MayKao Hang, dean of the College of Health, poses for a portrait in front of the Arches on the St. Paul campus on April 30, 2020. Credit: Mark Brown | University of St. Thomas

The healthcare industry is facing serious shortages of personnel and Minnesota’s racial health outcome gaps remain persistently high. The director of University of St. Thomas’s Morrison Family College of Health hopes a new program can help fix both problems.  

St. Thomas is now accepting applications for its inaugural School of Nursing class, set to begin next fall. The school aims to enroll 100 students, with half in a four-year degree program and half in a master’s program. 

MayKao Hang, dean of the university’s College of Health, pledges that St. Thomas’s new nursing program will stand out from the many other schools in the state. 

For one, the nursing program’s chief focus is on health equity, which Hang characterized as “a very different orientation and approach to nursing.” 

“We don’t think that we can separate the issues that individuals experience from the communities and the cultures in which they’re living,” she said. 

A part of this approach is to enroll at least 30 percent of the student body from “historically excluded” communities, Hang said, which include Black, Indigenous, and people of color, immigrants, and students from rural populations. Roughly 104,000 registered nurses work in Minnesota, according to state figures, and 91 percent of them are white, an even higher proportion than the 81 percent of the state’s population that is white. 

To get to the school’s benchmark, the admissions process will rely less on academic metrics and more on an applicant’s background. While the nursing program will still seek students with minimum 3.0 grade point averages, it will not require them to take standardized tests for admission, for example.

Hang said admissions officers will consider whether prospective students previously “overcame obstacles and significant barriers” to make life achievements like a high school diploma or college degree. She wants to find students with skills that “might not perform as well in a traditional academic setting,” such as oral storytelling, but will still go a long way to fulfilling health care needs for an increasingly diverse Minnesota population.

The nursing program plans to inject social justice advocacy into the curriculum by deploying nursing students on the streets of downtown Minneapolis to provide care for the homeless population. This will be conducted through a partnership with Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District and count as required clinical hours for students. 

Part of the vision comes from Hang’s own experience. She immigrated to the U.S. as a Hmong refugee at the age of 6, and spent parts of her childhood and young adulthood interpreting for her family at the doctor’s office and school

Before assuming her role at St. Thomas in 2019, she worked for nearly a decade as CEO of the Wilder Foundation. One program she helped lead at Wilder involved establishing behavioral health clinics for low-income children and children of color that integrated health and social needs by employing nurses, psychologists, occupational therapists, and social workers.

The nursing program also follows a vision laid out earlier this year by a committee from the National Academy of Medicine and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The committee penned a “Future of Nursing” report that recommended nurses take an active role in striving for health equity over the next decade. 

The new nursing program comes at a time when health care and social assistance job vacancies across the state number near 40,000 and the federal government has deployed emergency medical workers to assist overburdened hospitals in Minnesota. 

Marilyn Krasowski, director of education at the Minnesota Board of Nursing, which regulates the schools and the nursing profession throughout the state, welcomed the addition of a new nursing program, but also said it could lead to new, complex issues.

“They have been very intentional about their mission and how they designed the program,” Krasowski said of St. Thomas. “But, of course, the metro area is pretty well endowed with nursing programs, and there are always concerns that it may affect other programs.”

By this, she’s referring to practical nursing programs, which typically run 12-18 months and do not require master’s degrees or bachelor’s degrees. Licensed practical nurses typically earn lower salaries than registered nurses, who must obtain associates or bachelor’s degrees and take on more responsibilities on the job. 

The number of students enrolled in practical nursing programs dropped every year since 2015, according to the latest data from the state. State enrollment in professional nursing programs ebbed and flowed during that same period. 

Naturally, the cost of tuition to become a registered nurse is much higher than the cost of becoming a licensed practical nurse. For example, a bachelor’s degree in nursing at St. Catherine University, one of the state’s most well-known nursing programs, currently costs around $58,000 for the full four years. A practical nursing degree at Dakota County Technical College, by contrast, costs $12,000

Hang said tuition for St. Thomas’s nursing program is not yet set but will be comparable to tuition for similar four-year and master’s nursing programs in Minnesota. She said St. Thomas is working to make scholarships and financial aid available to future nursing students.

Minnesota is home to 25 certified practical nursing programs and 49 professional nursing programs like that of St. Thomas. 

The state Board of Nursing is currently compiling data on nursing industry trends for 2021, which are due in a report next spring. Krasowski said preliminary data suggest that across the board, enrollment in nursing programs is down. That’s driven by students dropping out and nursing programs not filling all of their student seats, she said. 

But Hang said she believes that the uniqueness of St. Thomas’s approach to nursing means it won’t compete with schools like St. Kate’s. St. Thomas benefits from never having had a nursing program and starting at a blank slate, she added. 

“We’re able to create the things we see the community and society needs right now, without worrying about legacy, or how we’ve done things for so many years,” Hang said.

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. He has been a journalist for 15 years. Before joining Sahan Journal, he worked for close to a decade in New Mexico, where his reporting prompted the resignation...