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Nursing Schools Forced to Turn Away Thousands of Qualified Applicants

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) has released preliminary survey data showing enrollment in entry-level baccalaureate nursing programs increased by 6.1 percent from 2009 to 2010, which marks the tenth consecutive year of enrollment growth in professional registered nurse (RN) programs.

Preliminary findings from the Annual Survey of Institutions with Baccalaureate and Higher Degree Nursing Programs are based on data reported from 648 of the 807 schools of nursing in the U.S. (an 80.3 percent response rate) with baccalaureate and/or graduate nursing programs.  Though enrollment is growing, nursing schools point to a shortage of faculty and clinical education sites as the primary barriers to future expansion.

Though interest in nursing careers remains strong, many individuals seeking to enter the profession cannot be accommodated in nursing programs despite meeting all program entrance requirements.

Preliminary AACN data show 52,115 qualified applications were turned away from 565 entry-level baccalaureate nursing programs in 2010. This number far exceeds final data reported on students turned away each year 2005-2009, which ranged from 36,400 to 42,981 applications. AACN expects this number to increase when final data on qualified applications turned away in 2010 is available in March 2011.

Based on data received from 367 schools of nursing, the primary barriers to accepting all qualified students at nursing colleges and universities continue to be a shortage of clinical placement sites (66.8 percent) and faculty (62.9 percent). 

For a graphic showing the number of qualified applicants turned away from entry-level baccalaureate nursing programs over the past 8 years, click here

To help address the primary obstacles to enrollment growth, AACN is leveraging its resources to:

  • Identify the hallmarks of effective academic-practice partnerships through a joint task force led by AACN and the American Organization of Nurse Executives.
  • Secure more federal funding for professional nursing programs and students.
  • Expand the pipeline of nurse educators by offering regional faculty development conferences, administering minority faculty scholarship programs, collecting annual data on faculty vacancy rates, and identifying strategies to address the shortage.

"Given the calls for a more highly educated nursing workforce from the Institute of Medicine, the Tri-Council for Nursing, and other authorities, we are pleased to see that demand for baccalaureate nursing education continues to rise," said AACN President, Kathleen Potempa."AACN applauds the efforts undertaken by schools to find creative ways to expand the nursing student population despite funding cuts and resource constraints facing many academic programs."

AACN's annual survey is widely held to be the most reliable source for actual (versus projected) data on nursing enrollment and graduations reported by the nation's baccalaureate- and graduate-degree programs in nursing.

This year's 6.1 percent enrollment increase for entry-level baccalaureate programs is based on data supplied by the same 536 schools reporting in both 2009 and 2010. To download a graphic depicting enrollment changes in baccalaureate nursing programs from 1994-2010, see

Preliminary AACN data show a strong surge in applications to baccalaureate nursing programs this year as a result of growing student demand and changing employer expectations. The number of applications to entry-level baccalaureate programs increased from 208,784 in 2009 to 226,675 in 2010 (an 8.6 percent increase).

The AACN survey also found the number of students enrolled in baccalaureate degree completion programs, also known as RN-to-BSN programs, increased by 20.6 percent from 2009 to 2010, with 469 schools reporting. This marks the eight year of enrollment increases in these programs and offers further validation of the need for nurses to advance their education and for employers to cultivate a more highly qualified RN workforce, according to AACN.

Meanwhile, preliminary data from AACN's survey show enrollment in master's and doctoral degree nursing programs increased significantly this year. Nursing schools with master's programs reported a 9.8 percent increase in enrollment with 427 schools reporting and a 10.1 increase in graduations based on 389 schools' reporting. In doctoral nursing programs, the greatest growth was seen in DNP programs where enrollment increased by 25.6 percent (113 schools reporting) from 2009 to 2010. During this same period, enrollment in research-focused doctoral programs (e.g., PhD, DNSc) increased by 4.5 percent or 180 students according to preliminary estimates (117 schools reporting).

"Moving more nursing students into graduate programs is a top priority for the profession given the growing demand for more nurses to serve as primary care providers, teachers, researchers, leaders, and specialists," said Potempa. "As the work to reform health care continues, many more nurses with master's and doctoral degrees will be needed to provide essential healthcare service, including nurses to serve as [APRNs] and in other specialty roles."

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