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NORMAL — An agreement signed Thursday between Heartland Community College and Illinois State University will help students, hospitals and the community at large, those involved say.

The dual-enrollment agreement allows Heartland nursing students to start work on their bachelor's degrees before graduating from Heartland.

The two schools already had an agreement that provided a smooth transition into ISU's RN-to-BSN program for registered nurses with an associate's degree who want to earn a bachelor of science in nursing. But this lets students get a head start on the process.

Among those planning to participate is Ben Tucker of Bloomington, who is in his second semester as a nursing student at Heartland.

Starting this fall, he will be taking his regular classes at Heartland and starting ISU classes online.

Tucker, an Air Force veteran who eventually wants to become a nurse practitioner, said this program will help him achieve his goal.

Tucker said he chose nursing for a career because "I like the variety of the scope of practice" and "it will allow me to help others."

Heartland President Rob Widmer said the agreement provides a “cost-effective, high-quality opportunity for nursing students in our community.”

While taking ISU classes as a Heartland student, Tucker and others in the dual-enrollment program will pay Heartland's much lower tuition rates.

“We all have one thing in common as educators, that is the success of our students,” said Widmer.

Representatives of Advocate BroMenn Medical Center in Normal and OSF HealthCare St. Joseph Medical Center in Bloomington attended the signing ceremony in Heartland's nursing lab.

Both medical centers are “magnet” hospitals, which means, among other things, they are committed to the goal of at least 80 percent of their nurses having bachelor's degrees by 2020. Both are at about 74 percent now.

Toni Bishop-McWain, director of cardiovascular services at OSF, said, “This collaboration is exciting to me because we can reach that goal.”

Bishop-McWain said, “There's always a constant need” for nurses at the hospital.

Laurie Round, chief nursing officer and vice president of patient services at BroMenn, noted the importance of nurses with bachelor's degrees “to manage the increasing complexity of both patients and the health care system.”

“Ultimately who benefits is our community,” said Judy Neubrander, dean of ISU's Mennonite College of Nursing. “A well-educated nurse makes a difference one patient at a time.”

She said, “The dual-enrollment partnership brings together two great nursing programs to provide our students an expedient and affordable route to a baccalaureate degree.”

Nursing is not the only area where the two schools collaborate.

ISU and Heartland recently signed an agreement enabling students in Heartland's honors program to transfer into ISU's honors program. Heartland has a similar agreement with Western Illinois University.

“We're always looking to see where we can impact students and make it easier for them to succeed,” said Widmer.

Faculty members from both schools communicate about curriculum issues so classes taken at Heartland match what's needed at ISU, he said. Widmer and Dietz also meet regularly to discuss common concerns.

In nearly all recent years, Heartland has been the leading source of transfer students to ISU, according to ISU spokeswoman Rachel Hatch.

Heartland spokesman Steve Fast said of the 366 spring 2016 graduates who transferred to another school, 195 – 53.3 percent – transferred to ISU.

Follow Lenore Sobota on Twitter: @pg_sobota

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Education Reporter

Education Reporter for The Pantagraph.

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