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Rounds with Leadership: Divining the Data

Published March 31, 2021

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.

March 31, 2021 - Divining the Data

Now in its 40th year, AACN’s annual survey has become the nation’s most trusted source for data on enrollment and graduation trends in schools offering baccalaureate and higher degree programs in nursing. With concerns that the pandemic might negatively impact enrollment in nursing schools and interest in nursing careers, data from our fall 2020 survey arrives with a heightened sense of interest among workforce analysts, legislators, and leaders across the health professions.

Entry-Level Programs

Fortunately, the news is good! At the entry-level, enrollment in four-year baccalaureate programs (BSN) increased by 5.6% or 13,279 students from 2019 to 2020. With 251,145 students currently studying in these programs, schools of nursing have managed to expand capacity in generic baccalaureate programs every year since 2001. While this is welcome news, AACN will continue to monitor the number of applications to entry-level BSN programs that increased by only 1.5% last year, which is significantly lower than the 4.5% and 8.5% increases realized in 2019 and 2018, respectively.

In addition, accelerated baccalaureate programs continue to be an important pathway into nursing for individuals with degrees in other fields who are looking to change careers. With the student population holding steady from 2019 to 2020 (up less than 0.5%), 27,429 students are now enrolled in the nation’s 307 accelerated BSN programs. A much larger increase (7.7%) was realized in the 70 accelerated or entry-level master's degree programs in nursing, which accommodate 8,513 students in programs available in 28 states.

Degree Completion Programs

Given the calls for practicing nurses to advance their education, AACN is concerned to see a decline in the number of nurses entering degree-completion programs. From 2019 to 2020, enrollment in RN-to-BSN programs decreased by 3,720 students in 2020 and 5,349 in 2019.

Though the number of students in RN to master’s degree programs (MSN) increased by 83 students in 2020 (up 1%), enrollments are still down by 640 students from 2018.

AACN is committed to working with our practice partners to raise awareness about the many options available to nurses to advance their education and contribute to the profession at a higher level. Currently, 762 RN-to-BSN and 208 RN-to-MSN programs are available nationwide, with many offered online or in hybrid format. For details on the need to prepare a well-educated nursing workforce and AACN’s work to facilitate academic progression, see:

Advanced-Level Programs

Data from AACN’s 2020 survey show that enrollment in master’s and doctoral degree nursing programs also increased this year. Nursing schools with master’s programs reported a 4.1% jump in enrollments with 610 institutions reporting data. This expansion will help to meet the growing demand for nurses with advanced degrees to serve in clinical, administrative, and leadership roles.

In doctoral nursing programs, the greatest growth was seen in Doctor of Nursing Practice programs where enrollment increased by 8.9% (379 schools reporting) from 2019 to 2020. During this same time period, enrollment in research-focused doctoral programs (PhD, DNS, EdD) edged up slightly by 0.9% (148 schools reporting), even though 220 qualified applications were turned away from these programs. Preparing more nurses in research-focused and practice-focused doctoral programs is a priority for the profession given the great need for nurses with the highest level of scientific knowledge and practice expertise as well as the ongoing demand for nursing faculty.

AACN is compiling findings from the 2020 annual survey into three separate reports, including 2020-2021 Enrollment and Graduations in Baccalaureate and Graduate Programs in Nursing, which is now available. The two remaining reports, which focus on faculty and dean salaries and demographics, will be available in April 2021. Schools contributing data to AACN’s annual survey will receive free copies of all three reports for participating in this critical survey effort that helps to shape policy discussions on Capitol Hill and throughout the healthcare and higher education arenas.

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