It’s no secret — the nursing field is suffering. For years, healthcare experts have called out the increasing demand for nurses as a major threat to our healthcare systems. Based on estimations from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the United States will need an additional 203,200 registered nurses (RNs) every year between now and 2031 to meet the demand.
Yet enrollment in nursing school isn’t growing at the pace necessary to meet it. In fact, enrollment in entry-level baccalaureate programs increased by just 3.3% in 2021. This leaves many in the industry wondering why future nurses aren’t enrolling and how schools can respond. Here’s what we think.
Why Is There Such a Demand?
There are a few reasons why demand is high:
#1: Baby boomers, or those born between 1946 and 1964, are aging. Given that there’s so many of them, the demand for geriatric care is about to increase significantly — smaller generations don’t have the same impact.
#2: There’s a shortage of nursing instructors. Without enough qualified nursing instructors, fewer nurses are graduating and entering the field. This leads to major gaps in nursing staffs all across the country.
#3: The Affordable Care Act (ACA) has led to more patients in need of care. When the ACA was successfully able to reduce rates for uninsured patients, more patients began to seek care. While this is a positive result, as more people are able to access the care they need, more nurses are needed to meet the demand.
#4: Experienced nurses are leaving the field. It’s been estimated that around a million registered nurses will be leaving the workforce by 2030. While disappointing, it’s no surprise given the workload, toxic culture, and emotional strain the profession can sometimes come with.
One might assume that a nursing shortage simply leads to more time in the waiting room, but the impact is far more significant. While some states have legal patient-to-nurse ratios, others don’t. This allows healthcare facilities to push the limits of their nursing staff, assigning far more patients to each nurse than they should.
This leads to more errors, higher morbidity, and higher mortality rates. Plus, caring for too many patients at once will lead nurses to experience more frustration and exhaustion at work, leading to lower job satisfaction, lower retention rates, and a stronger desire to leave the profession — making the problem much worse.
Why Aren’t Future Nurses Enrolling?
While the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly made some folks reconsider their dream to be a nurse, the students aren’t entirely to blame for the lack of enrollment. In fact, one of the biggest roadblocks in enrolling more nursing students is the lack of instructors. Without them, programs face limited capacity, which in turn generates fewer certified nurses.
And this isn’t much of a surprise — nursing educators are required to have advanced degrees but earn just a fraction of a bedside nurse. The incentive to teach is nonexistent.
On top of that, finding opportunities for clinical or hands-on training is challenging, especially following the pandemic. According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, more than 80,000 qualified applicants were turned away in 2020 due to shortages of faculty, clinical sites, and other resources — and this doesn’t even include those that applied to community colleges.
Without the instructors needed to teach, or the clinical experience needed for students to graduate, programs are left with little resources to educate the next generation of nurses.
What Schools Should Do
While one single school can’t solve the nursing shortage themselves, it’s important to think about what you can do to help mitigate the problem. Here are a few ideas:
Provide incentives for staff. The first step to enrolling more nursing students is to have enough instructors to meet the demand. Offering a competitive pay structure with added incentives, like strong benefits, may lead to more applications.
Offer rolling admission. If you do have the faculty and clinical space to accommodate students, offer rolling admission to attract more students.
Give students flexible financing options. The number one reason students fail to enroll is a lack of funding. To bridge the gap between acceptance and enrollment, make sure your future students have flexible financing options that allow them to fund their education in the manner that works best for them.
Provide more training and guidance around state-specific certifications. Several states require nurses to have additional certifications beyond their standard degree in nursing. To make the process easier, give students the option to receive additional training and support necessary to pass their certifications.
Team up with other programs to offer dual admissions. The University of Chicago partnered with City Colleges of Chicago’s Malcolm X College to form a dual degree program. This allows students to complete their degree in less than four years, which saves them both time and money, and is thus attracting a diverse set of students.
Partner with local public health organizations for clinical rotations. If traditional settings aren’t able to accommodate students for clinical rotations, consider partnering with local public health organizations instead. Students will be able to gain the experience necessary to graduate, while the local community benefits too.