According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), there are more than three million registered nurses (RNs) nationwide. In the last 30 years, nurses have become better educated, more diverse and have gained greater decision-making power in the clinical setting—a trend that is accelerating.

Nursing is also the fastest growing profession—there will be 527,000 new nursing jobs by 2022. Labor experts forecast a crippling shortage of qualified nurses within the next 20 years. The Affordable Care Act will result in an additional 32 million insured Americans by 2014. Plus, the 78 million baby boomers will require more clinical support in coming years. Between universal coverage and aging-in-place, nurses will be on the front lines of healthcare.

A changing landscape

When Patrick R. Coonan, EdD, RN, NEA-BC, FACHE, Dean and Professor, School of Nursing, Adelphi University in Long Island, New York, was a nursing student 35 years ago, everything was different. He was the only man in his program and there were no minorities. He reports that the Adelphi program—the first baccalaureate nursing program on Long Island—is now 50 percent minority and 12 percent male.

What’s really changed, however, is the level of education needed to meet patients’ needs and fulfill employers’ requirements.

A recent report from the Institute of Medicine has called for increasing the percentage of baccalaureate-educated nurses to 80 percent and doubling the number of nurses with doctorates. Other professional organizations, as well as Congress and the Department of Health and Human Services, are also pushing for a better-educated nursing workforce. Coonan says, “Seventy percent of nurses only have associates degrees. What we’re trying to do is raise the educational level across the board.”

Patients do better when nurses have higher degrees

Having a higher proportion of baccalaureate and graduate-educated nurses results in significantly lower mortality rates, fewer medication errors and more positive outcomes. One study showed that for every 10 percent increase in the percentage of baccalaureate-educated nurses on staff, there was a four percent decrease in the risk of patients dying in a clinical situation. Coonan cites a 2012 AACN survey showing that clinical sites looking to hire nurses prefer a higher level of education: 39.1 percent require a BSN for new hires and 77.4 percent strongly prefer it.

Lorraine Reiser, Ph.D., CNRP, FAANP, Associate Professor of Nursing, Clarion University of Pennsylvania, cites the value of education for nurses: “Increasing the level of education of nurses results in increased skills in critical thinking, leadership, case management and health promotion, and therefore enhances their practice abilities.”

5 facts you might not know about nursing

  • There are more than 3 million registered nurses worldwide.

  • 39.1 percent of clinical sites require a BSM for new hires.

  • 78 million baby boomers will require more clinical support in coming years.

  • For every 10 percent increase in the percentage of baccalaureate-educated nurses on staff there was a 4 percent decrease in the risk of patients dying.

  • There will be 527,000 new nursing jobs in the next ten years.

There is avid interest in education among nurses. Nattarose (Eve) Srihakim, a Ph.D. student at the University of Kentucky College of Nursing, explains, “To me, higher education is a gateway to career options and more opportunities in life. I will be equipped with knowledge and skills, and will widen my worldview as a nurse, allowing me to improve patient care on a larger scale.”

Capacity has been a challenge. There simply are not enough professors and clinical training sites to accommodate all baccalaureate applicants. But there is a wellspring of support from professional organizations and foundations that provide grants. The AACN has worked to raise awareness and make it easier for nurses to transition from associate’s degree programs to four-year-plus programs.

Donna Meyer, MSN, RN, President, National Organization for Associate Degree Nursing, agrees. She says, “It is essential for associate degree graduates to continue their education to meet the goal of a well-educated, diverse nursing workforce to advance the nation’s health.”

Well-educated nurses are quickly becoming the cornerstone of our nation’s clinical care. Coonan says, “Delivery of healthcare is 24-7-365, so nurses have flexibility. No matter what happens in the world, there will always be a need for nurses.

Tips for aspiring nurses

  • Want to be a nurse? Go straight for a baccalaureate degree. Patient outcomes are better under the care of baccalaureate-prepared nurses.

  • Take a broad view. Nursing care does not only happen in hospitals. There are many ways to use your knowledge of preventive health, technology and patient care.