Robert Wood Johnson Foundation New Careers in Nursing Scholarship Program

    • September 23, 2008

This fall and next spring and summer, 706 accelerated nursing students will each receive a $10,000 scholarship to pursue a nursing degree thanks to the fast work and cooperation of multiple individuals behind the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's New Careers in Nursing Scholarship Program. The national program office, housed at the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) in Washington, coordinated this first-year effort in "record-breaking time," according to Vernell DeWitty, Ph.D., M.B.A., R.N., deputy director of the scholarship program. 

To be able to make the fall awards available, a short timeline was pursued and deadlines were tight: four months total from calls for proposals (April 23) to proposals due (June 26) to awards made on August 7. To facilitate this, AACN hosted two applicant Web conferences, built a Web site, and customized an online grantmaking system so applicants could submit online and program staff could review proposals online. "It was a tremendous amount of work done in a collaborative way so that these awards were ready to go out in August," says DeWitty.

The program seeks to increase the number of underrepresented groups in nursing by funding scholarships for accelerated bachelor's or master's degree programs for students who already have a degree in a discipline other than nursing and as non-first-time students typically are ineligible for federal aid programs.

These students tend to be older, more highly motivated and have worked in some other career before they made the decision to become a nurse. "They are focused," says DeWitty. "Their goal is to get through the program as quickly as they can, pass the licensing exam and enter the nursing workforce."

The grant program received 113 proposals representing requests for 1,600 scholarships or $16 million in funding, three times more than the $5 million budgeted for the first phase of the program. The school selection process was rigorous and yielded many candidates, too many in fact.

As part of the selection process, the national advisory committee—12 members representing nursing educators, including deans of schools of nursing, nurse leaders, non-nurses involved with other programs bringing diverse populations into their professions, and people representing different ethnic groups—looked for specific qualities in the schools to fund.

Grantee schools had to explain how they would recruit and retain their accelerated students. Schools also had to demonstrate how they would attract underrepresented students from racial and ethnic minorities, as well as men. Since the funding was going directly to the students, with nothing for additional faculty salaries, the committee was looking for creative approaches to how schools would increase enrollment, and how they could leverage the scholarships to acquire additional faculty resources to accommodate the new students.

"Some schools reached out into the community to create new relationships with clinical sites to take on additional students. This was a big part of the review process," DeWitty says. "One of the obstacles to enrolling more nurses in nursing schools—which sometimes constrains the growth of nursing programs—relates to having an adequate number of clinical sites for instruction."

Two other aspects judged in the proposals: the school had to have the ability to provide mentoring opportunities for these students and a plan to develop the scholarship recipients' leadership skills. "We want to be sure that these students not just receive a scholarship but complete the program," says DeWitty. "Mentoring is one of the strategies that will help achieve that."

In the review process, the national advisory committee members cut their list to accommodate the $5 million budget "but still had to bump some very worthy schools," according to DeWitty. Sue Hassmiller, Ph.D., R.N., RWJF senior program officer, then asked the committee to develop an expanded "wish list" of schools. In the end, some $2 million more in funding was allocated for a total of $7 million to allow 58 schools to be included.

"The overwhelming response to this program-the sheer number of proposals received and the quality of those proposals-indicates that it is a much-needed one in the nursing community," DeWitty says. "Obviously the program is right on target."

"Through the NCIN program, the Foundation is essentially challenging schools to be innovative and resourceful in how they grow their nursing programs, diversify student populations and facilitate student retention," says Geraldine (Polly) Bednash, Ph.D., R.N., executive director of AACN and national program director of the new RWJF program. "As evidenced in the first call for applications, nursing schools have clearly shown that they can meet this challenge through a variety of strategies that will increase the number of highly educated new nurses entering our nation's workforce."

Now that the big rush to notify schools is over, national program office staff will be fine tuning their evaluation plans for the program. A group meeting of representatives of the 58 sites will take place in December in San Antonio so that schools can share what works and what does not work in mentoring and leadership development. "We hope to be able to disseminate that information among the grantees and in a larger way to the nursing community.

"If the schools are successful in seeking out underrepresented people to enter nursing, we will have had an impact on changing the face of nursing as it relates to ethnicity and gender," DeWitty says.