The region’s largest hospital system, university, community college and K-12 district announced Tuesday that they will partner to revolutionize the way health care professionals are trained in southwest Missouri.
Standing side-by-side at Cox College, leaders from the four institutions — CoxHealth, Missouri State University, Ozarks Technical Community College and Springfield Public Schools — made public the creation of the Alliance for Healthcare Education.
Together, they aim to tackle the most pressing workforce shortages and become the largest producer of healthcare professionals in the Midwest.
“This is really an unprecedented collaboration because no one has done it at this scale,” said Max Buetow, president and CEO of CoxHealth. “You’ve seen unique relationships between maybe a health system and a public school system, a health system and a technical community college but you haven’t seen the linkages between every single one of those phases.”
The alliance plans to build a seamless pipeline to provide training — starting in high school — for those who want to enter the healthcare field or advance in their career.
Hal Higdon, chancellor of OTC, said the alliance is the “right thing for the community” because it can increase how many nurses, EMTs, respiratory therapists and other health professionals are educated locally.
“If we can increase graduations across the board from the school district, the community college and the university by 1,000, we’ve affected the health of every citizen of southwest Missouri,” he said.
A critical step in creating the alliance is absorbing the private Cox College, founded in 1907 as the Burge Deaconess Training School for Nurses.
If approved by the Higher Learning Commission, students currently enrolled at Cox College will be allowed to finish — a process expected to take two or three years — after which OTC and MSU would step in. OTC would take over programs that require two years of instruction or less, MSU would take over four-year and graduate programs.
“The goal is to expand the numbers of people that are being educated and will receive credentials,” said Clif Smart, president of MSU. “It is to make sure we are efficient and collaborative in that regard.”
OTC and SPS will expand Middle College — an alternative program located on the OTC campus — to include a health care strand. The juniors and seniors selected for Middle College simultaneously complete their high school diploma while earning an associate degree.
The alliance calls for MSU, OTC and SPS to use the existing Cox College infrastructure, a 70,000-square-foot area at Cox North Hospital that includes classrooms and healthcare technology, equipment and laboratories.
“We’re using a legacy hospital to teach the future of health care providers in this community,” Buetow said. “And it is also a great way to continue to reinvigorate, reinvest in the north side of Springfield (along with) the adjacency to the other colleges, to Springfield Public Schools.”
Demand for healthcare services up
MSU and OTC have reported significant growth in their healthcare programs in recent years, a trend that continued this fall.
Smart and Higdon said some of the programs have little or no room to expand — or double, in some cases — in their existing locations on campus.
Enrollment in MSU’s McQueary College of Health and Human Services, the second largest on campus, was up from 4,280 a year ago to nearly 4,500 this fall.
Smart said enrollment in nursing jumped from 733 to 825 students in the same period.
Both said the ability to educate students inside the CoxNorth space, which Cox College renovated and expanded a few years ago, is a game-changer.
“Big shoutout to Max and his team for recognizing that and really leaning into that, to how do we grow the health care programs here,” Smart said.
Andrew Hedgpeth, vice president of human resources at CoxHealth, said healthcare programs must grow in order to meet the demand.
“The challenges that we are facing are not unique to CoxHealth, they’re not unique to the region. It’s a national issue,” Hedgepeth said.
Hedgepeth said CoxHealth has enough demand it could hire up to 1,000 positions to meet the existing need and to grow. “I feel confident that our counterparts in this community, the other health care providers are faced with very similar shortfalls in their operations.”
Buetow said increased demand for health care services is exacerbated by the staffing shortages. “Boomers are aging so health care is growing at a fair clip and at the same time we also have people exiting. So it’s both supply and demand.”
‘Reduce the overall cost’ for students
Cox College grew during the pandemic and again this fall, by nearly 100 students.
Asked about the decision to absorb the private institution into the alliance, Buetow said one deciding factor was affordability.
For the 2023-24 year, general education and bachelor degree courses at Cox College start at $435 a credit hour and courses for graduate programs range from $620 to $800 a credit hour.
