The latest report on the registered nursing workforce, released Sept. 22 by the Health Resources and Services Administration, delivered expected projections about growing nursing faculty shortages. But the report brought some good news, too.
More advanced degrees ...
… but not enough to ease nursing faculty shortage
The education level of nurses has improved, with about half of RNs earning a baccalaureate degree or higher sometime in their career—nearly doubling since 1980.
Of the nearly 3.1 million registered nurses in the workforce, more than 1.4 million have obtained a bachelor’s nursing degree or higher, according to the report. Roughly 1.1 million have associate-level degrees, while the remaining 474,000 received their education in hospital-based diploma programs.
The problem, experts say, is that the trend toward higher education levels among nurses is simply not moving fast enough to meet the demands of the healthcare system. “Even though we have more nurses with higher degrees, it’s still not close to adequate,” said Polly Bednash, CEO of the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. “What we need are individuals with graduate degrees who can fill faculty roles. That’s where we need to put our energy.”
Associate degree programs have been favored in the past because they turned out large numbers of nurses in a short amount of time, according to Linda Aiken, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s school of nursing and an expert on nursing shortages. But only about 20% of those associate degree nurses will go on to earn additional degrees, Aiken said. The stream of nurses that actually go on to graduate education—required for faculty members and nurse practitioners—is not nearly large enough.
“I think these data remind us that just letting the workforce evolve naturally will not work,” Aiken said. “We’re turning away tens of thousands of students because of the faculty shortage and the situation is only going to get worse when 30 million more people become insured.”
Hospitals now devote large percentages of their tuition reimbursement budgets to helping associate-level nurses earn baccalaureate degrees. Aiken argued that money would be better spent supporting baccalaureate-level nurses’ efforts to get advanced degrees.
Cheryl Peterson, director of nursing practice and policy at the American Nurses Association, echoed the need for higher education levels and said the report calls attention to the need for better policymaking and planning. Additionally, she said the National Health Care Workforce Commission, established by the health reform law, could also do a great deal to address educational deficiencies and shortages.
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