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Northern Arizona University uses New Economy Initiative funds to focus on healthcare

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NAU Building

Lit staircases span the five-story atrium in Northern Arizona University's Science and Health Building in this 2015 file photo.

Arizona’s public universities presented on their use of New Economy Initiative (NEI) funding in fiscal year 2022 and proposals for fiscal year 2023 at the recent Arizona Board of Regents (ABOR) meeting. Northern Arizona University has been using this year's funding to expand its healthcare-related programs.

In its 2022 state budget request, NAU listed healthcare, and statewide education and innovation as its investment priorities for NEI funds.

“We look through the NEI to become the number one producer of high-quality diverse allied professionals who will not only contribute to and benefit from the prosperity of the State of Arizona by meeting the health needs of its population, but do so in a way that will further advance our goal of eradicating health disparities among different populations within our state,” NAU President José Luis Cruz Rivera said during the meeting.

A March 2021 analysis of NAU's proposed use of the 2022 NEI funds said this investment will “support 6,839 jobs by year 10 and 18,937 jobs by year 20.” Over a 20-year time frame, NAU expects to generate $60 billion in labor income for its supported jobs and $129.4 billion in economic output.

Cruz Rivera said this does not reflect the funding's total impact. 

“This is really just the first layer of the analysis. It does not account for spillover or increased education or increased health conditions in our state, and does not incorporate measures of inequity,” he said.

Specific occupations he listed as areas of focus included athletic trainers, occupational therapists, physician assistants, psychologists and registered nurses. Cruz Rivera said that these were high-paying jobs with immediate demand and the potential for employment growth over the next 10 years, both nationally and in Arizona.

Cruz Rivera referenced ABOR’s 2020 alumni wages report, noting that healthcare is in the top three programs at the university in graduate numbers and median income as well as the first in Arizona workforce persistence.

“We’re recruiting the talent that exists within our state,” he said. “They pass their certifications and get jobs, and many stay in the state and contribute to our economy, and we need to continue this.”

Of health profession students at NAU, 73% are Arizona residents, according to Cruz Rivera’s presentation. Over 80% of physician assistant and occupational therapy graduates stayed in the state post-gradation, as did 85% of resident physical therapy graduates. He also said NAU received $87.5 million in health-related research grants.

“The NEI investments we are making this year give us momentum to drive greater growth in our varied allied health programs and address healthcare provider shortages in Arizona,” said Karen Pugliesi, NAU's interim provost and vice president for Academic Affairs.

She cited United Health Foundation statistics that ranked Arizona 41st in its ratio of primary care providers to population and 47th when the area of care is mental health. She also cited Health Resources and Services Administration data that said the state has a need for more than 6,500 mental healthcare professionals.

The university anticipated enrolling an additional 80 students to its allied health programs in 2022 and over 200 more in 2023. It had expanded capacity and increased enrollment in these programs in addition to creating the Healthcare Management MBA.

Pugliesi’s presentation said NAU added 10 students in six of its health-related programs in 2022, including clinical psychology, physical therapy and the physician assistant program. It also added 20 students to its athletic training program (which the report said was the largest in the U.S.), 60 to the new MBA and 90 students to its accelerated nursing program.

NAU was looking at ways to grow capacity in these programs, she said, including with expansions at its North Valley Campus in Phoenix and developing new concentrations for its nurse practitioner and MBA program. With the 2022 funding, NAU is also “adding faculty and the development of necessary clinical placements and [placing] staff to support larger student populations,” Pugliesi said.

She said these programs have limited capacity and “are challenging to grow due to faculty and facility requirements, as well as the constraints of accreditation.”

In part, NAU’s 2022 investments have focused on improving facilities to make room for this projected growth.

“Our one-time investments this fiscal year will renovate spaces necessary for program expansions, develop clinical and simulation facilities and secure specialized equipment for clinical programs,” Pugliesi said. “...On our Flagstaff campus, we’re excited to be developing a new simulation facility for nursing that will support future expansion of our programs in that area.”

The presentations also included proposed uses of 2023 funds. Cruz Rivera said they were requesting this year’s one-time funding be converted to ongoing. The total would then be $32.5 million, he said.

Pugliesi listed projects including expansion in Yuma and Tuba City, an online graduate-level certification in field epidemiology and expansion of behavioral health professional programs as university goals for 2023 funding.

She also noted that both NAU’s allied and behavioral health programs would prepare students to practice in underserved communities. Specifically, she said, this means teaching culturally responsive practice and graduating bilingual professionals.

Cruz Rivera also listed forest ecology, forest health and land management as other areas the university planned to utilize to further NEI goals.

“Thanks to an appropriation from the state, NAU has invested in an aggressive expansion of healthcare-related programs...to meet the needs of our state’s workforce and the care needs of our communities while promoting economic and community vitality into the future. This is important on-going work that is tied into our mission of providing a statewide system of access to higher education, impactful programs and workforce development,” he said in an update last week to the NAU community.

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