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Rounds With Leadership: Sustaining Nursing Education Pathways

Published April 29, 2020

Welcome to Rounds with Leadership, a forum for AACN’s Board Chair and President/CEO to offer commentary on issues and trends impacting academic nursing.

April 29, 2020 - Sustaining Pathways into Nursing Education

The coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. has ushered in a period of unprecedented change and innovation across all sectors of the economy, including higher education. Deans and faculty from our nation’s schools of nursing have shown incredible leadership and resourcefulness as they have adapted their programs to ensure that nursing students can continue their programs and enter the nursing workforce, where they are in high demand in the fight against COVID-19.


With all eyes focused on the coming academic year and ensuring a smooth transition as schools make plans to move forward, it is important to note that nursing programs began the 2019-2020 academic year in a position of strength. Based on findings from AACN’s latest annual survey conducted in Fall 2019, significant increases in enrollment were found in entry-level baccalaureate (5.1%), master’s (2.4%), and Doctor of Nursing Practice (10.3%) programs. In fact, each of these degree levels have enjoyed more than 15 years of continuous enrollment growth, which underscores the success our member schools have had in expanding their programs to meet the demands for a more highly educated nursing workforce. 


In more troubling news, enrollment in both RN to baccalaureate (BSN) and PhD nursing programs declined last year, by 3.8% and 2.4% respectively. Since 2005, total enrollment in RN to BSN programs has increased by more than 100,000 students given calls from the Institute of Medicine and other authorities for more baccalaureate-prepared registered nurses. Though a one-year decline does not constitute a trend, AACN will continue to monitor enrollment in BSN completion programs as efforts to advance academic progression in nursing move forward across the nation.

Since 2013, enrollment in PhD programs has declined by 11.2% or 577 students, which has created great concern among academic nursing leaders responsible for preparing future nurse scientists, educators, and leaders. AACN has made addressing pathways into the PhD a top priority by focusing its programming, outreach, and advocacy work on generating new interest in the PhD among prospective nursing students and promoting quality nursing research.

To further strengthen nursing’s PhD (and equivalent programs), the AACN Board of Directors voted in January 2020 to update AACN’s position statement on The Research-Focused Doctoral Program in Nursing: Pathways to Excellence. This document delineates the expected outcomes and curricular elements of PhD programs as well as recommendations related to faculty and students, critical resources, program infrastructure, and evaluation. Refreshing this document will help to ensure that PhD programs meet contemporary expectations and that nursing science remains relevant in shaping the future of health care.

For more details on AACN’s annual survey and findings related to nursing program growth, student demographics, advanced practice programs, graduate-level specialties, and applications received, see the Research and Data Center on the AACN website. For information on the efforts underway to fortify the research-focused doctorate, see AACN’s special online resource focused on the PhD in Nursing.


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