An urgent shortage of nursing faculty isn’t just something to worry about in the future. It’s here now.

According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), U.S. nursing schools turned away more than 32,000 qualified students in 2004. Most of those schools cited a lack of faculty as the reason these students could not be admitted. Add in a wave of nursing faculty retirements that’s expected to sweep the nation over the next 10 years and the implications for the future of nursing become very serious indeed.


In light of these alarming statistics, a growing number of nursing graduate programs across the country are offering education-focused master’s degrees–ranging from Master’s in Nursing Education to MSN degrees with a nursing education certificate or option–designed to move nurses from clinical practice into teaching positions quickly. Of course, these types of programs are not exactly new. But what’s newsworthy about them these days is that many schools have recently begun to offer them for the first time as a direct response to the faculty shortage.

Traditionally, nurse educators have taken a long, sometimes daunting path to the faculty ranks. It involved hours in the classroom, both as a student and as a teaching or graduate assistant. A master’s degree was just the beginning: Potential educators were expected to eventually complete a PhD or EdD, terminal degrees conferred after more time in the classroom, extensive research and public service.

Most nursing programs today still require or prefer doctorally prepared faculty, especially for teaching at the baccalaureate level and above. But with the current hemorrhaging of the nursing faculty supply, there’s no denying that a fast-track approach to producing more nurse educators is becoming more and more of a necessity.

From Nurse to Teacher

Heather Griffin, an African American nurse who was born in Jamaica, is one of those students who will soon be making the transition from clinical nurse to nursing educator. She will graduate in May from William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J., with an MSN degree with a concentration in nursing education. And she’s already fielding offers to become a faculty member.

Griffin returned to school for her master’s after working as a nurse for 15 years. One reason was purely physical. She says she felt it wouldn’t be too many more years before the eight-to-12-hour shifts she regularly worked would take their toll on her back and legs. But her biggest motivation had more to do with her heart and head.

“I always liked teaching and working with nursing students,” she explains, “and this opportunity presented itself. I remember how scared I was when I was a new nurse. I want to support new nurses.”

Choosing a master’s program with a focus on nursing education allowed Griffin to concentrate on her new passion–teaching. While she hasn’t ruled out getting a PhD, it isn’t in her immediate plans.

“The next step in my educational advancement was to pursue a master’s degree,” she emphasizes. “It took me a long time to decide to return to school. Part of the focus in a PhD program is research and, at the time that I decided [to go to graduate school], that did not appeal to me.”

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Diversifying the Faculty

As the nursing profession gears up to aggressively recruit and train a new generation of nursing educators to replenish the dwindling supply, it hopes to pull from candidates too often overlooked in the past–minorities and men. Both populations have long been severely underrepresented at the faculty level.

“Our programs need to reflect the demographics of society,” says Kem Louie, PhD, RN, FAAN, director of the graduate nursing program at William Paterson University and past president of the Asian American/Pacific Islander Nurses Association. “Ethnic and [racial] minority populations are increasing and it’s important that [minority] nursing students see role models in those that teach and those that practice.”

Many of the current crop of master’s-level nursing educator programs are specifically reaching out to nurses from diverse backgrounds. For example, the College of New Rochelle (CNR) School of Nursing in New Rochelle, N.Y., which launched its new Nurse Educator Master’s Program last fall, has a large population of African American and Hispanic students.

The mission to attract more nurses from underrepresented populations to teaching careers must begin at the undergraduate level, believes Mary Alice Higgins Donius, EdD, RN, who will become the new dean of the CNR School of Nursing in July. She is currently an associate professor in the School of Nursing at Sound Shore Medical Center.

“We have to identify those students who might be interested in nursing education and reach out to them,” Donius says. “[Nurse educators] need to talk to students about why we like [teaching] and how they can plan a career in nursing education.”

The emergence of online distance-learning courses has helped make graduate school more accessible for many types of students, including more minorities, men and people living in rural communities. Clarkson College, based in Omaha, Neb., is a pioneer in providing online education for health care providers. The college offers an MSN program with an option in nursing education, as well as a post-master’s certificate in nursing education.

“The school is totally online and we have students located all over the country,” notes Marla Erbin-Roesemann, PhD, RN, associate professor and director of the college’s graduate program. Students in the nursing education master’s program visit the campus physically only once or twice during the program. They perform required clinical rotations and preceptor teaching in the communities where they live.

The college makes sure support services are available to help students who need assistance with projects and problems. “Students do get support through their professors and often look to community members for support as well,” Erbin-Roesemann explains. “If they need additional help, it’s handled online. We have counselors on campus. We also have a director of diversity who can talk to students.”

