Community colleges pride themselves on open admissions policies. But an increasing number are moving to competitive admissions in nursing programs.
Officials at Southern State Community College, in Ohio, recently announced  that the college would abandon the first-come-first-served approach of its associate degree nursing program next spring and adopt competitive admissions standards. Currently, all students who meet the program’s minimum requirements  — mainly earning at least a 2.5 cumulative grade point average in college and completing a series of prerequisite math and science courses — are placed on a waiting list and admitted according to number. The 4.0 GPA student has no advantage over the 2.5 GPA student. Next spring, all qualified students will be ranked using an institution-developed equation, taking into equal consideration their overall GPA, grades in the required courses and entrance exam scores. Those with a higher rank will be given precedence in filling the program’s 100 slots.
Julianne Krebs, director of nursing at Southern State, said the college made the change to boost program completion, among other reasons. Currently, 62 percent of the nursing program’s first-time freshmen graduate in two years; the program’s graduates have a 75 percent first-time pass rate on the National Council Licensure Examination  (NCLEX).
The National League for Nursing says community college nursing programs should aim for a two-year graduation rate of 70 percent. Last year, more than 88 percent of first-time test takers nationwide passed the NCLEX. Krebs hopes that Southern State’s nursing program will be able to best these benchmarks in the near future. She notes that other two-year institutions in Ohio — including Edison Community College  and Washington State Community College  — that have adopted competitive admissions have graduation and NCLEX passage rates above these benchmarks. Their success was another factor behind the change at Southern State.
“Right now we may have a student who walks in with a 4.0 but cannot get into the program because of where they are on the waitlist,” Krebs said. “I think it’s fair to put them at the head of the line. There’s a lot of correlation between overall GPA and grades in science classes and success in nursing programs. We want the most highly qualified nurses to graduate from our program.”
The change is not expected to create significantly more work for the college’s nursing admissions committee, which ensures that all applicants meet the minimum requirements, said Krebs, noting that the institution-developed equation for ranking students will take care of the selective aspect of the admissions work.
Like many nursing programs around the country, the one at Southern State has more qualified students than it can currently accommodate. Krebs noted that its last waiting list had about 120 students. Given this, it is likely that Southern State's program, also like others with competitive entry, will turn away many qualified students.
Elaine Tagliareni, chief program officer of the National League for Nursing and former community college nursing professor, noted that Southern State’s change is indicative of a larger trend of community college nursing programs adopting competitive admissions. She noted that the tremendous shortage of nurses in the field has pressured many community college programs to try to improve their passage rates by adopting these criteria. Still, she stressed that, as a professional association, the league endorses neither competitive nor first come, first served admissions.
“We don’t promote one way of doing anything,” Tagliareni said. “We promote academic progression  in nursing. Colleges need to develop criteria that meet the needs of their local community.”
Not all nursing educators agree, though. Patricia Benner, professor emerita at the University of California at San Francisco School of Nursing and lead author of a recent Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching study on nursing credentials , believes all community college nursing programs should adopt competitive admissions.
“It’s no advance to let in all comers and then have 50 percent or less of them graduate,” Benner said. “That’s not fair to students, and it’s not fair to the program. We would be cavalier to take all comers. I’m pleased with the movement afoot to change. Competitive admissions are one more way for community college nursing programs to be more accountable to students.”
Benner holds that having competitive admissions for nursing programs does not violate the larger open-access mission of community colleges, primarily because all students have the ability to take the prerequisites that ultimately qualify them for such programs.
“It’s not fair to admit students if they don’t have the intellectual capacity,” Benner said. “People’s lives are at stake here.”
Two years ago, using logic similar to Benner’s, the California Legislature passed a law setting competitive-admissions standards  for all community college nursing programs in the state. Before the change, all qualified students were chosen for programs by a lottery system. The change has made a noticeable difference in California.
“Community colleges with as high as 50-70 percent drop-out rates moved to accepting the students with the highest grades in prerequisites, or at least a minimal grade of B,” Benner explained. “This lowered the failure rates, repeat course rates, and the drop-out rates. … It is expensive to take students who are likely to fail and/or drop out. Saddleback Community College  nursing program in Southern California near [Los Angeles] is my prime example of this policy. They have a high completion rate, and they also have 100 percent pass rates for the nursing licensing exams.”
Some community colleges, however, are holding fast to open-entry policies for their nursing programs. Sinclair Community College, in Ohio, admits 90 students to its nursing program each quarter, primarily on a first-come-first-served basis , from a waiting list of those meeting the minimum requirements. Only recently did it adopt a special program setting aside up to 25 percent of program slots  for highly qualified students.
Still, college officials note that they are committed to keeping the rest of the nursing program open-access to maintain a diversity of students, based on a range of factors including socioeconomic status and race, in the program.
“I’m not entirely convinced that we could have higher completion rates just because we only took those with higher GPA's,” said Gloria Goldman, associate provost and former nursing department chair at Sinclair. “We might not let in qualified students who could be nurses as good as anyone.… I’ve always been opposed to going [entirely] competitive. I understand why some institutions do it. There’s a huge success agenda going on in community colleges right now. I totally understand. But it would be a mistake to go to entirely competitive admissions.”