Nurses flock to higher education programs

Baccalaureate, master's and doctoral nursing programs experienced an "enrollment surge" last year, according to new data from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), a trend that the group says reflects a growing demand for better-educated nurses.

AACN's fall 2014 survey recorded a 4.2 percent increase in the number of students in entry-level baccalaureate programs (BSN) and a 6.6 percent increase in master's program enrollment. The survey also recorded a 10.4 percent rise in enrollment in RN-to-BSN programs, also known as degree-completion programs, for RNs who want to expand upon their associate degrees.

The particularly high increase in RN-to-BSN programs "comes at a critical time in healthcare reform when more baccalaureate-prepared nurses are needed to fill critical roles across the continuum of care, especially outside of hospital walls," Pamela Austin Thompson, national director for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Academic Progression in Nursing program, said in the announcement. She added that the trend highlights "the important role baccalaureate nurses play in achieving both individual and population health outcomes."

Indeed, AACN data released in December 2013 indicate that nurses with bachelor's or master's degrees are more likely than students in any other field to secure jobs after graduation. Research has also linked higher levels of education for nurses to better patient outcomes, FierceHealthcare reported. To that end, an increasing number of states have moved to expand the role of nurse practitioners and advanced-practice registered nurses.

The AACN announcement also noted a 26.2 percent increase in enrollment in Doctor of Nursing Practice degree programs as well as an overall increase in Ph.D. program enrollment of 3.2 percent. Increasing enrollment in research- and practice-focused advanced degree programs is critical given the "great need for nurses with the highest level of scientific knowledge and practice expertise to ensure high-quality patient outcomes," the announcement noted.

But as the ranks of highly educated nurses swell, it's imperative that the profession bridge the divide between those who work on the front lines and those in academic, research or leadership roles, Leslie Neal-Boylan, Ph.D., registered rehab nurse and associate dean and professor at Quinnipiac University School of Nursing in Hamden, Connecticut, recently told FierceHealthcare in an exclusive interview. "We are not valuing each other," she said. "I don't think as a group either one really understands the other, and we need to recognize that there is that gap and see what we can do to unify nurses."

To learn more:
- here's the announcement