nursing classroom,” Kellog said. 

Despite the newness of their instructors, Kellog said, “We have been fortunate with the newer faculty, as we have been rated as one of the top schools in Oregon. We are also working on an RN to BSN program if the current legislative session allows for the conferring of the degree.”

Two years ago, Oregon lawmakers passed a bill that allows community colleges to confer the Applied Bachelor's degree. Chemeketa is now working toward offering a bachelor of science in nursing, but has “many steps left in the process with ultimate approval resting with the Legislature,” Kellog said. 

As colleges like OHSU and Chemeketa work to address education as part of the gap’s cause, educators such as Margaret Brewer and Dave Kohler at Rogue Community College also worry about addressing the gap between what working nurses and the people who teach them earn.

Brewer and Koehler speculated in a joint statement that “an even more critical factor” than education requirements may be explained through simple supply and demand economics. As registered nurses are in high demand, increased wages aimed at attracting them as applicants has further increased the gap between what working nurses and educators earn, they explained. 

In their joint statement to The Lund Report, Brewer and Koehler said registered nurse salaries in the Rogue Valley range between $75,021 to $120,179. Additionally, they said, a similarly educated, Master’s-trained nurse in a health care setting likely earns 50%-100% more than a nurse in an education setting. Master’s level nurses “are also likely in an administrative role managing a team of RNs — whose earnings are also higher than an educator’s,” they said. “This gap — between educator wages at two-year colleges and professional wages in the regional healthcare systems — is a barrier.”

Chemeketa may have found a solution to the pay gap. Faculty work a 172-day academic year calendar but are paid at the 192-day contract rate, allowing for higher pay. Kellog said the pay increase equates to approximately 10%-12% more than other faculty at the college.

At George Fox University, benefits of nurse educator jobs have helped the school buck the shortage trend, said Pam Fifer, its associate dean of the College of Nursing. 

Perks of being an educator at George Fox include greater flexibility in contracting length that allow for summers off and generous tuition support for educators’ dependents. 

The university accepts 60 students each fall and 30 students each spring, and has “been fortunate to find talented individuals” to teach them, Fifer said. 

Correction: This article originally indicated Chemeketa offers bachelor's degrees in nursing. While it is working toward that program, it does not yet offer that degree. We regret the error.

Aurora Biggers can be reached on Twitter at @aurorabiggers.