Addressing the Nursing Workforce Crisis: The Essential Role of Higher Education 


April 02, 2024

Geoffrey Roche

Geoffrey Roche

In the United States, the healthcare system faces a growing nursing workforce crisis. With an aging population and the pandemic’s lingering effects, the demand for nurses has never been higher. Yet, the supply falls short.

The American Nurses Association reports a significant shortfall, with predictions of more than 100,000 nursing positions remaining unfilled annually over the next decade. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the need for an additional 193,100 new nurses each year through 2029. A number of compounding factors are fueling the crisis, including an aging workforce, high burnout rates and a limited number of faculty to train new nurses:

  • The median age for RNs in 2020 was 52, according to a National Nursing Workforce survey, and more than one-fifth of nurses surveyed indicated retirement plans in the next five years.
  • In 2020, the ANA reported that 62% of nurses were experiencing symptoms of burnout.
  • A 2022 report from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing found a 3.8% enrollment decrease in master’s programs for the first time since 2001, while enrollment in PhD programs fell by 13% from 2013 to 2021. Not only are enrollments decreasing — thousands of qualified candidates are being turned away from higher education programs, primarily due to faculty and clinical education site shortages.

The impact? A strain on the health care system, compromised patient care and an overburdened workforce. The time for action is now, and higher education institutions are at the forefront of this call to arms.

Higher Education Needs Innovative Approaches to Nursing Education

Colleges and universities hold the key to mitigating this crisis. By expanding and enhancing associate, bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral nursing programs, these institutions can produce a new wave of skilled nursing professionals. However, it’s not just about increasing numbers; it’s about evolving the curriculum to meet the challenges of modern health care, incorporating technological competencies, leadership and critical thinking skills.

Advancements in technology like telehealth and artificial intelligence are changing the healthcare education landscape. The pandemic was responsible for a 70% spike in telehealth visits, and health organizations continue to streamline and enhance these platforms. Healthcare organizations are also heavily investing in AI. It’s predicted that by 2030, the global healthcare AI market will grow to nearly $188 billion. Nursing programs must respond to these shifts by ensuring students walk away with credentials as well as the most up-to-date skills.

In addition to relevant, practical curriculums, higher education institutions need to structure their programs in a way that makes it realistically possible for a nurse to go back to school. That means reasonable tuition rates that won’t saddle students with lingering debt. It also means accommodating the fast-paced reality of nursing life through flexible coursework options like asynchronous learning.

American College of Education (ACE) and similar institutions are already leading the charge by offering flexible online programs tailored to meet the needs of a diverse student body. From bachelor’s and master’s to doctoral programs focused on leadership and education, the aim is to provide nurses with adaptable continuing education opportunities that are tailored to a busy schedule.

ACE in particular has also intentionally structured the price of their RN to BSN, BSN to MSN and RN to MSN programs, allowing nurses to maximize employer tuition reimbursement benefits. Knowing that most employer tuition reimbursement programs only reimburse the cost of tuition, ACE program fees are baked into tuition costs to minimize out-of-pocket expenses for students

To ensure nurses have the skills they need to lead healthcare into the future, continuing education providers need to make curriculum relevant and their programs accessible. But reducing the barrier of entry into the profession is just one piece of the puzzle. Experienced nurses who want to advance their career need to be provided clear pathways to do so.

Strategic Partnerships That Help Retain Nurses

Partnerships between academic institutions and healthcare organizations are crucial. Academic institutions can provide nurses with more access to continuing education and practical training opportunities. Making it possible for nurses to continue to evolve their practice not only leads to better patient care, but it gives nurses a clear understanding of how they can move their careers forward. Providing advancement opportunities through continuing education are a crucial part of increasing employee retention.

To that end, health care systems must continue to invest in tuition reimbursement programs to encourage employee continuing education. These programs go a long way toward making further nursing education possible for nurses who want to move into leadership roles. Partnering with higher education institutions like ACE, who offer exclusive tuition discounts to partnered organizations on top of their already low nursing program tuition, helps nurses make the most of their tuition reimbursement benefits. When nurses feel empowered to be their best, they are more likely to stay.

Creating More Nurse Educators

Giving nurses opportunities to pursue continuing nursing education is great, but those efforts come up empty when there are no nurse educators to lead those programs.

Higher education institutions can pave the way by creating affordable programs that give nurses the opportunity to specialize in nursing education, such as the Nurse Educator focus of study that ACE offers as part of its BSN to MSN and RN to MSN programs. ACE also offers an Ed.S. and Ed.D. in Nursing Education. These programs give nurses an opportunity to advance their career by being a leader in an educational capacity, integral to the development of the next generation of nurses.

The Path Forward

The nursing workforce crisis is a formidable challenge, but it is not insurmountable. With a concerted effort from government, academia, accreditors, licensing boards and the healthcare industry, we can turn the tide. Investments in nursing education, from expanding program capacities to supporting faculty development and recruitment, are essential. So too is fostering a culture that values and supports nurses throughout their careers.

As we navigate this crisis, the role of higher education in shaping the future of nursing cannot be overstated. By innovating, expanding and collaborating, colleges and universities can help close the gap between the demand for nursing care and the supply of qualified professionals. Together, we can ensure a resilient healthcare system, ready to meet the challenges of tomorrow.

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