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Data Spotlight: Trends in Clinical Nurse Specialist Education

Published September 15, 2021

Clinical Nurse Specialists (CNS) are advanced practice registered nurses (APRN) with graduate-level education in nursing and preparation in a specialized area of practice.* The CNS integrates the roles of change agent, expert clinician, researcher, leader, consultant, and educator to enhance the delivery of care and optimize outcomes.

Unlike other APRN programs (Nurse Practitioner, Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwife), enrollment in masters’ and post-master’s CNS programs has been declining over the last 10 years (Figure 1). From 2011 to 2020 enrollments decreased 74.5%, and graduations decreased 69.6%. The number of master’s and post-master’s CNS programs has also fallen; from 273 programs in 2011 to 112 programs in 2020.

Conversely, enrollment in post-baccalaureate Doctor of Nursing (DNP) CNS programs has increased since 2011. Post-baccalaureate DNP programs admit RNs with baccalaureate nursing degrees and award a DNP. In 2011 only 59 CNS students were enrolled in post-baccalaureate DNP programs, but by 2020, enrollment had risen to 286 (Figure 2). When the post-baccalaureate DNP CNS students are taken into account, total CNS enrollment has declined more gradually, decreasing by 66.2% from 2011 to 2020. From 2014 onward total CNS enrollment (master’s, post-master’s, and post-baccalaureate DNP combined) has remained relatively flat (Figure 3).

*NACNS, 2021.