A popular Northern Arizona University health professions partnership is delivering college degrees faster and filling a demand for health professionals.

From an initial enrollment of 38 students in summer 2011, a concurrent enrollment nursing degree program conducted by Northern Arizona University and Maricopa Community Colleges has grown to about 400 students, including 98 new students who begin this fall.

“President Obama, the Arizona Board of Regents and the governor are all calling for more baccalaureate degrees and for partnerships with community colleges, and that’s exactly what we’re doing,” said Debera Thomas, dean of the School of Nursing at NAU.

Providing even more motivation, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, in a 2010 report, called for 80 percent of registered nurses to be baccalaureate prepared by 2020.

“Hospitals in Phoenix and Tucson preferentially hire them,” Thomas said. “Moving from an associate’s degree to a bachelor’s degree, students learn more about public health, community health, research and leadership, and they get a foundation in nursing theory.”

Students in the program complete their associate’s degree during four semesters and one summer in a Maricopa County college while concurrently studying for their bachelor’s degree through NAU online courses. In just one additional semester, they earn their bachelor’s degree from NAU.

Community colleges participating in the program include Glendale, Gateway, Scottsdale, Estrella Mountain, Mesa and, most recently, Paradise Valley. Pima Community College in Tucson will join the program in January.

“Maricopa Nursing is pleased and privileged to partner with Northern Arizona University to offer this innovative program,” said Susan Mayer, Nursing Department chair at Glendale. “One of the goals of the Arizona State Board of Nursing is to increase the number of Arizona nurses with associate’s degrees who complete their bachelor’s degree, and we are certain that this program will help these nurses to achieve this goal.”

To qualify, students must already be accepted in the Maricopa nursing program, have a 3.0 GPA, and have completed the concurrent enrollment prerequisites.

Thomas said at least half of the initial group of 38 is expected to graduate in May 2013 with their associate’s and bachelor’s degrees because they chose to accelerate their studies with additional summer courses at NAU.

“Economically, that’s good for them,” Thomas said. “We use summers really well in this program.”

Thomas teaches the program’s introductory course—Nursing as a Discipline and Profession—in person, traveling to Phoenix once a week throughout the fall semester. Two sections of the initial course are also offered in the summer, with Thomas teaching one and NAU assistant dean Sally Doshier taking the other.

“We talk a lot about what nursing is, which is not like what most people think,” Thomas said. “Nursing is more about the relationship between the nurse and the patient than it is about doing something.”

The program is “very intense,” Thomas said, but there are rewards waiting for those students who make it through. “They all get jobs.”