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Spotlight on Walden // May 10, 2018

The State of Nursing Education

By Dr. Ward Ulmer, Interim President of Walden University

Dr. Andrea Lindell
Dr. Andrea Lindell

At Walden, we are proud to graduate more nurses with advanced degrees than any other university.* We have more than 19,000 nursing students and rarely need to cap our programs, which is why I was surprised to read a recent CNN article about how undergraduate nursing programs failed to enroll more than 56,000 qualified applicants in 2017. That’s quite a leap from the estimation by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), which found about 30,000 applications from qualified students are rejected annually, going back 10 years.

Walden University understands the critical role nurses play in our healthcare system and strives to meet the demand. To gain more insight into the state of nursing education, I spoke with Dr. Andrea Lindell, vice provost for Walden’s College of Health Sciences and past president of the AACN.

The nursing shortage isn’t new. What’s happening now?

Andrea: Though the alarms have been sounding for years, we are now at the height of the crisis. On one hand, we are experiencing a loss of knowledge and expertise because so many practicing nurses and nurse educators are retiring baby boomers. On the other hand, the field is increasing its requirements for nurses to hold advanced degrees and have more credentials due to increased acuity in the provision of patient care. As a result, we have a widening gap of thousands of nurses who should achieve higher education through a variety of career pathways in academic settings, but they are faced with not enough available experienced nurse educators to carry out the mission. It’s more important now than ever to develop strategies to increase recruitment and utilization of nurses to replace those nurses we are losing due to retirement.

Are there changes to the healthcare system that are also affecting the nursing shortage?

Andrea: More hospitals are seeking the prestigious Magnet Recognition Program®, run by the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC), which in turn challenges hospitals to employ nurses with more advanced education and/or assist them in obtaining higher degrees. There is also a shortage of appropriate clinical learning sites for nursing students. Healthcare systems are increasingly limiting the number of students placed for clinical learning, thus placing undo stress on employees who serve as students’ preceptors. Overall, healthcare providers are concerned about potential burnout of preceptors and the availability of essential clinical learning experiences that must articulate and align with the required course outcomes and competences. Again, there’s the issue of supply and demand.

Do you believe the shortage begins and ends with the healthcare systems?

Andrea: It’s not that simple, as there are many contributing factors. Think of it like a Slinky. When it’s fully extended, there is an abundance of nurse educators, which allows for the creation and offering of flexible pathways to recruit new nurses and a nursing workforce. When the Slinky is fully collapsed, there’s only so much space in the nursing programs to educate and train, in both clinical experiences for nurses to demonstrate what they’ve learned and in healthcare systems to employ nurses.

For Walden to have amassed such a large student body of nurses, we must be doing something right.

Andrea: It’s no surprise that online education is a good fit for nurses because it allows them the flexibility to work and have a personal life while earning a degree. At Walden, we work very hard to develop relationships and partnerships with healthcare systems and major national organizations, such as the American Nurses Association. We take great care in examining the added value for the healthcare system to provide an opportunity for Walden students to have onsite clinical learning and the value for us to place a student there. For example, Walden has students across the country, and we work hard at establishing those important connections so that our students can apply for and be accepted into clinical experiences and potential employment.

In addition, it’s important to develop flexible pathways to recruit new nurses from the nursing workforce and establish innovative opportunities that excite nurses to join academia. Experienced nurses may not be aware of the teaching opportunities that exist because they believe they need decades of academic experience. We attract our 100% doctorally trained teaching faculty, who hold appropriate certification credentialing and can teach the didactic courses, by telling them about these opportunities and creating mentoring strategies to assist in developing the educator role. It is our goal to retain faculty members who are considering retirement, which is just as important as increasing the opportunities for our younger nurses. Ultimately, it’s about providing the support and encouragement they need to become nurse educators. I believe this is our legacy for the future of nursing, and it is important for the entire nursing profession—practitioners and educators included—to continue working together to achieve the same outcome.

*Source: National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) IPEDS database. Retrieved July 2017, using CIP codes 51.3801 (Registered Nursing/Registered Nurse); 51.3808 (Nursing Science); 51.3818 (Nursing Practice). Includes 2016 preliminary data.