Charleston Southern University plans to triple the number of students in its nursing program, and now it has the space to do that.

The school Friday dedicated the 16,000-square-foot expansion of its College of Nursing and Allied Health building. The $6 million project included the renovation of the older portion of the building, Derry Patterson Wingo Hall.

Tara Hulsey, the university’s dean of nursing and allied health, said expanding the four-year-degree program for nurses is important because the demand for them is great. “There’s a huge push nationally.”

The Institute of Medicine of the National Academies has called for 80 percent of nurses to have bachelor of science in nursing degrees by 2020, she said.

In South Carolina, only about 30 percent of nurses currently hold bachelor’s degrees, Hulsey said. Most hold two-year registered nurse degrees.

Because the state has such a long way to go, it has set a goal to have 50 percent of its nurses holding four-year degrees by 2020, she said. And Charleston Southern will help it get there.

Nursing student Christina Foster said she loves the new facility, especially the new simulation labs. Working on the specialized mannequins “really does feel real,” she said. “It’s a great way to learn.”

Charleston Southern University President Jairy Hunter said the nursing program has strong ties to the community, and about 80 percent of students come from the tri-county area.

And it has trusted partnerships with local hospitals and other schools, he said. Hunter said employers have told him they love to hire nurses from the Christian university because they have a sense of calling.

Hulsey said the school previously enrolled 40 students each year in the bachelor of science in nursing program. But this fall, it enrolled 60 students.

Nursing programs require a small student-teacher ratio, she said, and programs must be expanded systematically.

The university, for the first time, will enroll 20 new students spring semester, she said. Eventually, it will enroll 120 students each year, 60 in the fall and 60 in the spring.

And the school is working with Trident Technical College, Medical University Hospital and Orangeburg Regional Medical Center to meet other regional nursing needs.

The university now has an agreement with Trident Tech where nurses with a two-year degree can earn their bachelor’s degree in three semesters online, she said.

And it offers reduced tuition to registered nurses working in the two hospitals who enroll in online bachelor’s or master’s degree programs.

The school is committed to offering programs to meet local needs, Hulsey said. “Over 90 percent of our graduates stay in South Carolina. This is a community program.”

Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.