New Nursing Program Nurtures Young Talent at Rosalind Franklin University

Lake County Partners is fortunate to work with incredibly skilled education leaders who are training the next generation of talent in Lake County, Illinois. In pursuit of the best way to fortify the local nursing talent pipeline and provide top-quality healthcare to residents, the educators at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science are charting new paths forward. The following has been contributed by Dr. Sandra Larson, the Founding Dean at the University’s College of Nursing. It is part of an ongoing series of blogs spotlighting Lake County’s strong education system. Learn more about the Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science’s nursing program here.

There’s a problem with the healthcare system in the United States: It’s broken.

We’re focusing on caring for the sickest of the sickest, with almost no emphasis at all on how we predict who might get sick and how to prevent that from happening. We’re treating people after they get sick, instead of offering treatments to keep them healthy.

How do we promote overall social and cultural structures that bring wellness to the community? One key element is making sure people are knowledgeable about how to maintain their own physical and mental wellness. Another huge component in fixing the broken system is now in evidence on the campus of Rosalind Franklin University in North Chicago — a stronger nursing workforce is essential to delivering new models of care.

This process starts with connecting with our high school students, so they can understand the breadth and depth of nursing in today’s culture. One of the biggest challenges we have is that students don’t understand the opportunities that are available to them in the nursing field. We need to be talking with our high school students about all the options the profession has to offer — for example, if they’re passionate about finance, guess what? Nurses use finance. If they’re passionate about data analytics, nurses are digging into the field of analyzing population health data and using it to create new types of models of care. If they’re passionate about psychology, advanced practice nurses are really getting into the field of psychiatric mental health.

Nurses are also working as midwives and anesthetists — and they’re running healthcare organizations as chief executive officers. While everybody knows the word “nurse,” most people don’t know what a nurse’s life looks like beyond what we see on television. There’s just a huge, vast array of opportunities.

Another important point as we look to expand the ranks of nurses both nationally and regionally is that while nursing historically has always been a profession for both females and males, over the last 100 years, and particularly in the United States, it has become a female-dominated profession. We now see that trending back — currently, men make up about 12% of the nursing population. But we absolutely need to expand the number of men in the profession.

Similarly, while we are slowly seeing increases in the percent of nursing students who come from a Latino background, we’re not seeing movement in the percentage of African Americans who are selecting nursing, so we still need to do work on diversity across all different sorts of backgrounds.

The profession also needs to see more nurses graduating with a more advanced degree, because nursing is getting more and more complicated. To really set the graduate up for success, we need to educate them in the full scope of nursing practice. And at Rosalind Franklin University, we philosophically feel it’s most ideal to enter nursing with a Masters of Science degree. According to data from Lake County Partners on the nursing workforce needs, there are roughly 350 unfilled Registered Nurse positions in Lake County alone each year. When you look at unfilled Certified Nursing Assistant positions, it’s closer to 600 unfilled each year.

Rosalind Franklin University realized that we needed to create a College of Nursing to help solve this shortage, and the college was created to help solve the health needs of the community. If you want to have a community that’s healthy, the community needs to be well-educated.

And so what we said was, “If we want to build the College of Nursing, we have to do it with the community, for the community and by the community — because if we do it that way, the healthcare providers that we educate will stay in the community, and they will help the community to become well, to become more healthy.”

A big part of this was reaching out to the community, asking them what they wanted us to build. One of the things they told us they wanted us to build was a nursing pathway program for high school students. They said, “Help us understand why we should consider nursing as a career, and how we get into nursing.”

We then created a high school-level enrichment program as part of RFU’s Influence Student Potential and Increase Representation in Education (INSPIRE) curriculum that welcomes students to the RFU campus and introduces them to the nursing pathway. We worked with three high schools this past year to learn their insights on how to build Nursing INSPIRE — North Chicago, Round Lake and Cristo Rey St. Martin College Prep in Waukegan — and this summer celebrated 12 of their rising seniors for their successful completion of the eight-week program, plus two students from Carmel High School. Next summer, we hope to also welcome students from Highland Park, Waukegan and Zion-Benton high schools, with a goal of doubling the number of students participating.

The INSPIRE program is only one way we can build up the nursing workforce. In 2023, RFU welcomed 40 students into the Master of Science in Nursing for Entry to Nursing Practice program. Graduates will enter the nursing workforce as early as March 2025 as master’s-prepared RNs. We have plans in place to add larger cohorts as the years roll along and resources enable. Doing whatever we can to increase the ranks of highly qualified nurses is not just an economic imperative, it is also a moral imperative.

We can’t succeed if Lake County youth are left behind in terms of achieving a college education. We must reach out into the community and say, “We want you to succeed. You can succeed. And with community awareness of the pathway and access to its community support, many of the financial and social barriers have been eliminated.”

By welcoming our local high school students to become the solution to the challenges facing the healthcare system, we will go a long way toward that connection between building a nursing workforce and building wellness in the community.