A program that allows low-income Arizonans to get started on their careers without paying fees for their state-issued occupational licenses has been a hit with people who are going into nursing.
Under the 2017 law, first-time applicants from families that earn less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level can apply for a waiver that exempts them from paying licensing fees, which can range from $60 to $560, according to the governor’s office. The law was a signature agenda item for Gov. Doug Ducey, who has made occupational licensing reform one of his top priorities.
The federal poverty level for an individual is currently set at $12,140, and increases depending on the number of people in a household. For a family of four, the poverty level is $25,100.
While the waiver program applies to most occupational licenses offered by the state, the overwhelming majority of waivers go to people who seek certification as nurses. About 79 percent of the waivers granted since 2017 by state agencies and licensing boards have gone to people who are going into nursing. That number was as high as 93 percent, the governor’s office reported in July 2018.
“You can see the marketplace and us removing the obstacles allowing hardworking citizens inside our state to pursue happiness in the way that they choose. And sometimes that’s to be an aspiring nurse. Sometimes it’s going to be to be an electrician or a welder or to begin climbing the economic ladder,” Ducey told the crowd at an Arizona Chamber of Commerce luncheon in June.
As of April, the Arizona State Board of Nursing had approved 698 of the 798 applications for waivers it received. The majority of those waivers, 547, went to people who were taking the state’s exam for registered nurses, while a smaller number went to people seeking to become licensed practical nurses or licensed nursing assistants.
According to the Board of Nursing, those waivers exempted aspiring nurses from $104,500 in fees. Board of Nursing fees for exams and certifications vary, ranging from as low as $50 for a nursing assistant endorsement and $75 to get certified as a school nurse to as much as $300 for an exam and licensure as a registered nurse.
Margi Schultz, who heads up the nursing program at Gateway Community College and oversees the eight nursing programs in the Maricopa County Community College District, said she can’t speak to why people in other professions aren’t taking greater advantage of the fee waiver program. But she had some thoughts about why it’s so popular among people who are going into nursing.
“These are very often single moms that are coming into the program. We have single dads that are coming into the program. They’re working people who are going into community college to get their nursing degree to really better their families’ lives,” Schultz said. “They are almost experts at looking for scholarships, grants, any monies that might be out there to help them along the way, because every dime counts for these students.”
The cost of an associate’s degree in nursing from a Maricopa County community college ranges from $7,000-$8,000, Schultz said. Costs vary at different programs across the state, with some private schools charging tens of thousands of dollars. Cochise College estimates the cost of its nursing program to be about $13,000 for Arizona residents, according to information provided by the school.
According to data from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, registered nurses in Arizona earned an average salary of $77,000 in 2018. Licensed practical and vocational nurses had an average salary of $54,090, while nursing assistants earned an average of $31,450.
Ducey credited the Board of Nursing with the success of the program within the industry.
“Nursing represents a rapidly growing field that pays a median salary of $77,000. And their board has prioritized this issue. Not everyone has. They should take the example of the Nursing Board and follow suit,” Ducey said in a statement provided to the Arizona Mirror.
At some schools outside of the Maricopa County community college system, students with financial aid don’t have to worry about paying for their licensing and exam fees. Cochise College, for example, covers those costs for students on financial aid.
The governor’s office said the state has waived 881 fees for low-income applicants over the past two years. Of the non-nursing waivers granted by other state agencies and licensing boards, 41 were granted by the Arizona State Board of Respiratory Care Examiners, 36 by the Arizona State Board of Massage Therapy, 26 by the Arizona Regulatory Board of Physician Assistants and 16 by the Naturopathic Physicians Medical Board. The rest were granted for a smattering of other professions, including accounting, acupuncture, cosmetology, occupational therapy and psychology, among others.
A broader push for licensing reform
Occupational licensing reform has been a top agenda item for Ducey since taking office in 2015.
In the 2019 legislative session, he championed a new license reciprocity law, under which Arizona became the first state to recognize occupational licenses people obtained in other states. President Donald Trump praised the licensing law during a White House meeting on workforce mobility in June, telling Ducey that Arizona was at the forefront of the issue and expressing hope that other states would follow its lead.
Also in 2019, Ducey signed legislation allowing people to blow dry hair professionally without a cosmetology license. In 2016, Ducey pushed legislation to eliminate licensing requirements for several professions, including geologists, assayers, driving school instructors, yoga teachers and citrus fruit packers, and signed a separate bill scrapping licensing requirements for talent agents.