The State Board of Regents agreed Friday to seek $555,000 to expand nursing education as a step toward easing Utah's nursing shortage.

But it was an approval that didn't come easily.The regents decided during a meeting at College of Eastern Utah to add slots for 110 new registered nurse students and 15 master's level nursing students. Along with the new student slots, the regents approved stand-alone associate degree nursing programs for Salt Lake Community College, Utah Valley Community College and College of Eastern Utah.

Until now, Weber State College has operated the state's associate-degree program, running a cooperative program with SLCC and outreach programs on six other campuses, including UVCC and CEU.

A student who graduates with an associate degree completes two years of education and becomes a registered nurse.

Before reaching agreement, however, several regents expressed frustration about being forced into trying to solve the nursing shortage by increasing the supply of nurses. They said many of the problems of attracting and retaining nurses stem from low salaries and poor working conditions, and therefore, are the fault of the health-care industry.

Regent Douglas Foxley asked whether the private sector, specifically Intermountain Health Care Inc., should be willing to cover part of the cost of educating more nurses instead of letting the burden fall on taxpayers? IHC has the majority of hospital beds in the state and employs the majority of the nurses.

Cecilia Foxley, associate commissioner for academic affairs, and Weber State College President Stephen Nadauld both responded that IHC has cooperated and helped to finance nursing education in the past and is very concerned about the problem.

Regent Foxley replied, "If a couple of the officers in IHC were willing to put their bonuses into the thing, the program would be covered."

He was referring to IHC's announcement this week that its president, Scott Parker, received a $175,000 bonus, in addition to his $211,000 base pay this year.

Several regents also seemed frustrated with a six-month turf battle among the institutions offering nursing education.

Regent Donald Holbrook said stand-alone programs could be more costly than the present cooperative program operated by WSC.

Cecilia Foxley pointed to figures estimating it would be more expensive to have a stand-alone program at UVCC, but more economical at CEU and SLCC.

During a subcommittee meeting, community college officials outlined several of the problems in the operation of cooperative programs on their campuses or in the expansion of those programs.

Lucille Stoddard, UVCC vice president for academic affairs, said a stand-alone program would prevent duplication of laboratories and other facilities that are involved in a cooperative program.

It would increase flexibility in the curriculum, she said, and the ability for students to change within the program. Students enrolled dually at WSC and UVCC would only be considered carrying half-loads at each school and would have difficulty in getting financial aid.

A CEU nursing student complained about the current arrangement, saying it causes hardships for the students. WSC offers an outreach associate-degree course at CEU every two or three years.

"I'll have to drive over snowy roads two or three times a week this year to go to Roosevelt to get the courses I need," she said.

WSC officials said a lack of funding prevents the college from offering courses annually in each school. WSC has six outreach campuses, but only the funding to work at two a year, they said.

Regent Ian Cumming said he was dissatisfied by an apparent lack of cooperation among the nursing schools and the push to get an associate-degree program to each college that wants one.

"This is not a rational system, but a political one," he said. "What we have here is a little bit for everyone."

Cumming said that as financial pressures increase on higher education he doesn't know how much longer "we'll be able to give everyone what they want when they want it."

At some point, he said, the system will have to quit making endless trade-offs so that "all decisions fall to the lowest common denominator that everyone can agree on."

Later, when the issue returned to the full board of regents, members stressed that cooperative efforts must be encouraged and that efforts in this regard should be reported back to the board.

The regents' approval doesn't automatically mean that there will be an increase in nursing students soon. The financing still must be approved by the 1989 Legislature. However, some legislators have indicated a willingness to fund increased nursing education. The Legislative Interim Health Committee went on record in July as favoring a $500,000 special appropriation to increase the number of nursing students in the state.