Long Island's universities and colleges are rapidly enhancing health-sciences education degree programs with an eye on a changing health care system and potential job growth.
Master's, bachelor's, associate's and even advanced certificate programs in allied health are gaining momentum in areas from medical imaging and mental health counseling to health information technology and dental hygiene. New offerings are at public and private institutions of higher learning as well as community colleges.
"We have an aging population in need of health care. We have a need for engineers in biotech," said Pearl Kamer, chief economist for the Long Island Association, the region's largest business organization. "These colleges are right on point. The problem is that education is a long-term process. It will take most of the next decade to fill the jobs that will emerge on Long Island."
Double-digit job growth is forecast in areas such as physical and occupational therapy, physician assisting, speech therapy, athletic training, pharmacy and health care management, according to U.S. Department of Labor projections of Long Island job growth for 2008-18. Salaries, in general, range from $50,000 to more than $100,000, based on the job, level of education and years of experience.
LIU Post's new bachelor's degree in health sciences -- a broad track that mixes hard science with liberal arts -- begins this semester with 100 declared majors.
"Students want an education that will translate into opportunities, and they see that in the health care industry," said Marci J. Swede, who holds a doctorate in genetics and biochemistry and came to LIU Post in July to head the school's new Department of Health Sciences.
Ruben Diaz, 18, of Staten Island, is among them. He said he knows he doesn't want to be a nurse, like his mother, or spend the time and money to become a doctor. But a career in medical imaging appealed to him after a tour of Brooklyn Hospital Center in his senior year of high school.
"I want to do something in radiology, maybe work with MRIs or something," Diaz said.
His father, an accountant at the hospital, sat him down, explaining the stability of such a career path. Diaz, the youngest of three, watched his older sisters struggle to find stable work with liberal arts degrees. "I knew my speech was coming. I just didn't know when," he joked.
'Born out of the need'
The degree is for students like Diaz interested in eventually working in health care but undecided on a specific profession, Swede said.
The student interest didn't surprise her. "This major was born out of the need," she said. "Students are very savvy these days."
Hofstra University next month will open a School of Health Sciences and Human Services. Adelphi University is looking to grow its course offerings through a new Center for Health Innovation, which opened in November 2011.
Nassau Community College is adding a health information technology associate degree and opening a $40 million life sciences building. Suffolk County Community College is adding an associate degree in paramedics to its expanding medical technician-training program. Briarcliffe College, a for-profit institution, is adding associate's degrees in health IT and dental hygiene.
Between 2007 and 2011, the number of health-care-related bachelor's degrees awarded at the nearly 3,000 U.S. colleges jumped 39 percent, from 102,896 to 143,072, according to a study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, with numbers from the federal Department of Education.
The number of schools reporting majors in a health care topic also rose, from 1,253 in 2007 to 1,476 in 2011.
"The colleges are responding by meeting the demand and offering more courses in health care, and the students are responding, too . . . by showing more interest in this area since the recession," said Edwin Koc, director for strategic and foundation research at the national group, which surveys the schools, students and employers.
On Long Island, college administrators said they are collaborating closely with the network of hospitals and health care providers to create these new academic tracks.
Partnering with industry
Many of the courses closely mirror industry trends. New laws, technology, patient quality, and health care delivery models may all play a role in educating the next generation of health professionals, they say.
"We are constantly asking our industry partners, 'What kind of people do you need? What kind of training do they need to have?' " said Patrick Coonan, academic director of Adelphi's Center for Health Innovation and dean of the university's nursing school.
The new center was designed to give students an interdisciplinary approach to learning about the health care system -- a trend in many of the colleges and in the industry.
Since it started, Adelphi students pursuing a degree in communication sciences and disorders, to study and treat people with speech and hearing problems, rose 12 percent.
Students going for a bachelor's degree in social work more than doubled since last year, Coonan said.
A new master's degree in public health begins this fall. Plans are under way to offer degrees in occupational and physical therapy.
Hofstra's new health professions school breaks several health degree programs out of its School of Education. Like Adelphi, the university will start by offering students a new master's in public health, the first in several new health care professional degrees planned.
It's a natural next step for the university, which opened the Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine last year, provost Herman Berliner said.
"In a lackluster economy, students know that health care is where the jobs are," he said.
In 2007, there were no students majoring in health sciences at Hofstra. This coming semester, 90 students already are declared majors, Berliner said.
Even at Stony Brook University, where a School of Health Science Technology and Management was established 40 years ago, new master's degrees are in the pipeline, including health care quality and patient safety; psychiatry and addiction medicine for the physician's assistant; prosthetics and orthotics; and speech language pathology.
Prospective students faced stiff competition this year to get into SBU's other nationally ranked health science programs, administrators said.
The school received 1,830 applications to fill the 44 spots in the physician's assistant program, up from 813 applications for those same spots five years ago.
As for undergraduates, Stony Brook's health sciences bachelor's program has increased from 39 students graduating with that major in 2001 to 400 in 2012.
Jamie Schineller is starting at Farmingdale State College, where the number of students majoring in health care fields has tripled in the last five years.
The 17-year-old from Islip said pursuing a health sciences degree means a future of helping to heal people and learning new things.
"It's a lot of hard work. But it's a field I can respect," she said.
Hofstra junior Justine McGranaghan, 19, of Temecula, Calif., said students today know becoming a doctor isn't the only way into a well-paying health care profession.
"There are a ton of super-interesting jobs being created right now," said McGranaghan, who recently took a class on health care reform. "I think it is definitely the time to enter the health care field."