Why There’s a Shortage of Nurse Educators, and Why That’s a Problem

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Covid-19 has upended our local, national, and global communities. Facing down the destruction requires enormous dedication, and we’re seeing the highest quality of nursing care lead the charge at clinics and hospitals.

These people take to the front lines day and night to combat the pandemic despite limited protective equipment, surging patient levels, and overwhelming exhaustion. While as a collective society we show our support and appreciation for their tireless efforts, it is important to keep in mind that behind every frontline nurse are nurse educators who prepared them for this role, and we need more of them.

Many are familiar with the longstanding nursing shortage in this country, but few may know of the subsequent compounding shortage in nurse faculty at colleges and universities across the country. As a nurse educator and former pediatric trauma nurse, I am well versed in the immediate and long-term impact of both shortages.

For context, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), the largest specialty nursing organization, found that nursing programs in the United States turned away approximately 75,000 qualified applicants from baccalaureate and graduate programs in 2018. Schools outlined a number of factors that led to this result, the first of which was “an insufficient number of faculty.” A lack of nurse educators at the associate, undergraduate, and even graduate level has been shown to have a direct and negative impact on the programs’ capacity to enroll students. This, in turn, reduces the number of clinically prepared nurses who are eligible to enter the health care workforce each year and respond to communities and patients experiencing a crisis such as Covid-19.

Why are so few nurses turning to careers in higher education? There is no one contributing factor to the shortage, but research by the National League of Nursing cites a number of challenges, including recruitment and retention of doctorally prepared nurses and the competitive salaries offered in the clinical and private sector, as reasons for limited rosters of nursing academics. These factors compete simultaneously to ultimately reduce the number of educators in the classroom and clinical spaces, thus producing fewer registered nurses in the health care system year over year.

Many are familiar with the longstanding nursing shortage in this country, but few may know of the subsequent compounding shortage in nurse faculty at colleges and universities across the country.

Many programs require faculty to have a doctoral degree. A survey conducted by the AACN among nursing programs in the country with undergraduate and graduate programs determined that of the faculty vacancies reported, 90.7% “were positions requiring or preferring a doctoral degree.” Furthermore, a 2018 report by the AACN found that more than 10,000 qualified master’s program applicants and nearly 3,000 qualified doctoral program applicants were turned away. The reason? A shortage of faculty.

Like an unbreakable cycle, by leaving empty seats in master and doctoral nursing programs, we continue to experience the repeat consequences of turning away qualified applicants who display the potential and passion to launch a career as a nurse educator.

In my 25 years teaching at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, I often hear from students who are deterred from pursuing a career in nurse education because of the difference in salary in academia as compared to clinical practice. Sadly, our system discourages potential candidates from seeking nursing education positions, as they would ultimately incur a significant salary decrease. Unfortunately, the lack of doctorally prepared nurse educators directly results in a decreased capacity to prepare and educate the volume of registered nurses needed every day in this country.

This issue did not develop overnight, and it will take years of strategic initiatives to address. Federal grants, such as the Nurse Faculty Loan Program, deliver a much-needed resource to support nursing students and practicing nurses interested in becoming educators. Through partial student loan forgiveness, this program promotes student enrollment in doctorate-level nursing programs like doctor of nursing philosophy (PhD) and doctor of nursing practice (DNP). Established PhD and DNP programs at colleges and universities are eager and prepared to welcome qualified candidates and fortify the pipeline of future nurse educators.

We are witnessing nursing professionals battle an unprecedented pandemic. As a registered nurse, I find it difficult to sit on the sidelines. My instinct is to join my colleagues in the field, my own children among them, to aid in the crisis response.

To the nearly 2 million nurses on the front lines of Covid-19 in America: Your heart and talent embody what it means to be a nurse. You have reinvigorated the pride I take in being a nurse and have reminded me that, as a nurse educator, I play a role in preparing future generations of nursing professionals who will be equipped to handle the next health crisis.

Normajean Colby, PhD, RN, CNE, CPN, is an Associate Professor of nursing at Widener University.

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