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Nurse Educators for Tomorrow

One of the newest master’s degree programs created in response to the nursing faculty shortage is being offered at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Nursing. Funded by a grant from the federal Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), this online program likewise hopes to increase the number of nurse educators from underrepresented populations–nurses of color, men and rural nurses.

The program, known as Nurse Educators for Tomorrow (NET), has an unusual two-pronged focus. It trains nurses to become clinical nurse specialists or nurse practitioners with added post-graduate courses that prepare them to be educators as well. Students must complete the standard 36 hours required by most master’s programs, plus nine additional hours in nursing education, including courses covering online teaching and curriculum development.

“Graduates are prepared to function in either setting–as practitioners and/or educators–so it’s a win-win situation,” says Nadine Nehls, PhD, RN, professor and associate dean for academic programs at the nursing school. On the clinical side, students may specialize in either pediatric or medical-surgical care.

The program’s recruiting efforts are assisted by a community liaison, says Gale Barber, MA, assistant dean for graduate studies. This person does community outreach and is actually housed at a rural site in order to put her closer to prospective students.

How has NET succeeded in its first year? Nehls reports that the program has attracted a large percentage of students from rural areas, but so far no minority or male students. The school is closely examining its recruiting plans with an eye toward developing strategies that will more effectively reach these targeted populations.

“This year, we’re going to do more targeted recruitment,” explains Pam Scheibel, MSN, RN, a clinical professor in the program. “We’re looking at alumni lists and trying to make individualized, tailored outreach to these students.”

Even though the program is taught online, one of the major obstacles to attracting more culturally diverse students seems to be simple geography. Madison just doesn’t have a large minority population, says Barber.

Adds Scheibel, “Several [minority] students who have come here and had good experiences during the recruitment process eventually decided to go to school in another area where there’s more [diversity]. Some also choose schools that are able to offer larger scholarships.”

This year, the school’s recruiting efforts will accentuate the program’s online format, helping students realize that the location of the campus is really not that relevant. “Students can stay in their own communities and do their clinical and teaching experience there,” Barber emphasizes.

Master’s vs. Doctorate

Pursuing a career as a master’s-prepared–rather than doctorally prepared–nursing educator is not for everybody. Nurses who are considering making the move to academia need to be aware of the advantages and disadvantages of both options and must evaluate them closely against their particular career goals.

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For example, Heather Griffin knows that without a terminal degree, one of the biggest benefits offered by a university–tenure–will not be available for her. The tenure system, exclusive to the academic world, means that a faculty member can’t be fired or downsized except under the most extreme conditions.

“Tenure gives you a sense of permanency and shows that you have paid your dues. You really can’t be asked to leave,” Louie explains.

The lack of a terminal degree will also limit the career advancement options available to a nurse educator. “Having only a master’s degree is going to limit where and how far you go,” says Donius. “A master’s degree in nursing education is a very valuable credential in preparing people for [certain] roles in teaching and nursing. In higher education, though, a master’s degree does have a more limited scope. Nurse educators with master’s degrees are used at the associate degree level and in clinical, off-site settings. If you really want a career in [academic] nursing education, a doctorate will be required.”

But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a very rewarding faculty career without that terminal degree–especially if, like Griffin, what you really want to focus on is teaching.

“According to the Board of Nursing, nurses with a master’s degree can teach in academic programs, which gives a more focused concentration in the role of educator,” Louie points out. “The doctoral degree generally provides a research focus or more specialization in the practice of nursing. Many universities have clinical or non-tenured faculty positions which may or may not have a time limit and can be renewed without a doctoral degree.”

It is very important for newly minted nurse educators to make sure their goals match those of the educational institution they join, Louie advises. “Nursing faculty need to conform to university expectations.” Ultimately, she adds, “I believe nurses who want a career of teaching other nurses will eventually continue toward their doctoral degrees.”

The Money Factor

Salary considerations are another factor nurses contemplating a move to teaching must weigh against their career aspirations as well as their personal goals. Many experts believe faculty pay may well be one of the biggest reasons for the shortage in the number of professors. A recent study by ADVANCE for Nurse Practitioners revealed that the typical salary for an NP working in an emergency room was around $80,000. That’s $20,000 more than the average nursing professor earns.

“A lot of our students [in the nursing education concentration] do not go into education [when they complete the program],” says Erbin-Roesemann. “They go back to nursing because of the money. Educators earn less than staff nurses.”

