A new program for "paraprofessional" employees at Cooper University Health Care will offer nursing degrees through Rutgers–Camden and Camden County College.

The pilot program, aimed at increasing South Jersey's population of nurses by encouraging existing health-care workers to pursue nursing training, is funded by two grants from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

A $250,000 grant will allow 10 Cooper employees to enter Rutgers–Camden's nursing school this fall, receiving tuition subsidies and a stipend for personal expenses over the two-year program, the school announced last month. A two-year grant of nearly $250,000 also will support 16 to 20 Cooper employees at Camden County College who want to earn an associate's degree in pre-nursing and move to a baccalaureate program. Those students will receive $1,000 stipends each semester, Camden County College announced Wednesday.

The grants are funded as part of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's New Jersey Health Initiatives program.

Employees must be current health-care workers who have been at Cooper full-time for at least two years. Unlicensed, assistive workers include nurse aides, medical technicians, patient companions, secretaries, and housekeeping staff. More than 80 percent of Cooper's employees in those jobs are from underrepresented populations in health care, and the majority are black or Hispanic, according to a news release.

In a news release from Rutgers–Camden last month, Adrienne Kirby, president and CEO of Cooper University Health Care described the program as "an incredible opportunity."

Nursing education has changed in recent years, and administrators at community colleges in the area say they now encourage students to pursue bachelor's degrees in nursing.

"Obtaining a bachelor's degree is becoming essential for nurses throughout New Jersey and across the country in order to deliver on exceptional nursing care and improve patient outcomes," Joanne Robinson, the dean of Rutgers-Camden's nursing school, said in a release.

Cooper has about 1,200 nurses in the region.