Nursing News

America’s Nursing Schools Face Capacity Issues

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By Glenna Murdock, RN, contributor
Feb. 5, 2010 - The nursing shortage has been at the forefront of America's health care issues for several years.  An aging, soon-to-retire nursing workforce and an aging baby boomer population with greater health needs are converging to create a situation of less supply and greater demand for qualified nurses. And health insurance reform, if and when it happens, could add millions more patients to the list of those needing services.

One of the biggest concerns for health leaders is whether the country's nursing schools can generate enough graduates to replace nurses who will soon be leaving the profession, and to meet the increased demand in the coming years. Can the nursing pipeline grow fast enough to minimize future shortages? 

According to a spokesman for the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), which represents more than 640 member schools and collects data annually regarding baccalaureate and graduate degree programs, efforts to expand nursing student capacity must focus on increasing nursing faculty as a priority. The AACN reports that 39,000 qualified applicants were denied admission to nursing schools in 2009, based on preliminary data. The predominant reasons for this were a shortage of nursing school faculty and a lack of facilities for clinical experience.

AACN data show that graduates of baccalaureate nursing programs are significantly more likely to pursue graduate education and achieve the credentials needed to serve as nurse educators. Accordingly, federal efforts to alleviate the faculty shortage should be focused on expanding baccalaureate and graduate degree programs.

Approximately $42 million has been allocated to nursing education through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009. The funding was directed to the existing Title VIII Nursing Workforce Development Programs, which have supported hundreds of thousands of nurses and nursing students since their creation in 1964. The health care reform bills in both houses of Congress contain critical revisions to update and expand the Title VIII programs, according to the AACN. Should health care reform not pass, a new legislative vehicle will be needed to make these vital changes.

The downturn in the economy has eased the nursing shortage temporarily, as large numbers of nurses are delaying retirement, part-time nurses have moved to full-time and many are willing to accept more overtime hours. This has made it more difficult for new graduates to find jobs but has not, thus far, diminished the numbers of applicants seeking admission to nursing programs.

Kathleen Dracup, RN, DNSc, FNP, FAAN, is dean and professor at the University of California-San Francisco School of Nursing, an all-graduate level program. She stated, "Applications to our pre-licensure program have not decreased, but I would anticipate that they would in a year or two if jobs continue to be difficult to obtain for new graduates. We are encouraging graduates to consider non-hospital based positions initially. We anticipate a huge shortage of nurses as soon as the economy resolves and they will be in high demand."

AACN's department of research and data reports that workforce analysts expect significantly more nurses will be needed in the near future to meet the nation's health care needs. And the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in December 2009 that 580,000 more nurses will be needed between 2008 and 2018, representing more growth than any other profession.
"The projections for continued job growth in nursing are very attractive to students and those seeking a career transition into nursing," said Robert Rosseter, AACN's associate executive director.

"The fastest growing type of entry level nursing program," Rosseter continued, "is the accelerated baccalaureate program for adults with degrees in other fields. These programs typically take 12 to 18 months to complete and offer the quickest route to RN licensure for career changers seeking to enter the profession. The number of these programs has increased from 130 in 2003 to 209 today."

Dracup added that changes in legislation limiting medical residents to an 80-hour work week have dramatically increased opportunities for acute care nurse practitioners (NPs) who work in the hospital, particularly in the ICU.

"I also anticipate that health care reform will provide many new opportunities for NPs working in primary care," Dracup said. "As our population ages, the need for patient-centered team care will open up many new positions for ANPs who focus on health promotion, physical function and symptom management. It's a very exciting time for the nursing profession."

See related story on NurseZone:
America's Nursing Shortage: The Sequel 

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