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March 1, 2005 > Bay Area Nursing Shortage

Bay Area Nursing Shortage

Applicants can only apply to school through lottery system

by Tony C. Yang

Long before an aspiring nurse can comfort the sick and injured, he or she must be a nursing student. Unfortunately for those in the Bay Area, there are more students than classes, and this has impacted the lives of many would-be nurses.

"I'm a people person," said Lindsey Goularte, a part-time Ohlone College student who tried to get into the school's nursing program. "I love to help people, but my friends and I can't get into the program." She had already switched her major to Nursing. Then a 3-week externship at Washington Hospital, combined with her chances of actually getting into a nursing program, convinced her to change her major Anthropology.

"Every year it gets harder and harder," she said. "It's ridiculous."

Goularte, and many students like her, are subject to the highly competitive academic atmosphere that pervades Bay Area accredited nursing programs. At a time where one of the few "hot" sectors is in health care and biotechnology, competition is stiff.

At San Jose State University, Chabot College, De Anza College, Evergreen College, Ohlone College and others, there are so many prospective nursing students that schools have resorted to a lottery system to choose nursing candidates. This "luck-of-the-draw" system has drawn criticism that it is counterproductive and discouraging to qualified students.

Ohlone College in Fremont has been "aggressive" in increasing its nursing program and offerings, according to the official RN program's website. But roughly 30 openings are available, compared to the 400 to 500 applicants that vie for the slots each year. Groundbreaking for Ohlone's Newark campus will begin soon; a brand-new nursing classroom and department is slated to open in the fall of 2007. But that is in the future, and there have been no plans yet to drop the lottery system.

According to Barbara Gray, RN, it typically takes much longer than two or three years to earn a nursing degree. Gray said, "The problem is not waiting lists or trouble getting the right classes... most community college programs have about 20 semester units of required courses in science and other subjects-which usually take about a year to complete-before a student even begins the nursing program's two-year curriculum." There are hidden prerequisites and coursework that must be done before a student can formally start a nursing program. This poses many problems for the student who merely wishes to shop around for a major or career, and increases the competition for those would-be nurses who are determined to make it.

For now, in spite of these current obstacles, Goularte's friend Katie Donahue is determined to become a nurse. She's applying to several nursing programs in the fall - five at last count - even though she already has a degree.

Donahue earned a Bachelor's degree from Cal Poly at San Luis Obispo in Management Information Systems in 2002, but says that the information sector has "dried up" to the point where she can't find a job. She emphasizes that the growing health care and nursing industries, particularly in the Bay Area, is where the jobs are.

But not everyone can immediately change careers. She warns people interested in nursing to make sure they have "all their prerequisites," so that they can avoid waitlists or disqualification. City College San Francisco, Chabot College, Contra Costa College, Ohlone College and even Napa College are among the schools Donahue is considering, well aware that all the nursing slots at each school are limited. "I think it's terrible," she said. "But it can't be helped. They don't have enough money."

Donahue says she isn't letting the situation "limit [my] options," and adds that she will continue to apply everywhere she has a chance, even Southern California.

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