Higher Education

Ray Carter | October 7, 2021

State colleges play role in nursing shortage, regent says

OU turns down hundreds of nursing applicants—in part because the nursing program isn’t a moneymaker for the university. Meanwhile, the woke studies proliferate.

Oklahoma faces a shortage of nurses and engineers, but a state higher education leader says Oklahoma colleges are not necessarily enthusiastic about making changes that would reduce those reported shortages.

Why? Because Oklahoma colleges don’t view those programs as moneymakers.

“There are programs that generate revenue for an institution, and there are programs that cost money to an institution,” said Jeff Hickman, chairman of the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education. “You would think engineering and nursing would be programs that would generate revenue. Quite the opposite. They’re very expensive programs for several different reasons.”

Hickman, a Republican who previously served as speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, was appointed to the regents in May 2017 and has had a front-row seat to higher education throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

He shared with lawmakers the insights he has gained during a recent meeting of the legislative Joint Committee on Pandemic Relief Funding–Economic Development and Workforce Working Group.

Hickman noted that Oklahoma has “critical workforce shortages in nursing” and engineering, yet he stated that the University of Oklahoma recently turned down several hundred nursing applicants, drawing criticism.

According to the University of Oklahoma’s Media Relations office, OU’s Fran and Earl Ziegler College of Nursing received 612 applications for its traditional Bachelor of Science in nursing program’s Fall ‘21 start term. Admission was offered to 323 students to fill 249 available slots. The college received 301 applications for its accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing program’s Summer ‘21 start term. For that program, admission was offered to 147 students to fill 106 available slots.

Hickman said state university officials have indicated they don’t view production of workers in those fields as being as financially beneficial to the institution as other degree programs.

Hickman said college officials say hiring faculty for nursing and engineering programs is very expensive since instructors can typically make substantial incomes in the private sector, noting that travel nurses can currently receive $200 an hour today, compared to $80 per hour prior to COVID, and those nurses can “work fewer hours, have more time at home, and make as much or more money.”

Hickman said the same thing is true for engineering instructors.

In addition, both programs have labs and clinicals that involve expensive equipment.

However, some lawmakers question whether the excuses colleges have provided to Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education are valid.

State Rep. Marilyn Stark, a Bethany Republican who worked for 15 years as an intensive-care nurse, said individuals interested in teaching positions are not typically the same people who are interested in work as travel nurses, and noted colleges are able to attract instructors in other fields even when private-sector employment may be more lucrative.

“You’re not going to match the salary of an instructor with the salary out in the field, but you don’t do that in anything,” Stark said. “People who teach chemistry don’t make what they could make as a chemist.”

She also said the $200-an-hour rate provided to travel nurses today is not typical of either historic travel-nursing wages or most nursing jobs.

“Nobody can compete with $200 an hour,” Stark said. “That’s not going to last, and it’s not going to become the new norm.”

She said the current posted salaries for nursing jobs at one Oklahoma City hospital range between $32 and $44 per hour.

Public records also indicate Oklahoma colleges’ current pay practices do not appear to prioritize the hiring of nursing instructors over instructors in other fields.

A September 2020 report by the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education showed the average salary paid to full-time faculty in 2019-2020 at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center’s College of Nursing was $56,695 for nine instructors; $73,918 for 29 assistant professors; $99,735 for five associate professors, and $138,346 for two professors.

In contrast, professors in other degree programs—whose academic focus may be viewed with skepticism by many taxpayers—are often paid salaries comparable to or greater than those reported for some nursing instructors.

Public records provide data on the salaries of faculty and staff at Oklahoma colleges with individuals listed by first-and-middle initials and last name and place of employment. The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs has compiled a database that allows citizens to search those records.

Meredith Gwynne Fair Worthen, a professor of sociology at OU, specializes in subjects that include “LGBTQ Stigma” and “Feminist/Queer Criminology,” and Worthen’s teaching interests include “Sexual Deviance and Society.” Worthen’s work product includes authorship of “Fifty Shades of Leather and Misogyny: An Investigation of Anti-Woman Perspectives among Leathermen.”

