Free Nursing School? Wisconsin Offers Big Incentives to Address Nursing Shortage

Gayle Morris, MSN
Updated June 14, 2023
    With the help of a large gift, the UW health system designed a nurse apprenticeship that fully funds 16 ADN candidates and more in the coming years.
    Madison, Wisconsin at sunsetCredit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

    According to the Wisconsin Center for Nursing, the nursing shortage in that state has reached a tipping point. In a bold move to address the issue, University of Wisconsin (UW) Health, a massive health system serving more than 700,000 patients each year, partnered with the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development and Madison College to develop one of the nation’s first apprenticeship nursing school programs.

    The program is set to launch in the fall 2023 semester.

    In 2021, nursing vacancy rates roughly doubled in Wisconsin compared with previous years, thanks in part to the COVID-19 pandemic.

    “We need more nurses — it’s that simple,” said Rudy Jackson, chief nurse executive at UW Health, in a statement. “That means we need to create a supportive path for future nurses to join this rewarding profession.”

    The nursing program is a four-year apprenticeship that offers qualifying students a free education, including:

    • Tuition
    • Books
    • Supplies
    • A full-time healthcare job
    • Benefits

    The selection process is underway for the first cohort of 16 participants, who will be chosen from a pool of certified nursing assistants and medication assistants currently employed at UW Health. During the program, students will receive classroom instruction over the first two years and continue their full-time jobs. In the final two years, students complete core nursing-specific courses and move to student nurse positions.

    After graduation, they will earn an associate degree in nursing (ADN) and will be eligible to sit for the state boards. Those who pass the boards will be hired as registered nurses (RNs) by UW Health.

    The free nursing school program is supported in part by a large philanthropic gift from Epic, an employee-owned medical records software company based in Verona, Wisconsin. The program is specifically designed to address the needs of an ethnically, racially, and socioeconomically diverse group of healthcare professionals who want to pursue an ADN.

    Cultural diversity significantly influences nursing practice and plays a role in patient decisions about medical care. One key tool in reducing healthcare disparities within the patient population is to improve diversity within nursing. Patients who see themselves represented within the healthcare staff are often more willing to engage, be more transparent, and implement recommended plans of care.

    The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development has worked in recent months to strengthen the state’s nursing education pipeline. In October 2022, the department awarded a Workforce Innovation Grant to help expand the number of nursing instructors. The $376,000 project helped build and strengthen partnerships and ensure a pipeline of new nurses at UW-Green Bay.

    “We need more nurses — it’s that simple.”

    Rudy Jackson, Chief Nurse Executive

    The current apprenticeship collaboration between UW Health and Madison College is another step toward addressing the state’s nursing shortage. This program has received a strong favorable response from the community and potential nursing candidates, officials said.

    According to Kaplan, speaking in the press conference, the program faces additional challenges. While there has been a large exodus of nurses from the profession after the COVID-19 pandemic, unemployment in Madison is low.

    “The health care workforce shortage is one of the greatest challenges we see to meeting our community’s demand for patient care,” said Alan Kaplan, MD, CEO of UW Health, in the statement. “By providing the resources many need to become nurses, we are breaking down barriers historically underserved populations face when pursuing careers such as nursing, and ultimately diversifying the nursing workforce, which also benefits our patients.”

    In the coming months and years, it will be apparent if innovative plans like the nurse apprenticeship program to address the ongoing nursing shortfall are successful.

    UW Health officials are developing a broader application process for next year’s apprenticeship class, which will accept applications from outside UW Health.