Nursing School Enrollments Continue to Decline—But at a Slower Rate

A recent four-part study on the changes in the RN work force by Douglas O. Staiger, PhD, David I. Auerbach, PhD(c) and Peter I. Buerhaus, PhD, RN, FAAN, points to troubling implications for the already-dwindling RN profession.

The study found no evidence of any re-emergence of interest in nursing by first-year college students, based on a survey of freshmen over the last five years. Researchers believe this stems from a permanent shift in the labor market.

According to the third article in the series, “Expanding Career Opportunities for Women and the Declining Interest in Nursing as a Career,” published in Nursing Economic$, fewer women are currently entering the field of nursing because of expanded work opportunities for women over the last three decades in what were once male-dominated professions, such as medicine, law and business.

The authors state that while interest may regenerate in nursing, there will probably never be the same amount of women entering the field as there were in the 1970s, when women’s job opportunities were less varied.

The most recent study of nursing school enrollments by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) also reflects this trend. According to the AACN, the year 2000 marks the sixth annual drop in baccalaureate nursing program enrollments and the third consecutive decline in master’s enrollments in as many years.

This downward spiral comes at a particularly bad time, as the demand for baccalaureate- and graduate-prepared nurses of all races and ethnicities continues to grow across the country. Hospitals, primary care facilities, home care agencies, outpatient surgical centers and other health facilities in many regions report an increasing shortage of registered nurses, threatening the nation’s ability to meet the health care demands of the future. The need for minority RNs is particularly imperative: As the United States’ racial and ethnic minority population continues to grow, so does the need for minority RNs who are able to provide culturally and linguistically competent care.

According to the AACN survey, nursing student enrollment in entry-level bachelor’s degree programs declined by 2.1% between fall 1999 and fall 2000, and master’s degree enrollments declined by 0.9%.

One year prior, however, enrollments fell even more drastically: Entry-level bachelor’s degree nursing programs had a 4.6% decrease in enrollments in 1999 and master’s degree enrollments fell by 1.9%.

AACN President Carolyn A. Williams, PhD, RN, FAAN, says of the slowing decline, “Hopefully we are witnessing the early effects of the last two years of widespread media coverage on the emerging nursing shortage.”

One statistic that would seem to support Williams’ view is the doctoral program enrollment statistic. This enrollment figure had remained stable for the last five years, but in 2000, it rose by 2.5%.