The 14 nurses who received master’s degrees at Georgia Southern University this month graduated from a program that one influential magazine ranks in the top 20 of its kind in the U.S. and tops in Georgia.
Earlier this school year, U.S. News & World Report listed Georgia Southern’s family nurse practitioner program as 19th best in the country — tied with Rush University in Chicago. Emory University’s program followed at 21st — tied with schools in Ohio and Virginia — while no other Georgia program ranked in the top 25.
Georgia Southern’s graduate nursing program has made the top rankings several times, reaching as high as 11th in 2007.
With another master’s degree major currently inactive, Georgia Southern’s family nurse practitioner and Master of Science in Nursing programs are, in effect, one and the same. The university expanded its graduate nursing programs in 2008 with the launch of the Doctor of Nursing Practice degree. So far 19 students have earned the doctorate, including eight who graduated May 11.
But the master’s program remains the flagship.
Ingrid Stier, who received the 2012 GSU Master of Science in Nursing Graduate Student Award, lives in Savannah. “Savannah also has a master’s program, but I selected Georgia Southern because it does have such a good reputation and because it’s also a family nurse practitioner program,” Stier said. “That means I can see people literally from the cradle to the grave, all age groups, and not all programs have that.”
As she noted, Savannah’s Armstrong Atlantic State University also offers a master’s degree in nursing, with an adult nurse practitioner track and other majors. But Armstrong does not offer a family nurse practitioner program as such.
With 20 years in nursing since she started as a licensed practical nurse, Stier, 47, is a little older than most of her classmates. But the steps on her career path are typical. She became a registered nurse with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree in 1998 and came to GSU in 2009 for the three-year master’s program.
Stier is making endocrinology, applied to diabetes care, her area of expertise. She has been working part-time as a diabetes educator in Savannah while completing her studies and now has a good lead on a full-time job as a nurse practitioner in an endocrinology setting.
Having taken an educational step beyond those required of registered nurses, nurse practitioners are also known as advanced-practice nurses. They can diagnose illnesses and prescribe medications. In Georgia, they must work in collaboration with a physician, but some nurse practitioners operate their own practices, Professor Donna Hodnicki said. An RN and family nurse practitioner with a Ph.D., she served as the GSU School of Nursing’s first graduate program director until January 2010.
“The situation in Georgia is just like it is across the country,” Hodnicki said. “There are not enough primary care physicians to meet the need, especially in the rural areas, and so you’ll see that a lot of nurse practitioners go into those areas where they’re health underserved.”
Thirty years ago, Georgia Southern pioneered the training of family nurse practitioners in Georgia south of Atlanta. When Hodnicki joined the faculty in 1983, the family nurse practitioner program, in its third year, was a certificate track for registered nurses with bachelor’s degrees. She recalls that students had to be assigned physicians as preceptors — as medical professionals who guide clinical experiences are called — because there were so few nurse practitioners in the area.
Georgia Southern built the family nurse practitioner training into a Master of Science in Nursing program in 1988. As such, it has since graduated 291 family nurse practitioners.
“So a majority of the nurse practitioners that you find in the area are all Georgia Southern graduates, and they are now our preceptors for our students,” Hodnicki said.
About a dozen Georgia universities now offer nurse practitioner programs. But long after the concept blossomed nationwide, Georgia Southern’s family nurse practitioner program remains in the top rank.
The program builds on its past successes, current Graduate Program Director Deborah Allen and School of Nursing Chairperson Sharon Radzyminski agreed. Both are RNs with Ph.Ds. Radzyminski, who came to Georgia Southern from Georgetown University at the start of the 2011-12 academic year, also holds a law degree, while Allen is a family nurse practitioner.
“You’re competing against many more schools, and if you look at the whole, we’re up against some very big universities, and I think that says a lot for our program,” Allen said.
Popular and selective
GSU’s undergraduate nursing instruction does not rank as high as its family nurse practitioner program, but as Radzyminski noted, there is more competition, with about 700 undergraduate nursing schools nationwide. Recognition received by the graduate program augments the reputation of the School of Nursing as a whole, and with good reason, she said.
“Certainly, it speaks to the quality of the program and the expertise of the faculty in the program, and we don’t have just graduate and undergraduate faculty,” Radzyminski said. “Our faculty teach across programs, so if we have that kind of expert faculty in the graduate level, obviously these same individuals are teaching and mentoring undergraduate, entry-level students into the profession.”
Because of its popularity, the School of Nursing has to be selective in admissions. The undergraduate program, which accepts 50 students each fall and another 50 in the spring, typically receives 200 to 300 applications each semester.
After completing core subjects in their first two years at the university, students apply for admission to the School of Nursing. The average GPA of admitted undergrads hovers above 3.8.
For the master’s degree students accepted for fall 2012, the average GPA is 3.67, Allen said. She said that selectivity has a downside.
“It is very disheartening to have students who qualify regarding our admission criteria but we cannot accept them, we cannot include them into the cohort that’s coming,” Allen said. “Our minimum GPA this time was a 3.34.”
Maintaining quality requires keeping student-faculty ratios low, Radzyminski says. Georgia Board of Nursing regulations limit a faculty member to 20 students in a classroom, and to supervising just 10 in clinical practice settings. The availability of practice opportunities is limited, with nursing programs competing with medical schools and other health education programs for placements in hospitals, clinics, mental health agencies and health departments.
“So even though there’s a nursing shortage and we have hundreds of unbelievably qualified applicants, we have to limit because we simply do not have the faculty available to provide that kind of supervised education — and you have to have the clinical sites willing to accept them,” Radzyminski said.
Nursing students who received master’s degrees May 11 have not completed their training as nurse practitioners. They will now complete a clinical practicum, ending in mid-July, before testing for national certification.
Georgia Southern graduates’ cumulative passing rate on the exam exceeds 99 percent.
Despite the family nurse practitioner program’s success, change is likely within a few years. GSU School of Nursing officials are looking toward making the program a direct-to-doctorate track for students with Bachelor of Science in Nursing degrees.
“Our national guidelines are recommending that nurse practitioners transition to having a doctoral level of entry into practice, so we are working toward that goal,” Allen said.