More Nurses Answering the Call for Higher Levels of Education

    • March 24, 2015
Nursing students learning skills during a class.

More nurses are advancing their education and more employers are hiring more highly educated nurses, several new surveys show.

The new research documents a transition toward a more highly educated nursing workforce, a goal championed by health care experts who cite data that links nurses with bachelor’s degrees with improved patient outcomes. Experts also say that nurses prepared with doctorates are needed to provide more complex care, conduct scientific research, assume leadership positions, and train the next generation of nurses.

A new survey by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) suggests that nurses and nursing students are responding to those calls. Enrollment in baccalaureate, master’s, and doctoral nursing programs rose across the board last year, it found. The sharpest increases were found among baccalaureate degree-completion and practice-focused doctoral programs.

“AACN applauds the nation’s nursing schools for their efforts to expand student capacity as momentum for advancing the education level of the nursing workforce continues to accelerate,” said AACN President Eileen T. Breslin, PhD, RN, FAAN. “We strongly believe that encouraging all nurses to continue their education is in the best interest of patients and the communities we serve.”

Other recent surveys have found that employers are hiring more nurses prepared at the baccalaureate level. A survey published in the January-February issue of Nursing Economics found that the percentage of nurses with bachelor’s degrees in acute care hospitals rose between 2003 and 2013 while the share of nurses with two-year associate degrees dropped. Another survey published in January in the Journal of Nursing Administration (JONA) found that the share of registered nurses (RNs) with bachelor’s degrees or higher increased from 48 percent in 2011 to 53 percent in 2013.

The percentage of health care organizations that require newly hired RNs to have bachelor’s degrees also grew, jumping from 9 percent in 2011 to 19.5 percent in 2013, the JONA study found. The increase was most pronounced among “Magnet” hospitals, which are recognized for their supportive work environments for nurses. These findings echo a survey conducted last fall by AACN that found that 80 percent of employers are now requiring or expressing a strong preference for nurses with bachelor’s degrees.

Solid Cultural Shift’

The new research indicates a “solid cultural shift among nurses and employers alike with regard to educational expectations,” according to Patricia Pittman, PhD, an associate professor of health policy at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and lead author of the study published in JONA. Released in January, the study measures progress toward several recommendations from the Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health, a landmark Institute of Medicine (IOM) report released in 2010. It recommended that at least 80 percent of the RN workforce hold a bachelor’s degree or higher by 2020 and called for double the number of nurses with doctorates by the same year.

The IOM report formed the basis of the Future of Nursing: Campaign for Action, a joint effort of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) and AARP that is working to implement its recommendations, which apparently are resonating with nurses. The new AACN survey found enrollment growing at all levels of advanced nursing education programs, rising about 4 percent in entry level baccalaureate nursing programs (BSN); 10 percent in “RN-to-BSN” degree completion programs; 7 percent in master’s programs (MSN); 3 percent in research-focused doctoral programs (PhD); and 26 percent in in practice-focused doctoral programs (DNP).

“It is so encouraging to see so many nurses and aspiring nurses continuing their education,” said Susan B. Hassmiller, PhD, RN, FAAN, RWJF’s senior adviser for nursing. “We are pleased that our nation’s nursing schools are significantly expanding enrollment in the DNP programs while a new investment, the RWJF Future of Nursing Scholars program, seeks to also boost enrollment in PhD programs. Programmatic expansions in both types of programs will make great headway in meeting the Future of Nursing report’s recommendation to double the number of nurses in the United States with doctorates by 2020.”

More Nurse Residency Programs

Pittman’s study found progress in other areas targeted by the Campaign for Action as well, including an expansion of nurse residency programs and more continuing education opportunities for nurses. In 2013, 42 percent of health care organizations offered so-called nurse residency programs, up from 32 percent in 2011. Thirty percent of health care organizations required additional education and/or certification in 2013, up from 23 percent in 2011.

“Our findings suggest that health care organizations are changing and working to put in place key nursing reforms that the IOM highlighted in its landmark report,” Pittman said in a news release. “Moving forward, it will be critical to continue to study these nursing reforms to make sure that the health care system is prepared for an aging population and other challenges.”

RWJF’s Hassmiller agreed. “Patients, communities and the country will be healthier as a result of all this progress toward a more highly educated nursing workforce,” she said.