Published April 05, 2022
WASHINGTON, D.C., April 5, 2022 – According to new data released today by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), student enrollment in entry-level baccalaureate nursing programs increased by 3.3% in 2021, despite concerns that the pandemic might discourage career seekers from entering the profession. Though this is welcome news, nursing schools did see enrollment declines in baccalaureate degree-completion programs and some graduate programs (master’s and PhD).
“Throughout the pandemic, AACN has seen strong and increasing interest in baccalaureate programs among students looking to begin a new career in nursing,” said Dr. Deborah Trautman, AACN President and Chief Executive Officer. “We applaud the nation’s schools of nursing for their successful efforts to expand student enrollment to better meet the demand for registered nurses (RNs) needed to provide care in all communities. Having a robust supply of nurses is essential to maintaining the health of the nation.”
Each year, AACN initiates a national survey of nursing schools with baccalaureate and higher degrees to compile data on enrollment and graduations, faculty and dean demographics, applications received, and qualified applications turned away, among many other key benchmarks. Conducted in Fall 2021, AACN’s latest annual survey contains data reported by 964 schools of nursing, which represents a 91.2% response rate.
Findings from the 2021 AACN survey show enrollment increases in both baccalaureate programs (+3.3%) designed to prepare new registered nurses, and Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) programs (4.0%), which prepare nurses for practice at the highest level. In fact, entry-level Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) programs and DNP programs have seen more than 20 years of continuous enrollment growth. See charts showing enrollment trends in BSN and DNP programs.
Nursing School Enrollment Declines in Key Program Areas
AACN’s latest survey results show enrollment declines in three areas. For the third consecutive year, the number of students in baccalaureate degree completion programs – commonly known as RN to BSN programs – decreased, with 12,579 fewer students enrolled last year (a 9.6% decline). These bridge programs for nurses entering the nursing profession at the associate degree level provide an important pathway for nurses looking to advance their education to better meet patient care needs and employer expectations. The recent downward trend follows an enrollment surge in RN to BSN programs, which saw a rapid increase from 30,684 students in 2002 to 139,587 enrolled students in 2018 (a 355% increase). AACN is investigating whether the overall increase in the number of nurses entering the nursing profession at the baccalaureate level may be impacting enrollment in degree completion programs.
For the first time since 2001, enrollment in master’s programs decreased by 3.8%, which translates to 5,766 fewer students enrolled in 2021 than in the previous year. Master’s nursing programs prepare individuals for a variety of roles in administration, teaching, research, informatics, and direct patient care. Currently, 637 schools of nursing nationwide offer master’s degree programs with 145,565 enrolled students (n=611 respondent schools). Though a one-year decline does not constitute a trend, AACN will monitor master’s program enrollments to identify any factors that may be influencing student demand, including the steady increase in DNP program enrollment.
Enrollment in PhD nursing programs continued to decline, with a 0.7% decrease (32 fewer students) from 2020 to 2021. Since PhD program enrollment began to dip in 2013, enrollments have decreased by 13%, from 5,145 students in 2013 to 4,476 students in 2021. AACN’s research and data team are examining survey findings to determine factors that may impact enrollment declines, including program characteristics and applications received. This downward trend over the last 8 years has created great concern among academic nursing leaders responsible for preparing future nurse scientists, educators, and leaders. To address this concern, AACN has created a task force comprised of nursing deans, faculty, and practice leaders to produce a new report on the future of the PhD in nursing, including recommendations related to students, faculty, and programs.
“Maintaining a robust pipeline of nursing students in research-focused doctoral programs is critical to the nursing profession and a priority for AACN,” said Dr. Trautman. AACN will continue to convene stakeholders, advocate for more resources for PhD programs, and promote careers in nursing science and education to help address this concern.” For a look at the latest data related to the PhD in nursing and related resources, click here.
Qualified Students Turned Away from Nursing Schools
Though interest in baccalaureate and graduate nursing programs is strong, thousands of qualified students are turned away from four-year colleges and universities each year. In 2021, a total of 91,938 qualified applications (not applicants) were not accepted at schools of nursing nationwide. Within this total, applications turned away included 76,140 from entry-level baccalaureate, 1,055 from RN-to-BSN, 9,574 from master's, 4,952 from DNP, and 217 from PhD nursing programs. Given the persistent shortage of nurse faculty, AACN remains concerned that 14,743 applications were turned away from graduate programs, which may further limit the pool of potential nurse faculty.
The primary barriers to accepting all qualified students at nursing schools continue to be insufficient clinical placement sites, faculty, preceptors, and classroom space, as well as budget cuts. See chart showing the number of qualified applications turned away from entry-level baccalaureate nursing programs over the last 20 years.
About the AACN Survey
Now in its 41st year, AACN’s Annual Survey of Institutions with Baccalaureate and Higher Degree Nursing Programs is conducted by the association’s Department of Research and Data Services. Information from the survey forms the basis for the nation's premier database on trends in enrollments and graduations, student and faculty demographics, and faculty and deans' salaries. With a focus on baccalaureate and higher degree programs, these data are essential for policymaking at the local, state, and federal levels as well as for benchmarking by participating institutions.
The annual AACN survey is a collaborative effort, with data on nurse practitioner programs collected jointly with the National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties and data on clinical nurse specialist programs collected with the National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists. Complete survey results are compiled in three separate reports, which will be available in May 2022, including:
- 2021-2022 Enrollment and Graduations in Baccalaureate and Graduate Programs in Nursing
- 2021-2022 Salaries of Instructional and Administrative Nursing Faculty in Baccalaureate and Graduate Programs in Nursing
- 2021-2022 Salaries of Deans in Baccalaureate and Graduate Programs in Nursing
View Highlights from AACN's 2021 Annual Survey