With nursing skills in high demand at both the national and county level, Grayson College is hoping that Texas lawmakers will take note of the need during the 85th legislative session and allow the school to offer students a program that takes them from their associate degree to a bachelor's of science in nursing.

Grayson College currently offers nursing students the opportunity to earn an associate degree, but representatives of the college's nursing and health sciences programs say that's not enough to equip nursing students with all the skills and knowledge that employers expect from their health care workers, both now and in the future. Community colleges, like Grayson, are limited in the sense that the highest level diploma it can offer is an associate degree — any higher and it must obtain the approval of legislators and academic accreditation boards.

“There's a shortage of nurses and then there's a shortage of BSN nurses,” Grayson College's Nursing Associate Degree Program Director Jamie McKinney said. “The national goal and and the latest push from the Institute of Medicine is for 80 percent of the nursing workforce to have a BSN by 2020. Grayson and Fannin County are only in the 30s right now, so we are falling way short of that goal.”

Information posted on Grayson College's website states that while 95 percent of the college's nearly 4,000 nursing graduates said they intended to pursue their bachelor's, only 5 percent actually went on to earn the higher-level degree within five years. In an online article posted by Grayson College regarding the school's nursing program, McKinney said that students want to get their bachelor's degree and they want to get it from a school they are familiar with or one that is at least easily accessible.

“When we talk to our nursing graduates, they tell us they would prefer taking classes here,” McKinney said in the online article. “The nearest option is too far to drive and the online programs don't offer the same level of access to faculty that they prefer.”

Only three Texas community colleges are authorized to offer an associate to bachelor's nursing program and the closest college of any kind to do so is Texas A&M University-Commerce, which is 60 miles away. Information provided by Grayson College, also lists Grayson County as one of only two counties in the state that has more than 3,000 patient beds, but still lacks such a degree program.

Grayson College's Dean of Health Sciences Joanna Barnes described Grayson County as a hub of health care and said with so many facilities, there exists a high demand for skilled nurses with advanced degrees.

“We have two large, acute care hospitals, we have rehabilitation hospitals, long-term care settings, multiple home health and hospice agencies, and community health clinics,” Barnes said. “Grayson and Fannin County have a lot of health care facilities and certainly a lot of need for BSNs in the area.”

Barnes said Grayson's current associate nursing program requires students to complete 60 credit hours and the jump to a bachelor's would entail at least another 30 credit hours. But she said the extra coursework is critical in developing students into quality care providers.

“Those bachelor-level courses are typically focused on management leadership, community health and geriatrics,” Barnes said. “We teach a lot of the main concepts and the nursing skills in our associate's degree program, but a bachelor's program will build onto those skills. A bachelor's degree really makes for more polished people entering the world workforce and that's certainly true for nurses, too.”

Both McKinney and Barnes expressed optimism that Grayson will one day offer the bachelor's program to nursing students and they said the college has already had productive talks with area legislators.

Grayson College President Jeremy McMillen spoke at the Denison Development Alliance's annual economic development summit last week and said that with the help of Rep. Larry Phillips, there is already a bill in the works that would allow Grayson to get the program rolling. If approved, McMillen said he is hopeful that Grayson College will add 1,000 bachelor-degreed nurses into the regional health care field by 2020.

Herald Democrat reporter Michael Hutchins contributed to this report.