The nursing shortage in this country is well documented: a million new and replacement nurses will be needed by 2016, according to the Monthly Labor Review (November 2007) of the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
To help tackle the nurse workforce shortage, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, in partnership with the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), has created the $15-million Robert Wood Johnson Foundation New Careers in Nursing national program. The program awards scholarships to students from groups underrepresented in nursing or from disadvantage backgrounds who already have a college degree in another discipline to pursue an accelerated program leading to a baccalaureate or master's degree in nursing. Working with AACN and a national advisory committee, the program will award 1,500 scholarships of $10,000 each to entry-level nursing students over the next three years. The deadline for receipt of proposals is June 26, 2008.
“We see the changing demographics in this country and a real need to focus on expanding diversity in our nursing population,” says Geraldine (Polly) Bednash, Ph.D., R.N., executive director of AACN and national program director of the new RWJF program. “We also need to have the faculty represent the diversity of the students that we want to attract. These scholarships will be allocated to people who come from racial and ethnically underrepresented populations. The program will also include men, who are underrepresented in nursing at 6 percent of the workforce, and therefore bring more diversity in gender as well.”
Bednash anticipates the program will attract students who are making a deliberate and conscious choice to become nurses after having experienced some other kind of career or formal education. “These are students who most likely have established life commitments—a job, car payments, rent, marriage, children—that make it difficult for them to enroll full-time in a degree program,” she says. “This money will allow them to enroll full-time, get through the program quickly and have higher success rates.
“It shows that there is a strong commitment by the schools to have diverse student populations and sends a message to potential students that nursing is a profession that is seeking their participation.”
“We also know,” says Bednash, “that these students are most likely to progress on in their nursing careers to graduate education if they enter the nursing profession at the baccalaureate level—and that they will be the future nurse faculty in this country.”
A shortage of nursing school faculty is a major factor contributing to the nursing workforce crisis. In 2007, nursing schools turned away 40,285 qualified applicants, according to an AACN report. Some 71 percent of nursing schools cited faculty shortages as the major reason. With the average age of 59 years old for master's- and doctoral-prepared nurse faculty professors, an increasing number of nurse educators will be retiring soon, further exacerbating the problem.
“We are facing a serious shortage of people who can serve as faculty,” says Bednash. “Less than 1 percent of nurses in this country have a doctoral degree. It used to be that nurses with doctoral degrees were hired only by colleges or universities as faculty members. Now, competition over people with graduate preparation is very intense. Practice settings, research institutes, pharmaceutical manufacturers and health care technology manufacturers all want to hire nurses with doctoral degrees. They value their research capabilities.”
In addition to increasing diversity of the workforce and of the pool of qualified faculty members, the New Careers in Nursing program should yield another important benefit to health care—increasing the quality of patient care.
“The best educated nurses give the best care,” says Bednash. “Anyone who has been in a hospital recently knows how complex the world of work in health care is—how ill the patients are, and how much technology is used for the sophisticated interventions and drugs that people are receiving. Significant research documents that the better educated the nurses are, the greater the chance that a patient will have a better outcome and survive these very complex health care experiences. We need more nurses with baccalaureate and master's degrees right up close and personal with the patient getting care.”
In addition to the scholarships, RWJF will fund mentoring opportunities at the award sites. “The mentorship component is very important to the program,” says Rosemary Gibson, M.Sc., RWJF senior program officer, “and will vary from school to school. It will allow students to be introduced to nursing professionals—to personally connect with people active in the field—and give students a sense of what they could do in their careers.”
AACN, serving as the national program office, brings experience in just such leadership development programs in nursing, as well as in scholarship award programs. “They are well-positioned to lead a program like this,” says Gibson.
And, just as important, AACN knows the schools of nursing that are New Careers in Nursing potential grantees. “We have a close relationship with our members—universities and colleges that grant baccalaureate and graduate degrees,” says Bednash. “They look to us for data, for information and for support—and to bring them programs that help them do what they are supposed to do, which is to prepare the best educated nurses possible.”