Online Higher Education: The Key to Training, Recruiting, and Retaining More Hispanic Nurses

The numbers tell the story. 

Hispanics are the fastest-growing segment of the United States’ population—they currently comprise 16% and are expected to grow to 30% by the year 2050, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. However, Hispanic nurses make up only 3.6% of all registered nurses in this country, as reported by the 2008 National Sample Survey of Registered Nurses (NSSRN).

While other minority populations experience problematic underrepresentation in nursing, it is especially apparent in the Hispanic community, and the gap widens every day. In 2008, only 5.1% of all RNs spoke Spanish, according to the NSSRN. There are not enough Hispanic nurses to deal with the health care issues facing this growing population, and the language barriers and lack of cultural understanding created by the void lead to substandard health care for the entire community. In fact, a July 2006 article published by USA Today pointed out that the lack of English language proficiency in patients directly contributed to diminished health care for those individuals.

A 2008 workforce survey showed that Hispanics were 28 years old on average when obtaining their initial licensure compared to an average age of 25 for whites. The most common type of initial R.N. education among Hispanics was the associate degree in nursing (55.1%) followed by the bachelor’s (39.4%), and then a hospital diploma (5.5%). Why does the associate degree come out ahead? The reason may be financial. The A.S.N. provides earning power earlier than a four-year bachelor’s program in nursing. Hispanics were also more likely to pursue a bachelor’s degree after obtaining the initial R.N. (41%), but were less likely to pursue graduate degrees (11%) than white, non-Hispanic RNs (39% and 14.5%, respectively). Hispanic nurses comprise only 3.5% of all nurses in advanced practice fields.

The vast majority of Hispanic nurses (68.8%) work in hospitals and then in ambulatory care (6.9%). Hispanic nurses also hold only 10.9% of all nursing management jobs, possibly due to the low number of Hispanic nurses with graduate degrees. Finally, there are fewer Hispanic mentors in higher education and nursing leadership positions who can guide other Hispanics. Attracting and retaining nursing students from racial and ethnic minority groups can’t be accomplished without strong faculty role models. According to 2009 data from American Association of Colleges of Nursing member schools, only 11.6% of full-time nursing school faculties come from minority backgrounds, and only 5.1% are male.

As the U.S. population becomes more diverse, leaders in multicultural segments, including Hispanic communities, must encourage minorities—and minority nurses—to become leaders themselves, so when they continue to build upon their skills and advance their careers, they will help themselves and their communities. Health care for this underserved population should ultimately improve if it helps members of the Hispanic nursing community become leaders in health care, experts in the growing field of nursing informatics, and trained nurse educators.

Taking advantage of the online learning environment

Many factors promote successful career development and mobility among Hispanic nurses, and one of the most important is the opportunity for educational advancement. Online higher education programs in the field of nursing help students develop critical leadership skills that, in turn, lead to improvements in their overall community. The online format provides flexibility, providing students the opportunity to take courses while meeting their professional and personal obligations, contributing to multiple other benefits of studying nursing online.

Minority students at all educational levels can see graduates from these programs as role models and examples of how they, too, can achieve success. In cases where students may be struggling, it’s especially important when they can point to a nurse in a leadership position—someone who looks and sounds like they do—as an inspiration to keep going, whether it’s toward getting a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (B.S.N.), a Master of Science in Nursing (M.S.N.), getting a promotion, or taking on an important social change initiative to help a group in need.

Many of these minority students seek out mentors in school, possibly other minority nurses, and often go on to become mentors for the next generation of nurse leaders. For example, many of Walden University’s graduates work and teach in associate degree nursing programs, which have a large representation of Hispanic nursing students, and they help in retain these students through mentoring.

In some ways, online education “levels the playing field” for minority students, fostering increased participation and confidence that may lead to their greater success in the classroom and workplace. Many Hispanic students speak English as a second language and may write better than they speak. Since writing is integral to online learning, it adds a level of confidence that Hispanic students may not feel when sitting in a traditional, bricks-and-mortar classroom. There is no sitting in the back of the room or far from the action and dialogue up front. Consequently, minority students who may struggle in a traditional setting often thrive in online classes, which provide a unique venue for students to have a new voice, speak up, and become leaders in the classroom and beyond.

Increased participation in the online classroom has additional benefits for Hispanic and other minority nursing students. These students not only have the opportunity to hone their personal and professional skills and talents, but they can also develop relationships and network with other nurses across the country. A nurse working in the Cuban American community in South Florida may share best practices with a nurse working with the Mexican American population in Southern California. Or perhaps non-Hispanic nurses working with Hispanic patients may consult with their Latino classmates online for advice regarding how to provide the best care for these patients. Online higher education gives students a special way to connect so they can enhance their education and make a difference in the lives of many.

Making strides toward improving access

As a minority fellow of the American Nurses Association and a current board member of Ethnic Minority Programs for the organization, I work with my colleagues to develop proactive strategies to train, recruit, and retain more minority nurses, especially Hispanics. As Associate Dean of Walden University’s School of Nursing, I lead an experienced, dedicated, and talented team of faculty and staff focused on creating the next generation of leaders in the minority nursing community. Through programs like our Master of Science in Nursing and Bachelor of Science in Nursing Completion Programs, we can make great strides toward increasing the number of Hispanic nurses who serve as role models for the larger minority community.

For many M.S.N. and B.S.N. students, the training they receive in their online courses is put to work directly in their own communities. During their practicum or capstone course, M.S.N. students can choose projects that are inclusive of the needs of their workplace or neighborhoods. Often, these projects involve working with underserved populations to solve problems in community health care. B.S.N. students undertake similar projects in their community health practicum. They can all tap into their nationwide network of fellow students to come up with the best solutions for problems they encounter.

I especially recognize the importance of recruiting faculty members at the doctorate level from minority groups. Since there already is a shortage in the number of Hispanic nurses, you can only imagine how few in this population have earned their doctorates. Yet, they do exist, and when they teach, they make a difference.

One example is Patti Urso, Ph.D., A.P.R.N., C.N.E., Specialization Coordinator of Nursing Education, who currently teaches nursing education courses at Walden. Dr. Urso, a Cuban American originally from Miami, is a nurse practitioner who now lives in Hawaii and works with other underserved populations from Polynesian and Micronesian communities. In Hawaii, she engages with Hispanic patients through community churches and is involved in forming a new chapter for the National Hispanic Nurses Association. She hopes to inspire her students to reach out to underserved communities, and she mentors Hispanic students in the capstone course of the nursing education program.

One of the ways Dr. Urso works to connect with Hispanic nurses is through contact with alumni such as Lydia Lopez, one of the first graduates from Walden’s M.S.N. program in 2007. As a nurse and mentor, Ms. Lopez is committed to being a role model who recruits and retains minority nurses, keeping them interested in their course work and giving them the necessary tools and strategies to facilitate academic success. “True role models are those who possess the qualities that we would like to have and those who have affected us in a way that makes us want to be better people,” she says.

The nursing profession needs both men and women from all ethnicities to meet the needs of society. Minority nurses—especially Hispanics—with bachelor’s degrees and, eventually, master’s and doctoral degrees—who are prepared to educate and lead a new generation of minority nurses—will help improve this critical situation and provide essential health care for all.