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Release: Oct. 29, 1999

UI College of Nursing, VA Medical Centers offer bachelor’s degree program for VA nurses

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- The University of Iowa College of Nursing and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs have signed an agreement that lets registered nurses at VA medical facilities in Iowa earn baccalaureate degrees by attending classes offered by the college part-time at their workplaces. VA officials in Iowa believe the four-year, $980,000 agreement is the first in the country to take advantage of a $50 million federal funding stream for education assistance for
VA nurses seeking baccalaureate or higher degrees.

The nursing college has for a number of years offered an RN-BSN progression program for registered nurses who hold two- or three-year associate degrees to earn bachelor’s degrees in nursing. The new program for VA nurses permits students to attend classes two evenings a week for four years at VA medical facilities in Iowa City, Des Moines and Knoxville, and pays for all tuition, fees and course materials. The courses, which originate on the UI campus or at the VA Medical Center in Iowa City, are taught by UI faculty and telecast over the Iowa Communications Network (ICN) to ICN classrooms at all the VA facilities.

Classes for the VA nurses began this fall even before the agreement was finalized. The program currently has 28 students at the Iowa City VA Medical Center, 24 at the Des Moines VA Medical Center, and 14 at the Knoxville VA Medical Center. The agreement provides for up to 70 students to participate.

The program comes in the wake of revisions to the VA’s Nurse Qualification Standard that requires all new nurses hired above the Nurse I grade to have the baccalaureate degree and all new nurses at grade III or higher to have master’s degrees; after Sept. 30, 2005, all nurses employed by the VA must meet the new standard to be promoted to Nurse II or above.

"I know we’re the first" to implement the federal initiative, said Rose Hayslett, assistant director for patient care services at the Iowa City VA Medical Center. She said she has already fielded questions from other regional VA health networks wanting to set up similar programs.

"We have a big commitment to advance educational and training opportunities for nurses, so we’re very proud of this initiative," Hayslett said.

Keela Herr, Ph.D., associate professor of nursing and director of the UI College of Nursing’s RN-BSN program, said Hayslett and Luella Page, education director of the Iowa City VA Medical Center, approached the college over the summer about developing a program that would meet VA nurses’ needs. According to Herr, the college worked quickly to design a program that would include a part-time, evening option with all courses brought to the workplace.

"The VA has taken a big step in establishing the BSN as the entry level for professional nursing practice," Herr said. "We were committed to helping them achieve this by developing an innovative program that we could implement without delay. Faculty have been very responsive to offering courses in this unique format with little notice."

Christine Gregory, associate director for patient care services for the VA’s Central Iowa Health Care System, which includes the medical facilities at Des Moines and Knoxville, credited the UI College of Nursing’s experience in providing education for working nurses for making the new program fit the needs of VA nursing staff. "The college has been very far-sighted, and they know about adult learners," Gregory said.

In addition to nursing courses, the program also will provide general education courses the students need to complete their bachelor’s degrees. This spring, for instance, the program will offer "Introduction to the Study of Culture and Society," an anthropology course, and "Rhetoric II," a basic English composition requirement. Kathy Keasler of the College of Nursing said the content for non-nursing courses likely will be tailored to students’ interests, placing nursing and health care issues in the context of other disciplines.

The college is also working with the UI Counseling Center to provide support for VA nurses needing help with study and note-taking skills, Keasler said. "The students will have every opportunity to get back into the educational setting," Keasler said.

Melanie Dreher, Ph.D., professor and dean of nursing at the UI, said the new program "builds on the successful track record the college has established with its distance learning programs and its BSN program for nurses at UI Hospitals and Clinics." Last year the college and the UI Hospitals and Clinics created a policy that reimburses UIHC nurses who participate in the college’s RN-BSN program for the cost of tuition and fees.

The college’s faculty and staff, Dreher said, "are very sensitive to the needs of practicing nurses who can’t leave their positions to pursue the bachelor’s degree."

"I deeply respect the VA not only for setting a higher educational standard for professional nursing practice," Dreher added, "but also for supporting nurses who wish to enhance their training and professional opportunities."

The 119-bed Des Moines VA Medical Center and the 205-bed Knoxville VA Medical Center, which also houses a 260-bed long-term care center, together employ about 200 nurses. The 159-bed Iowa City VA Medical Center employs about 225 nurses.