New AACN Data Points to Enrollment Challenges Facing U.S. Schools of Nursing

WASHINGTON, D.C., April 15, 2024 – New data released today by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) show that sustaining student enrollment in baccalaureate and graduate programs continues to be a challenge at U.S. schools of nursing. Though enrollment in programs designed to prepare entry-level registered nurses held steady (up 0.3%), fewer students are entering baccalaureate degree-completion, master’s, and PhD programs, which poses a threat to meeting the nation’s healthcare needs.

“Despite facing enrollment challenges, nursing schools are committed to expanding their programs in response to the growing demand for nurses in all settings where health care is delivered,” said Dr. Deborah Trautman, AACN President and Chief Executive Officer. “As we consider the needs of the nursing workforce over the next 10 years, more federal and local support is needed to expand pathways into nursing to ensure an adequate supply of clinicians needed to provide primary, preventative, and specialty care to an increasingly diverse patient population.”

Each year, AACN conducts a national survey of nursing schools with baccalaureate and higher degrees to compile data on student enrollment and graduations, faculty and dean demographics, applications received, and qualified applications turned away, among many other key benchmarks. Conducted in Fall 2023, AACN’s latest annual survey, titled 2023-2024 Enrollment and Graduations in Baccalaureate and Graduate Programs in Nursing, contains data reported by 975 schools of nursing, which represents a 90.1% response rate.

Enrollment Changes by Program Level

Most individuals pursuing a career as a registered nurse (RN) in the U.S. enter the profession with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree offered at 858 colleges and universities. Data from AACN’s Fall 2023 survey show that enrollment in BSN programs increased by 0.3% or 825 students from 2022 to 2023. This finding is welcome news, as AACN noted a decrease in BSN students last year, the first enrollment drop in more than 20 years (see trend chart below). Total enrollment in BSN programs is currently 255,455, which is still below the all-time high of 256,578 students in 2021.



Also at the baccalaureate level, the number of students in RN to BSN degree-completion programs decreased significantly for the fifth consecutive year. These bridge programs for nurses entering the workforce with an associate degree or diploma programs provide an important pathway for nurses looking to advance their education to better meet patient care needs and employer expectations. Last year, enrollment in RN to BSN programs decreased by 9.9% or 9,774 students. This 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. Today, 88,960 students are enrolled in these programs. AACN is exploring the causes that may be contributing to this trend, including declines by program type and any variations by region. AACN is also looking at any correlation between the increase in the number of nurses entering the profession with a baccalaureate and the number of nurses needing to complete a post-licensure BSN program.

At the graduate level, students in master’s programs decreased by less than 1% (0.9% or 1,176 fewer students) since 2022, marking the third year of enrollment decline. Master’s nursing programs prepare individuals for a variety of roles in administration, teaching, research, informatics, instruction, and direct patient care. Currently, 656 nursing schools nationwide offer master’s programs with a population of 130,348 students. AACN continues to monitor master’s program enrollments to identify any factors that may be influencing student demand, including the steady increase in enrollment in the practice doctorate.

Enrollment in PhD nursing programs continued to decline, with a 3.1% decrease (137 students) from 2022 to 2023. Since PhD program enrollment began to dip in 2013, enrollments have decreased by 17.5%, from 5,145 students in 2013 to 4,244 students in 2023. This downward trend over the last 10 years has created great concern among academic nursing leaders responsible for preparing future nurse scientists, educators, and leaders. In its report on the Future of Nursing: 2020-2030, the National Academy of Medicine, Science, and Engineering called the lack of robust enrollment in the PhD in nursing “a major concern for the profession and for the nation.” AACN’s research and data team are examining survey findings to determine factors that may impact enrollment declines, including program characteristics and applications received.

Last year, the number of students in Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) programs grew by 2.0% (810 students), marking 20 consecutive years of continuous enrollment expansion. DNP programs prepare nurses for practice at the highest level, including Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (nurse practitioners, certified registered nurse anesthetists, clinical nurse specialists, and nurse midwives). Enrollment in DNP programs has grown steadily over the last two decades from 70 students in 2003 to 41,831 students last year. DNP programs are now offered at 433 schools of nursing.

Applications Received and Turned Away

In addition to enrollment and graduations, AACN tracks applications to schools of nursing in order to assess interest in nursing education among prospective students. Last year, the total number of applications to baccalaureate and higher degree programs held steady with programs receiving 682,547 applications, a decrease of 455 since 2022. By program level, the number of applications increased in entry-level BSN (+0.6%), master’s (+0.6%), and PhD (+3.1%) programs and decreased in RN to BSN (-1.0%) and DNP programs (-7.9%).

AACN also tracks qualified applications not offered admission to nursing programs. Even though enrollments were down across program levels last year, thousands of qualified applications were turned away from four-year colleges and universities. In 2023, a total of 65,766 qualified applications (not applicants) were not accepted at schools of nursing nationwide, though the students submitting applications may have been accepted and enrolled elsewhere. Within this total, applications turned away included 55,111 from entry-level baccalaureate, 703 from RN-to-BSN, 5,491 from master's, 4,225 from DNP, and 236 from PhD nursing programs. Given the persistent shortage of nurse faculty, AACN remains concerned that nearly 10,000 applications were turned away from graduate programs, which may further limit the pool of potential nurse educators.

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 below for a graphic showing the number of qualified applications turned away from entry-level baccalaureate nursing programs over the last 20 years.



“Generating strong interest in nursing careers and retaining new nurses in the healthcare system are top priorities shared by leaders in nursing education and practice,” added Dr. Trautman. “Maintaining a healthy supply of practice-ready nurses is critical to ensuring access to essential patient care services and protecting the nation’s health.”

AACN is leading the charge to advocate for more federal support for nursing education, including funding for students interested in a nursing career and for schools of nursing to support faculty development and the infrastructure needed to accommodate more students. AACN is also calling for full participation among nursing schools in NursingCAS, the profession’s centralized application service for students seeking to enter nursing school to begin or advance their education. Through NursingCAS, students are alerted to open enrollment slots at schools of nursing, which will help to ensure that all available seats are filled, and fewer qualified applicants are turned away.

About the AACN Survey

Now in its 43rd year, AACN’s annual survey of 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. 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, including:

  • 2023-2024 Enrollment and Graduations in Baccalaureate and Graduate Programs in Nursing

  • 2023-2024 Salaries of Instructional and Administrative Nursing Faculty in Baccalaureate and Graduate Programs in Nursing

  • 2023-2024 Salaries of Deans in Baccalaureate and Graduate Programs in Nursing

To obtain copies, click here for more details.

View Highlights from AACN's 2023 Annual Survey

On request, AACN can prepare customized data reports to meet institutional benchmarking and research needs. Reports are available to compare a nursing school’s programs with institutions of similar size and type across geographic areas – nationally, state-wide, or locally. A variety of reports are available, including those comparing faculty and dean salaries and program enrollment and graduations across like institutions. Click here to find out more about AACN’s custom report capabilities, including costs, or contact AACN’s data and research team: Carrie Byrne at 202-463-6930 x236,; Jenny Keyt at 202-463-6930 x244,; or Dr. Nicholas Havey at 202-463-6930 x225,

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) is the national voice for academic nursing representing more than 875 schools of nursing nationwide. AACN establishes quality standards for nursing education, influences the nursing profession to improve health care, and promotes public support of baccalaureate and graduate nursing education, research, and practice.

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