A proposal by two North Jersey community colleges to confer bachelor's degrees in nursing has divided the state's college presidents, with each side accusing the other of not addressing students' needs.

Passaic County Community College and Union County College are both looking to confer bachelor's degrees in nursing, adding two years to their associate's degree programs. Other New Jersey community colleges back those proposals, citing affordability for students and rising standards in the nursing profession.

Nursing specifically has an unmet need, said Steven M. Rose, president of Passaic County Community College. "I have no plans right now to go for any other degree other than this. I just feel this is an important one."

But four-year presidents - several of which offer their own nursing programs - fear the proposal would open the door to more programs, eventually creating direct competition between two-year and four-year schools.

"There's a reason why higher education was established in the manner that it was," said Harvey Kesselman, president of Stockton University, which runs a completion program for registered nurses to obtain the nursing bachelor's degree. "For a two-year school to offer four-year degrees, even the language of that suggests that it doesn't match."

Ali A. Houshmand, president of Rowan University, which also has an RN-to-BSN program, said, "It's going to open up a whole unnecessary debate that, in my opinion, is going to ultimately undermine the integrity of higher education as we define it in this country."

Some community colleges can confer baccalaureate degrees in 22 states.

Passaic County Community College's proposal aims to respond to the rising credential standards in nursing, with hospitals and other health-care providers increasingly looking for nurses with bachelor's degrees, Rose said.

"What we've found is our students aren't going on and getting this bachelor's degree, which is really essential for their careers," he said.

A survey of registered nurses commissioned by the college found that the issue was affordability.

"They're making too much money as nurses to qualify for any type of financial aid; their employers aren't paying for it," Rose said.

The community colleges can offer the bachelor's degree at a lower price than the four-year schools.

"What we're adding on to it is the final, professional portion, the final two years, which focuses more on nursing practice and administration and things of that nature," said Margaret M. McMenamin, the president of Union County College. "In essence, we're already doing the most expensive portion . . . We're not starting from scratch."

Presidents of four-year colleges in New Jersey predict the community colleges would struggle to find qualified nursing faculty. Four-year schools would expand their programs, they said - if they could.

"There's just not enough doctorally prepared nursing faculty available, and even the four-year institutions have to go into almost bidding wars to attract doctorally prepared faculty," said Kesselman, the Stockton president.

The College of New Jersey also opposes the proposals, a spokesman said. The school is growing its RN-to-BSN programs and now offers on-site programs at four nearby hospitals, up from two hospitals in 2012.

The two community colleges submitted their proposals in October to the New Jersey Presidents' Council, which is scheduled to meet Jan. 25. The more than 50 member presidents representing all colleges in the state will vote on how to recommend them to Rochelle Hendricks, the state's secretary of higher education, who will make the final decision.

"It's going to be a very interesting meeting," said Paul Drayton, president of Rowan College at Burlington County, the community college in that county.

The Association of State Colleges and Universities, representing four-year schools (except Rutgers and New Jersey Institute of Technology), and the New Jersey Council of County Colleges, representing 19 schools, are rallying their members around their views.

During a comment period on the proposals, the Union and Passaic presidents said, a majority of the state's four-year schools sent letters in opposition, including Stockton, Rowan, the College of New Jersey, and Princeton University.

Rutgers University, New Jersey Institute of Technology, and Kean University were among the four-year universities that have not taken a position.

Kean University, which has its main campus just a few miles away from Union County College, is "trying to take more of a middle road," said Stephen A. Kubow, an acting associate vice president.

Kean and Ocean County College are trying to develop a joint RN-to-BSN program so the university would provide the nursing program on the community college campus, Kubow said.

That partnership could lead the way for a middle ground between the two-year and four-year schools, he said. Rowan University also is considering partnership programs with local community colleges.

More than one college president warned of the potential of developing "bad blood" and entrenched distrust, especially if the push for community college baccalaureate degrees continues and lawmakers become involved.

Davis Jenkins, a senior research associate at Columbia University's Community College Research Center, wasn't surprised to hear of the back-and-forth.

"There's always political sniping, and the two years say the four-years are snobs, the four-years say that it's mission creep," he said.

"Oh, God, this happens a lot. It's posturing, and it will continue to happen."

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