It’s no secret that America is facing a serious shortage of nurses and that the problem could grow to critical proportions as the population ages and more healthcare providers are needed. Yet many may not realize that the root of the nursing shortage lies in higher education. Colleges and universities can’t teach students without the help of faculty who are trained as nurses, and as the number of nurses dwindles in proportion to the number of available positions, it’s becoming more and more difficult to find qualified nurses to take on faculty positions. The problem is further compounded by a variety of economic, education, and academic issues, the combination of which make it hard to see a way out of the vicious cycle the shortage has created. Read on to learn about some the ways that higher ed is being affected by the nursing shortage (and may in turn shape the shortage), showcasing the critical importance of training more nurses not only for healthcare facilities but also for the classroom.
- Colleges don’t have enough faculty on hand to teach students.
Many nursing colleges and universities are experiencing a shortage of nursing instructors, a situation that is causing myriad other problems for nursing schools all over the nation. Currently, about 8% of nursing school jobs are vacant (about 1,200 jobs in total) but that number is expected to grow substantially as more nurses retire and few are prepared to take their places. The impact of this lack of nursing faculty has long-reaching effects and is perhaps the most serious aspect of the nursing shortage’s impact on higher education as it will likely cause serious shortages in trained nurses for decades to come.
- The instructor shortage means many students are turned away.
The lack of qualified instructors to teach in nursing schools could be exacerbating the nursing shortage, as many who want to become nurses can’t gain acceptance to nursing schools. Over the past year alone, 76,000 qualified applicants were turned away from nursing schools, with more than three-quarters of schools citing a lack of faculty as the main reason they turned away qualified applicants. While a survey by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing found a 14.1% jump in enrollment in entry-level nursing programs, there still aren’t enough programs to fill the demand, nor graduates to fill the open nursing positions today, let alone as the demand increases in the future.
- There’s little incentive for nurses to pursue a career in education.
Not only are there not enough nurses to fill teaching positions, but there few who want to take that career path to help fill the growing need for professors. It’s hard to blame them. Teaching positions in nursing schools require high levels of education and don’t provide pay that’s competitive with other jobs that require similar levels of education. Currently, 50% of teaching positions require a doctorate, yet of the 3 million nurses in the U.S. today, less than 1% hold that qualification. Even worse, not many are working to attain a doctorate. Each year, only 350 to 400 nursing students graduate from doctoral programs, making the pool for professional candidates very limited.Further complicating things is the low pay of nursing professors compared to other positions that require commensurate experience. Even with a master’s degree alone, a nurse can make upwards of $120,000 a year working in a hospital or healthcare facility, and pay for Ph.D. educated nurses can be even higher. The average for professors, however, hovers at around $75,000 so it’s not hard to see why many don’t see teaching at a nursing school as a smart career move. As a way to encourage nursing students to pursue post-grad education, new state and federal programs are offering loan forgiveness and grant support to those who are willing to further their education. Only time will tell whether these programs will have a marked impact on the number of students who decide to enter healthcare academia.
- Colleges are finding little diversity in the teacher population.
Nursing is already a profession that suffers from a serious lack of diversity, but a reduced pool of applicants makes it even harder for schools to hire a diverse group of faculty to teach students. While minorities make up about 25% of the population nationwide, they comprise just 10% of nursing professors. Gender diversity is also a major issue for nursing and nursing schools, with many actively seeking out males to serve as professors. Currently, men make up just 10% of the nursing workforce and an even smaller percentage of nursing faculty positions. Many schools believe that diversity is critical, as it can help them to better serve students and patients, but it may be a tough goal to aim for when there are already few nurses headed for a career in academia.
- Classes for nurses can’t get bigger.
You might think that one solution to training more nurses and getting more into master’s level courses would be to simply expand class size, but that’s not an option due to state and federal laws. Classes are limited in size because much of the training nurses do is hands-on, and experienced professionals have to be on hand to make sure students are doing things the right way to avoid harming patients. For every additional 10 students, another faculty member is needed to supervise, and with faculty already in short supply, this simply isn’t a workable solution.
- Colleges are having to get creative in how they teach students.
Colleges are aware of the potential effects that a lack of faculty could have on the nursing shortage and many are coming up with creative ways to teach students that don’t require hiring more nurses as instructors. At many schools, a solution has been to hire non-nursing healthcare professionals to teach, drawing on pharmacists, physicians, statisticians and health policy analysts to fill faculty positions. Others are simply hiring more part-time faculty which has helped to increase the number of professors on hand, but has been fraught with its own problems as these part-timers might not always be available to students or actively involved in the larger issues within the school. Technology is also playing a big role in filling the gap. Simulators and computer-based lessons are now regularly used to supplement classroom and lab experience.
- 81% of nursing college leaders say the lack of qualified nursing teachers is a problem at their schools.
Administrators at nursing colleges are nervous about the lack of faculty on campus and the ramifications it could have for the nursing shortage. A recent survey found that 81% of nursing college leaders ranked a lack of qualified teachers as the number one concern they have about the future of their institutions. Nearly half of these leaders said they regarded the shortage as not just a problem but a severe problem. Working together with legislators, many schools are building programs and incentives that they hope will drive more nursing students into teaching, but it could be decades before the products of the initiatives come to fruition, leaving many schools hanging in limbo in the meantime.
- Nurses who are in high demand to teach are also in high demand in hospitals.
The nursing shortage has put nurses in high demand in many communities around the United States. Unfortunately, many of those who are most needed by healthcare facilities are also those who are most qualified to teach in nursing schools. Their experience and expertise in an asset in both settings, and unfortunately for many colleges, the higher pay that healthcare facilities can offer often wins out. In an uncertain economy, it’s hard to fault this decision, especially as the difference can be as much as $30,000 a year. Yet the fact that the nursing shortage has put colleges and healthcare facilities in direct competition with one another for qualified nurses could have some very serious negative effects for both nurses and patients over the coming decade.
- The problem will get even worse as many nurses retire.
Due to the poor economy, many nurses bound for retirement kept working, whether to make up for an unemployed spouse, to even out losses in retirement funds, or just for their own personal peace of mind. As the economy improves, these nursing educators are expected to leave in droves. In some places, they already are. This means that the shortage of nursing faculty will increase substantially over the next few years. By 2019, it’s expected that 75% of the current faculty population will retire. Sadly, there are few nurses to fill their jobs. Just 10,000 master’s level nurses graduate per year, which means that 15% of would have to go into teaching just to keep the faculty shortage from getting any worse. That’s an unlikely scenario, and as these older educators leave to retire, schools will increasingly see a growth in unfilled positions with few candidates to fill them.