Prepare for stiff competition to get an associate degree in nursing

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Associate degrees in nursing are popular choices among community college students – and for good reason.

Registered nurses are in high demand, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics projecting the profession to grow 19.4 percent over the next seven years. The field is projected to add more jobs during that period than any other health care occupation.

While those job prospects are appealing, that doesn't mean every community college student should start banging on the nursing department door. Below are five factors students should consider before pursuing an associate degree in nursing.

1. Getting into the program won't be easy. Since community colleges are accessible to the public, most assume their nursing programs will be, too. But that's hardly the case, says Shanna Smith Jaggars, assistant director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College.

"Nursing programs are so selective," says Jaggars. "You can enroll in community college but you can't get into the nursing program until you demonstrate various prerequisites. They only have a limited number of spots."

To get into a nursing program, students will need to take certain courses, such as anatomy and physiology, and maintain a certain GPA. Some programs are so selective that even students who meet the criteria are put on a waitlist – or never get in at all.

If students can't find a list of prerequisites on a school's website, Jaggars suggests they call either the nursing program's front desk or the advising center at the college. "Ask, 'If I complete all of these requirements, what are my chances of getting into the program if there is still a waiting list?'"

2. Nursing programs require lots of time. Students earning an associate degree in nursing need to be willing to give it their all, says Michelle Richter, director of nursing programs at Michigan's Grand Rapids Community College. "If they are not able to make nursing school a priority in their life, it's probably not the right time to go to school," she says.

Jessica Sanchez Isham, who earned her associate degree in nursing this spring from Mountain View College in Dallas, Texas, agrees.

"Every day of the week you are doing something for nursing," says Sanchez Isham, whose dream is to work in a neonatal intensive care unit. On top of studying, going to class and getting clinical experience in a medical setting, "You are also required to volunteer," she says.

3. Yes, you will see blood. And other bodily fluids. Nursing can be a rewarding profession, but it's far from glamorous and those with squeamish tendencies would be wise to look elsewhere, says Calvin Thomas IV, vice president of the health division for Indiana's Ivy Tech Community College system.

"There are things such as bathing patients, assisting someone to the bathroom, helping them clean themselves up after using the bathroom – that's part of the profession," he says.

To get a sense of what they're getting into, Sanchez Isham suggests students spend some time shadowing nurses.

"If you don't have that compassion to serve, then it's something that you want to rethink," she says. Not only are you giving patients medicine, "you are helping them to the bathroom, you are changing their socks, you are listening to a story when you have three other patients waiting on you because they want to share."

4. An associate degree is just a first step. Aspiring nurses should expect to pursue education beyond an associate degree if they want to be competitive in the marketplace, says Susan Peterson, interim director of nursing at Sacramento, California's American River College. Increasingly, she says, employers are looking for nurses with bachelor's degrees or higher.

With that in mind, she says students should make sure their associate program has articulation agreements with bachelor's programs, allowing their community college credits to count toward a higher degree.

5. There are other options out there. If it seems as if your nursing dreams are out of reach, there's no reason to despair, Ivy Tech's Thomas says. "There are other health care professions that are just as rewarding as nursing and that pay extremely well and in some cases more than what a nurse makes."

Students who don't get into a nursing program can also pursue a career in fields such as dental hygiene, radiation therapy or diagnostic medical sonography, he says. The key for students is to take prerequisite courses that can help them get into programs other than nursing.

Without the right game plan, in other words, a student could waste an entire first semester with classes that don't end up counting toward a degree.

"I would encourage students to do some backward planning," says Thomas. "Look into the prerequisites to get into multiple limited enrollment programs. Make a schedule that gives you options."

Trying to fund your education? Get tips, news and more in the U.S. News Paying for Community College center.

Copyright 2015 U.S. News & World Report

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