Merit, not lottery, to decide nursing students

A bill recently signed by Gov. Schwarzenegger allows community colleges to use merit rather than lotteries as the basis to admit nursing students.

Many campuses, including Modesto Junior College, are using lotteries. Critics say that keeps out qualified applicants while admitting unprepared students who won't complete the program.

Written by Assemblyman Tom Berryhill, R-Modesto, the bill is meant to lower the number of students dropping out of nursing programs. More than one in four California nursing students never graduates, according to Berryhill.

Nursing faculty at MJC helped Berryhill lobby for the legislation. Before Assembly Bill 1559, the open-access rules of the California Community Colleges system required campuses to offer admission randomly or on a first-come, first-served basis, said Bonnie Costello, director of nursing at MJC and a veteran nurse. To be considered, applicants must complete an internship and a schedule of classes while maintaining a competitive grade-point average.

MJC officials plan on studying the bill and expect to develop admissions based on qualifications and random choice, Costello said.

The bill doesn't solve the problem of supply and demand: too many would-be nurses for the number of seats in those programs at California universities and community colleges. It does make sure the students getting into the programs are of top quality, Berryhill said in a prepared statement.

About 40 percent of the state's nursing students are turned away because of limited space, according to Californians for Patient Care, a nonprofit group advocating health care reform. Space limitations hamper state and college efforts to fill nursing spots. Statewide, there are 14,000 vacancies for registered nurses alone, according to the group.

Though it accepts 75 new nursing students each semester, MJC's waiting list is more than 100 names long.

With more demand for classes than room, some colleges started determining who gets in with a random drawing. Using a lottery over a ranking system is meant to increase the diversity of nursing students, but some students have felt that lotteries put patient health at risk when top students are denied.

Berryhill's bill ensures that the "most qualified and dedicated candidates are given the opportunity to become nurses," he said.

Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at mhatfield@modbee.com or 578-2339.