And educators with only a master’s degree will earn less than their doctorally prepared counterparts. Louie cites a 2002 report by AACN that showed the median salary for all nurses with doctoral degrees to be around $75,000. Those with master’s degrees earned about $15,000 less.

However, she points out, “[Faculty] pay can vary greatly across the country and depending on the type of nursing program, whether it’s a private or public college, and the regional location.”

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Getting In

You’ve weighed all the pros and cons and you’ve decided that a master’s degree program with an emphasis on nursing education is the right option for you. What are your chances of actually getting in?

While methods of delivery have changed, entrance requirements have not. Like most other master’s programs, nursing education programs require a minimum 3.0 GPA, professional and academic references, an essay explaining why you want to enter the program, plus the dreaded GRE®, formally known as the Graduate Record Examination®. The GRE is an assessment test that measures skills in mathematics, comprehension, analytical reasoning and other areas.

“Each [of these entrance requirements] is only one part of an application,” says Nehls. “[In the admissions process,] we look at the whole application.” She adds that the once-common philosophy that years and years of experience were needed to be a good teacher has faded somewhat.

None of the schools interviewed for this article require any previous teaching experience, although many students currently enrolled in their nurse educator programs had worked as preceptors or mentors in clinical settings. At Clarkson College, students may enter the program without any work experience, but are expected to get some quickly.

“Most of our students do have a couple of years experience,” Erbin-Roesemann clarifies. “Students can come right into the master’s program without any work experience but they do need at least one year of experience before starting their option courses. They can get that experience while taking core courses.”

Helping Minority Students Succeed

As the number of underrepresented minority students in graduate school increases, nursing program administrators are taking steps to make sure those students succeed.

We don’t like to talk about students needing help in graduate school, but sometimes it happens,” says Louie. “Many students, particularly if English is not their native language, may need help with writing. Some students have problems with statistics.”

The graduate program at William Paterson University provides a nursing support coordinator who serves as the “go to” person when students have academic problems or trouble with an assignment. “The coordinator is not a professor, so the student is not intimidated,” Louie explains. “The coordinator can work with the professor to see exactly what is expected. The coordinator’s role is to find someone on campus who can help. We do refer students to other resources in any department at the university.”

Funding Future Faculty

For many nurses, lack of financial resources can be an obstacle that keeps them from returning to school to pursue master’s degrees. That’s why many of the current efforts to address the nursing faculty shortage are offering special scholarships, loans and other types of financial assistance for students who make the commitment to become nursing educators.

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Heather Griffin, an African American nurse who is currently completing an MSN degree with a concentration in nursing education at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J., was able to take advantage of the federally funded Nurse Faculty Loan Program (NFLP). William Paterson is one of a limited number of universities to receive these funds through the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA). Griffin will be able to cancel 85% of the loan she received by completing the degree and working for five years in an approved educational role.

“I was fortunate enough to go back to school full-time and that made me eligible for the loan,” she says. “It is helping me pay for part of my education. [Going back to school] is difficult when you have other financial responsibilities.”

While this loan program is currently available at only two nursing schools, most colleges and universities do have private resources that fund scholarships and assistantship programs for graduate students. Ask about this when choosing a school. Some funds are awarded based on need, some based on merit and some based on potential.
In some parts of the country, financial assistance designed specifically for future nursing educators is available at the state level. The Mississippi Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning, as part of its Nursing Education Loan Scholarship (NELS) Program, offers a Nursing Teacher Stipend Program for MSN and PhD students who agree to teach at an accredited nursing school in Mississippi upon graduation. Candidates must be Mississippi residents attending a school in that state.

In Pennsylvania, nurses who are interested in going back to school to teach nursing can receive financial assistance from the Nurse Scholars Program, a partnership between Independence Blue Cross and the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency. The program will underwrite scholarship funding for qualified students attending an accredited nursing graduate program in five southeastern Pennsylvania counties. It also gives future nurse educators the opportunity to receive grants and scholarships toward their graduate degree directly from the qualified nursing schools they attend.

One national scholarship program created to increase the supply of doctorally prepared nursing educators is the Monster Healthcare-American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) Nursing Faculty Scholarship. Launched in August 2005, this program provides $25,000 scholarships, plus part-time clinical employment and health benefits, to students enrolled full-time in a baccalaureate-to-doctoral degree or Doctor of Nursing Practice program who intend to pursue faculty careers. Upon graduation, recipients must serve in a teaching capacity at a nursing school for a minimum of one year for each year of scholarship support received.

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