In March, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-Chapel Hill) received a charitable gift of $5 million to help support nursing education and address the state’s nursing shortage.
Donated by Joanne and William E. Conway, Jr., philanthropists based in the Washington, D.C. area, the gift reflects the Conways’ ongoing support of the nursing profession through their Bedford Falls Foundation. According to the university, it is the largest gift in school history to support nursing students.
In North Carolina, nearly 80% of healthcare facilities report a shortage of nursing staff, with close to 40% reporting their shortage as severe. The state expects a shortfall of 12,500 nurses by 2033.
“We are deeply grateful to the Conways for their steadfast commitment to nursing education and to the nursing profession as a whole,” said Valerie Howard, dean of the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Nursing, in a statement. “The Conways are making a Carolina nursing education more financially accessible to more students, which will positively impact our profession and, most importantly, our students, as we continue our commitment to excellence in academic nursing here at Carolina. That is a great help as we hope to attract more of the best and brightest to our profession as either nurses or nurse educators.”
With a plan to disperse the funds over a five-year period, officials noted that the gift’s goal is to offer partial support to as many as 250 undergraduate nursing students, effectively doubling the amount of scholarship funds available for nursing education at UNC-Chapel Hill. According to school officials, the donation could boost the school’s nursing student enrollment by as much as 50%. Increased nursing enrollment and school of nursing capacity in turn increases the number of qualified graduates entering the workforce, with the hope that many will remain in North Carolina as registered nurses serving their communities.
The donation by Bedford Falls will also provide funding for The Conway Scholars Program, an accelerated nursing doctoral program geared toward increasing the number of highly trained nurse educators with terminal degrees. Increasing nursing school enrollment is critical, yet an ongoing nationwide shortage of nursing faculty further complicates matters when it comes to the capacity to appropriately educate those students who will serve society as the nurses of tomorrow. “I am inspired by the Conways’ thoughtful and innovative approach to addressing one of the nation’s significant health care challenges through their support of nursing education,” UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz said in the statement. “Nurses are vital to a compassionate health care system — we cannot do it without them — and Carolina feels keenly its responsibility to help meet the need for more nurses in our state. We are grateful for the Conways’ support and partnership in that effort.”
With total assets of more than $61 million as of 2021, the Bedford Falls Foundation has a history of similar charitable initiatives. Earlier in 2023, $2 million was awarded to The Pennsylvania State University’s Ross and Carol Nese School of Nursing in order to boost student recruitment and enrollment through scholarships. In 2021, the University of Maryland School of Nursing received a $13.8 million gift from Bedford Falls. This is the Conways’ first gift to a school based in North Carolina. Applying to nursing school can be financially out of reach for many qualified students who wish to join the most trusted profession in the United States. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects the nursing profession to grow 6% between 2021 and 2031, adding 195,000 jobs during that period. Whether through attrition, retirement, or other causes, the nursing shortage can have an outsized impact on the overall function of the U.S. healthcare system, including quality of care and patient outcomes.
In April 2022, an article published in the journal Health Affairs found that the supply of RNs in the United States dropped by over 100,000 in 2021, the largest observed decrease in the last four decades.
“A sustained reduction in the number of younger age RNs would raise ominous implications for the future workforce,” study authors wrote. “Because RNs typically remain working in nursing over their career, a reduction of younger RNs in the workforce would exert an impact that is felt over a generation, in contrast to a relatively modest reduction in long-run RN supply due to early retirement of the baby boomer RNs working into their 60s and 70s.”