More than 1,700 registered nurses who had a hospital diploma or an associate degree have been able to earn a bachelor’s degree because of the Washington State University College of Nursing.

WSU’s degree-completion program for working nurses – the RN-BSN – was introduced 30 years ago.

On this anniversary year, the program has a revised curriculum that makes the WSU RN-BSN program even more convenient for working nurses, at the same time it responds to the needs of community partners.

RN-BSN Program Director Vicki Denson said feedback was solicited from hospitals and clinics, current and former students and faculty in developing the new curriculum, and the college received approval from the state nursing commission for the changes.

“Community partners wanted to see RN-BSN students understand data management and care coordination, and to be able to implement practice-improvement projects,” Denson said.

In response, the program will introduce new courses on healthcare informatics and care coordination next fall. Changes already implemented are replacing 180 required on-site clinical hours with 100 hours of practice experience gained by completing a community/population health project and a practicum project that can focus on areas such as leadership, population health, evidence-based practice, or informatics.

That change alone gives the working nurse more flexibility and the chance to deeply research topics of interest, Denson said.

Wendy Williams-Gilbert, the former RN-BSN program director who began the curriculum revision, said revamping clinical hours was important for working nurses. Moving from on-site clinical hours to practice experience projects reduces barriers for students and meets national standards for RN-BSN education.

The new curriculum also aligns better with nursing education in community colleges, avoiding overlap between associate degree programs and WSU’s RN-BSN program, said Williams-Gilbert, who now leads the college’s BSN program.

When the RN-BSN program began, most of the students were experienced nurses who wanted to earn a BSN to further their careers, said Renee Hoeksel, founder of the program at WSU. But research began to show that nurses with bachelor’s degrees produced better patient outcomes in acute care. In 2010 the Institute of Medicine recommended that 80% of RNs have bachelor’s degrees by 2020.

While Washington hasn’t achieved that goal yet, it’s close: a study by the Washington Center for Nursing last year found that 70% of nurses surveyed had baccalaureate degrees or higher, and 76% among the 19-29 age group.

“In the last 10 years or so, the majority of the WSU program’s students have less than a couple years experience,” Hoeksel said. “We get plenty of students that go right on from their associate degree.”

Hoeksel said WSU’s RN-BSN has been popular because of the WSU College of Nursing’s reputation among employers for producing top-quality graduates.

“Registered Nurses are knowledge workers,” she observed. Even though other programs might seem less expensive, RN’s “aren’t going to go somewhere for price if it’s not a quality program.”

Lida Dekker, who taught in the program for many years and led it from 2014-17, said WSU’s RN-BSN program is a benefit for rural nurses because it requires just one on-campus day per semester.

Plus, “Our program has a very strong focus on community health. We pioneered including cultural safety as one of our curricular threads, which is now acknowledged as essential to patient care,” she said. She added that graduates are well-prepared to succeed in graduate nursing programs and in leadership positions.

Denson, the current program director, said the program’s next step is likely to be a dual-enrollment program with community colleges. Such programs allow nursing students to take classes in the BSN program at the same time they’re working toward their associate degree.

“It’s designed to streamline a students’ pathway toward a BSN,” she said, which is an important goal when there’s high demand for nurses statewide.