Unlike nursing schools at many other universities across the country, Tennessee Tech University's School of Nursing hasn't seen a significant decline in its number of student applications.
But that doesn't mean TTU administrators are unconcerned about a projected national shortage that could mean as many as one million job openings for nurses by 2010. The university's ability to have a positive impact on the problem is actually hampered by the nursing program's lack of adequate classroom and office facilities.
"Our need for proper facilities is a tremendous limiting factor for us. Our lack of space limits the number of students we can accept into our program," said Marilyn Musacchio, TTU's Dean of Nursing.
For the coming academic year, for example, the school received applications from 85 qualified candidates, she said, but its largest classroom can accommodate only 60 students.
"And until this year, our upper division nursing classes — the junior and senior level classes — were limited to a maximum of 48 students in each," Musacchio continued.
That's because the university's nursing program had been housed in a former elementary school located at the edge of campus — but the facility was in such poor structural condition that it was abandoned nearly three years ago, and it was actually condemned in January 2001.
Left virtually homeless by those circumstances, the program was originally fragmented among various campus locations.
Provost Marvin Barker said one reason it was so difficult to find an individual facility for the displaced school is because the schedule for nursing classes is often quite different from the class schedule of most other disciplines.
"While students in most other disciplines generally have classes that meet on either Monday, Wednesday and Friday or on Tuesday and Thursday, nursing students have classes Monday through mid-Wednesday. The other half of their week is typically reserved for clinical studies," he said.
Faced with the possible risk of the program losing its accreditation for lack of proper facilities, TTU's administration approved a measure to renovate an area on the main floor of the university's Jere Whitson Building to temporarily house it. The School of Nursing remains there while the state legislature debates the priority of funding a new building.
Although a new nursing building was ranked 16th on the Tennessee Board of Regents building list when the old building was condemned, officials did not increase its priority because of that situation. Members of the Senate Education Committee, however, recently questioned the move.
At the same time, TTU administrators are actively seeking state, local and private funding to help pay for the construction of a new facility — the cost of which is estimated at $15 million — but no actual building plans have been finalized.
This is at a time when associate, baccalaureate and higher-degree nursing programs in the South already have a total of more than 430 vacant faculty positions. And according to a 2001 survey by the Southern Regional Education Board, another 784 nurse educators in the South are expected to retire in the next five years.
"While many other nursing schools in the nation are already feeling significant shortages in the number of both qualified students and faculty, the majority of our challenges always seem to come back to our serious need for proper facilities," Musacchio said.
Writer's note: In recognition of the week of Monday, May 6, as National Nurses Week, this is the first in a series of three articles about the impact of the projected nursing shortage and the facilities need at TTU's School of Nursing on the university, local hospitals and health care offices and the community in general.