Lisa Funnell, an associate professor in OU’s Women's and Gender Studies Department, is described as “a leading expert on women in the James Bond franchise” whose “research explores gender and geopolitics in the James Bond franchise, Hollywood blockbusters, and Hong Kong martial arts films.”

Samuel Perry, an associate professor in OU’s Department of Sociology who is also affiliated with the university’s Department of Religious Studies and Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, authored a study that declared “adherence to Christian nationalist ideology was a robust predictor of voting” for President Trump in the 2016 presidential election and that “Christian nationalism” can call “forth a defense of mythological narratives about America’s distinctively Christian heritage and future.” Perry is also working on a new book, The Flag and the Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy.

The workload of Amit R. Baishya, an associate professor and director of graduate studies for the OU English Department, includes teaching “courses on zombie cultures and mutants.”

Man Fung Yip, an associate professor and department chair in Film and Media Studies department at OU, has research and teaching interests that include a “focus on Chinese-language and East Asian film studies, theories of national and transnational cinema, the juncture of cinema, mass culture, and modernity, and the cinematic/cultural Cold War.”

Those officials were paid between $73,644 and $116,955 apiece, according to state records.

Vance H. Fried, senior fellow with the 1889 Institute, noted some college faculty jobs, such as those teaching English, have limited employment opportunities outside of education, unlike nursing staff, so as an issue of “basic supply and demand” colleges should be paying nursing faculty higher salaries than many other fields.

“The argument is we can’t do it because we can’t afford to find instructors,” Fried said. “Obviously, one solution is to pay more.”

If colleges can afford to pay faculty for ethnic-studies classes and other fields that provide marginal job opportunities, then colleges should pay competitive salaries in fields that allow graduates to obtain good-paying jobs, he said.

Fried also said colleges could take other steps to serve more students, such as increasing student-faculty ratios and offering courses online, particularly lower-level courses. Fried said many introductory courses required for a nursing degree are similar to those offered students in other majors.

“There your cost of adding another student from a faculty standpoint is basically zero,” Fried said. “Increasing your capacity by 50 percent does not require 50 percent more faculty.”

At the same meeting Hickman made his comments, one lawmaker also suggested state universities could do more through distance learning. State Sen. Adam Pugh, R-Edmond, noted other fields have embraced those practices.

“I never thought in my lifetime the military would ever allow people to work from home,” Pugh said. “Yet here we are and half of Tinker is still working from home.”

In a separate interview, state Rep. Cynthia Roe, a Lindsay Republican and longtime nurse, recalled that college officials complained they could not attract instructors because nursing instructors “could make more money going out of state” when she was completing her nurse practitioner program in 1999.

And Roe said some colleges have made it difficult for students to become nurses even after obtaining a degree. Nurses cannot take state licensure examinations until colleges provide documentation of degree completion to licensing entities. However, colleges of nursing are nationally rated with students’ pass/fail rates on state licensure tests a factor. To artificially inflate rankings, she said some schools will not allow graduates to take a state licensing test if officials fear a student will not pass on the first try.

Roe cited a friend who has a nursing degree “but has not been allowed to take state boards” and has been forced to work as a licensed practical nurse (LPN), making half what she would as a registered nurse (RN) if she were allowed to undergo the licensure process.

“She can’t go back to school, because she’s already got a degree in nursing,” Roe said. “She’s got a nursing degree, but she can’t take the test.”

The decisions college officials make regarding what degree programs they emphasize can have significant economic consequences for the entire state.

“One of the things that keeps me awake at night is worrying how much longer Boeing will stay in Oklahoma,” Hickman said. “They’ll hire every engineer OU and OSU graduates every year and still not have enough to meet their demand. At some point if we don’t produce enough engineers … they’ll go somewhere that does.”

“Right now, because nursing is in such a shortage, you would think that these places would pay what they needed to pay to get nurses trained during the pandemic when everybody’s screaming for help,” Roe said. “You would think they would do what was needed. But it always comes down to money, and nobody ‘has enough money,’ and everybody wants more money from the state. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”

[For more stories about higher education in Oklahoma, visit AimHigherOK.com.]

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

Loading Next