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Catherine Brzycki/ MEDILL

The number of nurses with bachelor's degrees in Illinois has nearly tripled in the last ten years, reflecting a changing healthcare landscape.

Nursing education is on the rise with growing job opportunities

by Catherine Brzycki
Jul 23, 2013


Catherine Brzycki/ MEDILL

Six Chicago hospitals have received Magnet-status recognition.

Blake Smietanski was 40 years old when he decided to become a nurse. Although he had a good job in publications at JP Morgan Chase & Co., he wanted more.

“I just said forget it, I want something more out of life,” said Smietanski, a Chicago resident. “I wanted to be a humanitarian, give back a little more and feel better at the end of the day about what I was doing.”

So he quit his job, went back to school and got a master’s degree in nursing from DePaul University.

It would appear that Smietanski chose wisely.

Nursing jobs are expected to increase 26 percent by 2020, almost double the projected 14 percent increase in overall employment, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nursing jobs offer financial security as well.

In 2010, nurses earned a median of $65,000 yearly, according to BLS data. Specialty nurses can make upwards of $100,000 a year. The Illinois Center for Nursing expects the state will need an additional 21,000 nurses by 2020 to keep up with the growing demand.

“Given the demographic shifts in the economy, nursing makes a lot of sense,” says Ben Keys, a professor at the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago. “We’re going to see the baby boomers aging into the range where they’re going to need more and more nursing care.”

But just as the demand for skilled nursing is rising, many hospitals are requiring more education than ever before. It’s a condition to qualify for the Magnet Recognition Program, which recognizes healthcare organizations for excellence in nursing. Operated by the American Nurses Credentialing Center, the program requires nurse managers and leaders to have at least a bachelor’s degree in nursing.

A 2010 report from the Institute of Medicine encouraged health care managers to increase the number of nurses with bachelor's degrees to 80 percent by 2020 from 50 percent because of the increasing changes within health care. The report confirmed what many in the nursing field have suspected for a long time.

“The Institute of Medicine really quantified and demonstrated with evidence that the more education that one has, the lower the morbidity and mortality is for patients,” said Linda Cassata, Ph.D., R.N. and associate dean of the Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing at Loyola University.

“Because of Magnet designation, many hospitals have told me that we’re going to stop having associate degree nurses in their programs as of January,” said Cassata.

In Illinois, 33 hospitals have already received this designation, which is more than any other state in the country. Chicago has the highest number of Magnet-status hospitals including Children's Memorial Hospital, Northwestern Memorial HealthCare and Swedish Covenant Hospital. That number is expected to increase in the coming years.

Two-year nursing programs focus on preparing students for the licensure exam, whereas a bachelor's nursing program requires students to take additional classes in research and leadership. In 2002 only 6,000 Illinois nursing students received a bachelor’s degree. In 2012, that number had nearly tripled to almost 18,000.

“At the time I quit my job, I was really considering doing a two-year associate program, but a recruiter told me hiring practices were going bachelor’s and above,” said Smietanski.

By 2050, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that Americans aged 65 or older will number nearly 89 million, more than double the 40 million recorded in the United States in 2010. Around 1.6 million, or 13 percent, of Illinois residents were 65 or older according to state census figures from 2012.

With the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, many expect to see a surge in nursing employment. An estimated 30 million Americans will enroll for coverage starting Jan. 1, 2014. The Illinois Department of Insurance and consulting firm Deloitte expect 780,000 Illinois residents to enroll in the first year.

“That is an inevitability, said Keys. “That’s actually a really safe prediction.”

Susan Hofer, spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, said Illinois hopes to establish “feeder” programs to help students receive high-level nursing degrees.

“We are working directly with community colleges to ensure that their curriculum meshes and blends with four-year programs,” said Hofer. “So you can start a nursing program at a two-year college, which can lead to the completion of a baccalaureate degree.”

Smietanski said he has no regrets about his career change.

“I don’t foresee myself ever switching out of nursing at this point. It took me 20 years to figure out, but as long as you get there, that’s the thing.”

For more information on Illinois hospitals with Magnet status, please visit: