Student Enrollment Surged in U.S. Schools of Nursing in 2020 Despite Challenges Presented by the Pandemic

WASHINGTON, D.C., April 1, 2021 – According to new data released today by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), student enrollment in baccalaureate, master’s, and doctoral nursing programs increased in 2020 despite concerns that the pandemic might diminish interest in nursing careers. In programs designed to prepare new registered nurses (RNs) at the baccalaureate level, enrollment increased by 5.6% with 251,145 students now studying in these programs nationwide. AACN’s annual survey findings are based on data reported from 956 of the 1,035 nursing schools in the U.S. (92.4% response rate) with baccalaureate and/or graduate programs. 

“AACN is pleased to see across-the-board increases in nursing school enrollments given our commitment to encouraging all nurses to advance their education as a catalyst for improving patient care and keeping communities safe,” said Dr. Susan Bakewell-Sachs, Chair of the AACN Board of Directors. “With the pandemic ushering in a period of unprecedented change and innovation in higher education, schools of nursing moved decisively to adapt their programs to ensure a steady supply of nurses needed to join the fight against COVID-19.”

Based on findings from AACN’s latest annual survey conducted in Fall 2020, significant increases in enrollment were found in entry-level baccalaureate (5.6%), master’s (4.1%), and Doctor of Nursing Practice (8.9%) programs. In fact, nursing programs offered at each of these degree levels have seen more than 15 years of continuous enrollment growth.  

Though interest in baccalaureate and graduate nursing programs is strong, thousands of qualified applicants are being turned away from four-year colleges and universities. In 2020, 80,521 qualified applications were not accepted at schools of nursing due primarily to a shortage of clinical sites, faculty, and resource constraints. Within this total, applications turned away included 66,274 from entry-level baccalaureate, 1,376 from RN-to-baccalaureate, 8,987 from master's, and 3,884 from doctoral programs. Given the persistent shortage of nurse faculty, AACN remains concerned that 12,871 applications were turned away from graduate programs, which limits the pool of potential nurse faculty.  

In more troubling news, enrollment in RN to baccalaureate (BSN) programs declined for the second consecutive year with a 2.6% decrease in the number of enrolled students in 2020. Nurses with baccalaureate-level education have been linked to better patient outcomes, fewer errors, and lower mortality rates. RN to BSN programs offer an efficient route for practicing nurses to advance their initial preparation to the next level. With 11 new RN to BSN programs in the planning stages and the high demand among nurse employers for baccalaureate-prepared clinicians, AACN remains hopeful that this slight decline will soon be corrected.

In terms of the research-focused doctorate (PhD), AACN data show that enrollment has declined by 9.5% or 484 students since enrollments peaked in 2012. Last year, enrollments in PhD nursing programs increased by 0.9% or 58 students, and applications to these programs surged by 24.3%, which may indicate an end to the enrollment decline. 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. 

AACN continues to provide the necessary data, support, and leadership to ensure a high quality and robust academic nursing workforce. “One of the most important lessons learned from the pandemic was that establishing strong academic-practice partnerships is critical to the development of today’s nurses and meeting health workforce needs,” said Dr. Deborah Trautman, AACN President and Chief Executive Officer. “AACN remains committed to working with our colleagues in practice to ensure that nurses are well prepared to assume the wide variety of roles open to those with entry- and advanced-level nursing preparation.”

About the AACN Survey

Now in its 40th 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 April 2021, including:

  • 2020-2021 Enrollment and Graduations in Baccalaureate and Graduate Programs in Nursing  
  • 2020-2021 Salaries of Instructional and Administrative Nursing Faculty in Baccalaureate and Graduate Programs in Nursing  
  • 2020-2021 Salaries of Deans in Baccalaureate and Graduate Programs in Nursing  

View Highlights from AACN's 2020 Annual Survey