Nursing School Enrollment Up; Faculty and Facility Constraints Persist

Apr 18, 2012, 1:00 PM

Even as the number of nursing students in the United States increased last year, nursing schools were forced to turn away more than 75,000 qualified applications, primarily because they lacked the teaching faculty and facilities to do otherwise. Those were the good news/bad news findings from this year’s survey of the nation’s nursing schools by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN).

Despite the number of rejections, the study finds that nursing schools accepted more students at the baccalaureate, master’s and doctoral levels of nursing education last year. Enrollment in entry-level baccalaureate programs increased by 5.1 percent over the previous year. Similarly, enrollment in doctoral nursing programs was up 28.9 percent over the previous year. Applications numbers were up as well, with 255,671 applications submitted to baccalaureate programs, an eight-year high. The figure represented a 5.6 percent increase over 2010, and more than double the number of applications submitted in 2004.

AACN found that 80,767 students graduated from baccalaureate programs last year, including 52,922 from entry-level programs and 27,845 from baccalaureate-degree-completion programs. At the graduate level, 24,311 nursing students received master's degrees last year, while 601 graduated from research-focused doctoral programs and 1,595 from practice-focused doctoral programs.

Student diversity increased, as well. The percentage of entry-level baccalaureate nursing students from underrepresented backgrounds increased to 26.9 percent last year, according to AACN, with master’s and doctoral programs not far behind. Similarly, while men are just 6.6 percent of today’s nursing workforce, they account for 11.4 percent of nursing baccalaureate students and 9.9 percent of master's students.

“With the release of the Institute of Medicine’s report on the Future of Nursing, the national conversations about increasing the education level of the nursing workforce are accelerating,” said AACN President Kathleen Potempa in a news release. “Last year’s enrollment increases across all types of baccalaureate and graduate nursing programs clearly indicate a strong interest among nursing students in advancing their education and developing the skills needed to thrive in contemporary care settings.”

At the same time, thousands of qualified applications were turned away from four-year colleges and universities, largely because of a shortage of faculty and facilities necessary to teach the additional nursing students. According to AACN’s data, 58,327 applications that met the admission criteria for entry-level baccalaureate programs were rejected, a 10-year high, while 2,906 were rejected by RN-to-Baccalaureate programs, 13,198 by master's programs, and 1,156 by doctoral programs. In all 75,587 qualified applications were turned away.

Read AACN's news release on the study.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.