AUGUSTA — The state’s university system has a plan to fill Maine’s nursing shortage, including expanding opportunities in Rumford.
Leaders of the University of Maine System on Wednesday announced an ambitious five-year initiative to meet the growing need for nurses across the state, a plan that would expand nursing programs to rural areas, help the neediest students pay for their education and take other steps to swell the ranks of graduating nurses.
With Maine’s overall workforce aging and retiring, the state is projected to have more than 3,000 nursing vacancies by 2025, according to one estimate. At the same time, Maine’s population has the oldest median age in the nation, and its health needs are expected to multiply.
To counter those trends, the University of Maine System is trying to double its enrollment in nursing programs, from about 1,900 students to 3,800 in five years.
Chancellor James Page announced the initiative Wednesday at the Augusta Civic Center, during an annual conference on aging known as the Maine Wisdom Summit.
“We know there are people out there interested in a nursing career,” Page said after delivering the announcement. “So it’s increasing our capacity, and increasing our capacity in a way that really works with our health care partners in the industry to make sure we’re giving people the right skills in the right places.”
At nearby MaineGeneral Medical Center, nurses also welcomed the news.
“Definitely something like this program that they’re offering would be hugely beneficial, not only to the people I grew up with in Rumford, but all over the state,” said Joshua Rainey, 23, who has been working as a nurse at the Augusta hospital for more than a year.
Rainey used a mix of scholarships and loans to pay for his four-year bachelor’s degree in nursing from St. Joseph’s College. He has about $45,000 in student loan debt.
But if the assistance that the University of Maine System is rolling out had been available when he was finishing high school, he would have considered attending one its programs instead, he said. He also thinks some of the remote learning programs that the University of Maine System is creating might have appealed to either him or his friends, given that they could have stayed in their hometowns while they studied and worked.
Kristina LaChance, 38, is a single mother from Pittston who received an associate degree in nursing from Kennebec Valley Community College in Fairfield. She works in the medical-surgical unit at MaineGeneral, while also taking online classes for a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maine at Fort Kent.
“There needs to be a program that is affordable and accessible,” LaChance said. “The costs of living, putting a roof over your head, putting gas in the car and repairing the car, buying textbooks, uniforms, a stethoscope, everything: It’s quite a package that you have to have to even begin an education of being a nurse.”
Even without financial stress, a nursing program can be difficult to complete, according to LaChance and another nurse at MaineGeneral, Ethan Perry, 28, of Litchfield.
“I don’t know how much you know about nursing school, but it is intense,” Perry said. “You’re studying every day, which makes it hard to work, which makes it hard to have any kind of family or a life.”
Perry called the new initiative by the University of Maine System “good news.”
“I think everybody can agree we all need more help,” he said. “We need more nurses.”
Under the five-year plan, the system plans to waive the tuition and mandatory fees for the neediest first-degree nursing students who attend its campuses in Augusta, Fort Kent and Presque Isle, either in person or remotely.
The plan also calls for the system to expand its opportunities in communities such as Rumford, Brunswick, Ellsworth, Rockland and Machias, more than doubling the number of locations where students can receive nursing education.
Those communities have some of the greatest need to replace retiring nurses. In rural coastal counties, nearly half of nurses are over 55, according to a news release from the University of Maine System.
Funding for the needy students will be provided through various programs, including Federal Pell Grants, state grants and scholarship programs at the individual campuses.
That assistance is critical to addressing what many see as a dire situation, according to Page. Unlike the outlook for many careers, the demand for nurses is expected to boom across Maine in the coming decade. Last month the state Department of Labor released a report forecasting that 1,626 new nursing jobs will be added by 2026, along with more than 2,000 other health-related jobs.
“We’re quite confident we can control those education costs significantly,” Page said Wednesday, referring to the financial assistance that will be available for the neediest nursing students. “As a state we cannot afford to have qualified students who are not going through and achieving this outcome because of a short-term financial challenge. We need to work with them to overcome that.”
As part of the initiative, the system is urging voters to approve Question 4 on the statewide ballot in November, a $49 million bond that would be matched by public and private funds to support facility improvements at the state universities. About $12 million of that would directly support the expansion of facilities for nursing education, Page said.
MaineGeneral Medical Center nurse Ethan Perry of Litchfield checks medication Wednesday at the Augusta hospital. The registered nurse said he’s started working a part-time job to reduce the debt from obtaining his nursing degree. (Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal)
University of Maine Chancellor Dr. James H. Page at an announcement Wednesday in Augusta about alleviating the tuition burden for nursing students attending the University of Maine system. (Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal)