First class graduates from URI’s online RN to BS program

Rapidly growing program draws students from across the country

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KINGSTON, R.I. — December 16, 2016 — The 20 registered nurses receiving bachelor’s degrees in nursing from the University of Rhode Island Dec. 17 are pioneers of a sort. They are the first graduates of the College of Nursing’s online RN to BS program, the only one in the state offered by a public university.

Started in fall 2015 with just under 30 students, the program now enrolls more than 450 and is expected to grow, said Kristine Springett, coordinator of the program, which complements a traditional face-to-face RN to BS program. Another 35 students are expected to graduate in May. “They come from all over: Connecticut, New Jersey, California …,” Springett said.

The student body is about evenly split between early career RNs and those with years of experience, she said. RN to BS programs are designed to accommodate professional nurses who have associates degrees or nursing school diplomas but want to pursue bachelor’s degrees.

All courses are provided through the University’s Sakai learning platform, with students participating on their own schedule. Students take six nursing courses, statistics and pharmacology and must complete a public health practicum in their communities. Some also need to fulfill general education requirements. Some of the biggest differences between traditional and online programs are in duration and intensity, said Patricia Burbank, associate dean of the College.

Courses are offered year-round in six sessions lasting seven weeks. “The term is shortened, so it is intense. The students cover in seven weeks what they would traditionally cover in 13, so the workload is more,” Burbank said.

Kellie Cunnighnam-Toland of Jamestown and a nurse at Scallop Shell Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Wakefield can attest to that. She enrolled in the program in fall 2015, a few months after earning her RN from the Community College of Rhode Island, and is among this first class of graduates. The married mother of three said the coursework was demanding, but she found the classes easy to follow, the online resources particularly helpful and College faculty and staff extremely responsive. “My goal was to graduate in 15 months and I did it,” she said.

Cunnigham-Toland said she had looked into traditional routes to her bachelor’s but the online format fit her busy life and proved rewarding. “I was able to apply to my job the things we were studying in the courses,” she said.

The online format had another benefit: “I feel like I got to know the students better in my online class than if I was sitting next to them.” She said she would often refer to the student bios as she participated in discussions. This provided context and familiarity that you often don’t get in a classroom, she noted.

The growth of RN to BS programs stems from an Institute of Medicine 2010 report citing research that indicated patients have better outcomes when cared for by a nurse with a baccalaureate degree. The Institute recommended that 80 percent of nurses nationwide have bachelor’s degrees by 2020.

Initially, URI required RNs to start from scratch and retake all courses to receive their BS. During the 1990s, then-students Laryl Riley and Linda Hunter helped the college streamline the program to better meet the needs of professionals, said Diane Martins, professor of nursing and RN to BS advisor/coordinator. “They drove the changes. The RNs told us what they needed, and we listened,” she said.

Today, nurses enjoy a seamless transition toward their degrees thanks to the 2015 Nursing Education Partnership with the Community College of Rhode Island. Students can be accepted into URI after they earn their associates degrees in nursing but before they take licensing exams. This prevents delays in education or interruptions in financial aid, Martins explained. URI then requires a copy of the nursing license before a student can enroll in upper-level courses.