Undergraduate courses start at $279 a credit hour at MSU and from $128 to $149 per credit hour at OTC.
“Private education in the healthcare sector can be very expensive, and it was at Cox College and we found that we were not able to extend educational opportunities to as many people interested in careers we wanted to,” Buetow said. “And so partnering with Missouri State, partnering with OTC and SPS, we found that we could provide a stronger set of opportunities to a broader audience.”
He said the alliance also makes it easier for students to enter the field and go through more training to advance in their chosen field.
“We could create a seamless experience for individuals from high school all the way through the end of their career, to pursue meaningful work in an environment where they can take multiple different steps in their career over the course of time being incorporated into one of our wonderful health care institutions here locally.”
Amy Wutke, president of Cox College, said the institution is “very excited to be able to reach more students.”
“Anytime a higher ed institution, regardless of whether they’re public or private, can reduce the overall cost of education for our students, that is a good thing and we should do it,” she said.
Smart said “price point” is a major consideration for students. “Price alone should drive additional people into these programs.”
“It almost makes too much sense,” Higdon said. “To not do it would be a dereliction of duty on the part of the four entities.”
SPS Superintendent Grenita Lathan said high school students will be able to seek a certified nursing assistant, or CNA, and an EMT credential as part of the expansion plans for Middle College.
She said the result will be more students graduating from high school with a credential and possibly an associate’s degree.
Lathan noted other pluses: “Students having access to some of the best instructors in our region, access to the best equipment.”
What are the next steps?
The alliance will be established as a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation, owned by the four institutions. A governing board will be created made up of leaders from the four institutions, plus community members.
Smart and Higdon said the alliance may expand to include more higher education institutions, healthcare employers and K-12 districts.
“We envision other hospital providers coming into the mix,” Smart said. “We envision most if not all of the high schools in our region coming into the mix because our goal is to provide more graduates in this critical area.”
Buetow said while CoxHealth is an inaugural partner, the goal is to have a positive impact on other employers from Mercy Springfield to Jordan Valley Community Health Center.
“The alliance is here to help solve the workforce needs of our entire community,” he said.
He added the goal is to “not only help create a pipeline of talent that is coming through our public school systems” but to provide additional training to healthcare professionals working locally.
More: Missouri Hospital Association report: Turnover and vacancy rates decrease but remain high
Asked what will happen to existing Cox College employees, Smart said they will be needed in the next couple years to finish the degree programs for existing students. He and Higdon both said they’d give those employees a serious look as they expand the MSU and OTC programs.
The officials from CoxHealth, MSU, OTC and SPS said the details of the alliance are still being worked out, including how much each may need to invest in getting it off the ground.
Buetow said the investment has mostly been “sweat equity” at this point and that the Cox College space is sufficient to meet any need early on.
One option for the alliance is to seek grant funding at the state or national level to expand programs.
Higdon said the collaboration will make it easier to go to lawmakers in Jefferson City and Washington D.C. to “say we’re united, we have a plan, it’s well laid out and we’re ready to go.”
“Obviously, OTC, MSU, SPS and Cox are all major employers, major movers of our economy here,” he said.
Smart said the partners anticipate that there would be interest in supporting “what could become the largest health care alliance” in the Midwest.
Lathan agreed it could give the alliance “more bargaining power” when seeking grants and other funding.
For this to move forward, the alliance will have to get permission from the Higher Learning Commission, a process that is expected to take at least a year.
“Our focus really goes on the accreditation side,” Smart said.
“All of our programs are accredited. All the Cox College programs are accredited. We can’t just decide to do this on our own.”
Higdon said the commission will dictate the timeline for when this gets off the ground. He added many programs are also accredited b state and national boards that will also have to be consulted.
He said if successful, the alliance does not want to just replicate the programs offered at Cox College. “Our goal is to make it bigger than it is.”
Claudette Riley covers education for the News-Leader. Email tips and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.