Commonwealth University Gets $5 Million to Advance Nursing Education in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania is one of five states projected to have the nation's most acute nursing shortages by 2026. The state's Commonwealth University is using a large gift to help defy declining enrollment trends and put more nurses into the field.
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Published on November 20, 2023
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From left: President Bashar Hanna; Trustee Jessica Dodge, a nursing student; Ed and Julie Breiner; Kim Olszewski, sr. assoc. dean of the Breiner School Nursing; Erik Evans, VP Univ. Advancement; Leo-Felix Jurado, dean of the College of Health Professions.
  • Ed and Julie Breiner's $5 million gift in October created the Breiner School of Nursing at Commonwealth University of Pennsylvania and will help train and place more nurses in the field.
  • Pennsylvania's registered nurse vacancy rate jumped 10 percentage points from 2019-2022.
  • Commonwealth's clinical partners are important in providing jobs and clinical opportunities for the university's students and graduates.

Commonwealth University of Pennsylvania is preparing nursing students to practice in the Keystone State after graduation — a critical accomplishment in a state with one of the worst nurse shortages in the country.

Now, a $5 million gift is not just being used to rename the university's school of nursing but it's reinforcing the school's ability and goal to produce high-quality nurses for the communities that need them.

"With this endowment, we hope to provide aspiring nurses with the best education and training possible, while also keeping it affordable, ensuring their ability to make immediate contributions in the healthcare field," philanthropists Ed and Julie Breiner said in a university statement announcing their gift to the school.

"Commonwealth University's commitment to excellence aligns perfectly with our vision of affordable, high-quality education for prospective students."

The school will now be known as the Breiner School of Nursing within the Commonwealth University of Pennsylvania's College of Health Professions.

Planned enhancements, as a result of the gift, are ultimately designed to help Pennsylvania address its ongoing — and worsening — nurse shortage. According to school officials, the gift will increase the university's capacity to educate nurses, recruit more nursing school faculty, and provide more efficient and effective training.

Kim Olszewski, associate professor and senior associate dean of the School of Nursing, tells BestColleges that the gift helps Commonwealth University further assist its learners.

"By having these resources available, all of the costs associated with these tools were not passed through to the student, but rather absorbed with this gift," Olszewski told BestColleges.

Commonwealth, a new university founded in July 2022, is composed of three previously separate state institutions in central and northeast Pennsylvania — Bloomsburg University, Lock Haven University, and Mansfield University. Ed and Julie Breiner graduated from Bloomsburg University.

When combined, the schools' three nursing programs became the Commonwealth University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing and have collective capacity for about 1,000 students. With the new gift, school officials hope to increase that number.

Commonwealth University of Pennsylvania Gift: Helping Students

Olszewski said the gift will help defray costs for students while impacting Commonwealth's mission of ultimately alleviating the Pennsylvania nursing shortage.

The Breiners' $5 million gift will support:

  • Professorships
  • Faculty fellowships
  • Research
  • Clinical support
  • Conference travel
  • Networking
  • Outreach
  • Simulation equipment
  • Software

Olszewski said the school's clinical partnerships — which offer ready employment to graduates while increasing the supply of nurses to the shortage-affected Pennsylvania facilities that need them — around the state help Commonwealth grads find jobs.

Commonwealth works with seven large Pennsylvania hospitals and health systems, including Evangelical Community Hospital, Geisinger Medical Center, Allied Services, and hundreds of smaller clinical sites.

Nurse Shortage Pennsylvania: A Growing Threat

Pennsylvania is one of the states most affected by the nursing shortage. By 2026, the state is projected to be one of the top five states leading the national nursing shortage, according to a 2021 Mercer U.S. HealthCare Labor Market study.

Between 2019 and 2022, the registered nurse (RN) state vacancy rate jumped from 20.5% to 30.7%, according to The Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania.

According to Olszewski, Commonwealth University's clinical partnerships help address the shortage while contributing to the school's increasing enrollment, which runs counter to a national enrollment decline.

"It is a definite partnership," she said of the nursing school's network. "We have been fortunate not to see a decline in our enrollment within the nursing program at Commonwealth University. And to the contrary, we have such a high application rate that we need to turn away sometimes 50% of our applicants due to not enough classroom seats."

Olszewski said the Breiner School considers innovative alternatives to traditional training pathways, with the goal of sending well-prepared nurses into the workforce more quickly.

"If an LPN (licensed practical nurse) decides they'd like to go back to be an RN, we have an LPN-to-RN program that can fast track them in one year. We look at ways to meet the needs of the adult learner 'cause they're the ones coming back to school," she said. "How's the fastest way we can do that and still have them balance work and home?"

In addition to its existing programs, the Breiner School is also developing an online psychiatric/mental health nurse practitioner program to reach distance learners in response to one of Pennsylvania's greatest healthcare needs.

A large concern for healthcare access in the communities surrounding Commonwealth University is a lack of public transportation, Olszweski said, so Commonwealth is working to bring nurses to patients.

"Residents in rural communities have issues with transportation and, therefore, are unable to be compliant with healthcare treatment," Olszewski said. "Increased use of home-based nursing and telemedicine will help bridge the gap."