Nursing schools offer dim hope for fresh troops

Whether recent nursing school enrollment figures are good news or bad depends on whether your facility needs advanced practice or entry-level nurses.

Last year, master’s degree enrollments fell by 2.1%, but it’s only a small blip in the upward trend of the last decade. The more distressing news is at the undergraduate level: Enrollments dropped 5.5%. It was the fourth consecutive year of decline.

Given the 44-year-old mean age of today’s nurses, and the fact that only 9% of the RNs are under age 30, demand will probably exceed the supply of RNs within the next decade. The findings were released this year by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) in Washington, DC.

Nurse educators are concerned about the lingering effect of media headlines two to four years ago announcing nurse layoffs due to managed care cost pressures. They fear that many potential students may have based their decisions not to enroll on false perceptions, given today’s expanding nursing job opportunities.

On the other hand, many schools have scaled down class sizes to cope with faculty shortages and other resource shortfalls. "Students need to know, too, that while many nursing schools with resource constraints had to turn away numbers of qualified applicants to entry-level bachelor’s degree programs this past fall, other schools reported having several vacant seats remaining," notes Andrea Lindell, DNSc, RN, president of AACN.

Another factor in reduced enrollments is the tightening supply of clinical training sites. Hospitals with fewer inpatients train fewer students. Community-based facilities, including HMOs and primary care clinics, apportion training slots to medical students and physician assistant trainees as well as student nurses.

Although hospitals may trim their inpatient RN staffs, needs soared in certain niches:

  • community health centers, up 42%;
  • long-term care facilities, up 32%;
  • outpatient, labor, and delivery, up 25%;
  • emergency departments, up 15%;
  • surgical facilities, up 10%.