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Business Observer Friday, May 13, 2016 5 years ago

Singular purpose

A shortage of nurse anesthetists drove a Naples practice to start a college to train the next generation. Graduates can earn six figures.
by: Jean Gruss Contributing Writer

If you can't recruit enough graduates, start your own college.

That's what a group of Naples anesthesiologists did in 2000 when they founded Wolford College. At the time, half of Collier Anesthesia's nursing staff was made up of expensive temporary employees because the practice couldn't find enough full-time nurse anesthetists.

“It was killing us financially,” recalls Lynda Waterhouse, the executive director of Collier Anesthesia who recently was named president and CEO of Wolford College.

The nursing shortage wasn't restricted to Southwest Florida. “It was national and worldwide,” Waterhouse says.

Today, Wolford College in Naples offers master's and doctorate degrees in nurse anesthesia to about 150 students. Jobs are plentiful: annual salaries for nurse anesthesiologists average $150,000 and sign-on bonuses can reach $50,000. “They can write their own ticket,” Waterhouse says.

Master's-level students sometimes move to Naples with their families to attend Wolford, which has grown through word of mouth because of the success of its graduates. “We've had students from Hawaii,” Waterhouse says.

That's because master's-level students can't work for the duration of the 28-month program and must practice at clinical sites in Naples and Tampa. Tuition for the master's program costs $63,742.

But Wolford offers its doctorate program online using a learning platform called Moodle, and that holds promise for future growth. Tuition for that program is $30,000. “It's totally scalable,” says Waterhouse. “It's something we'd like to expand.”

Most students at Wolford borrow to pay for tuition. Thanks to federal recognition in 2007, Wolford can offer financial aid at more-affordable government rates.

Although the school's accreditation body restricts the number of students Wolford can currently instruct, the goal is to have as many as 250 students enrolled at any given time.

The for-profit Wolford, which was named after a well-known nurse anesthetist, posted revenues of $4.7 million in 2015 and $4.6 million in 2014. The company is profitable, says Waterhouse.

Wolford was originally created as a nonprofit organization by its founders, Thomas Cook, president of Collier Anesthesia, and Edward Morton, the former CEO of Naples Community Hospital. They partnered with Florida Gulf Coast University, which provided the original facilities starting in 2000.

But in 2010 Wolford converted to a for-profit business so that it could borrow and raise capital to expand. “In order to build this infrastructure we needed the cash,” Waterhouse says.

The process to become a for-profit college was daunting because of increased government scrutiny of the industry. “They were scrutinizing everything we did,” Waterhouse says. “We jumped through a gazillion hoops.”

By then, Wolford had split off from FGCU and in 2008 it moved into a new building in Naples as part of a joint venture with developer Barron Collier Companies.

Today, the need for such highly trained nurses continues as a generation retires. Recruiters often call Waterhouse and tell her: “I'm waiting for the next class to graduate.”

Follow Jean Gruss on Twitter @JeanGruss

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