National nursing shortage exacerbated by lack of teachers

Photo by The Texas Tribune

A perfect storm is brewing in the nursing profession, causing many to wonder whether it will leave a decimated health care industry in its wake.

Increasing demand for registered nurses, waves of Baby Boomers retiring from the profession and the specialized needs of an aging population have strained the nation's short supply of nurses. Yet in 2014, U.S. nursing colleges turned away 68,938 qualified applicants from baccalaureate and graduate nursing programs. The American Association of College of Nursing (AACN) surveyed these nursing colleges, and almost two-thirds of them cited a shortage of nursing faculty as a reason they were unable to accept all qualified students into their programs.

Less than one percent of all nurses currently practicing in the nation hold a doctorate degree, which is required to teach graduate-level nursing students. According to the AACN report, the average age of nursing faculty at both education levels is 56 years old. Many faculty are set to retire within the next five years, and these retirements and vacancies due to program growth are proving difficult to fill.

Another major issue is pay. Nurses in clinical practice can earn significantly more money than nurse educators. The American Academy of Nurse Practitioners reported in 2014 that the average salary of a nurse practitioner was $91,310, compared to the average salary for assistant professors in colleges of nursing, which falls to $73,633.

Add to that what may be a misperception of what a nurse educator does. The top reason cited for going into the nursing profession is to make a difference in the lives of patients, and there is a belief that nurse educators are stuck in classrooms, entirely removed from patient care. However, this perception couldn't be further from the truth. Nursing faculty routinely interact with patients when their students are engaged in the clinical portion of the curriculum. Family nurse practitioners who teach are required to log clinical hours as part of their licensure.

To recruit enough nurse educators to meet the projected demand for registered nurses in the future, we need to make some changes.

Title VIII funding from the federal government provides grants for nursing schools and organizations to support programs, promote diversity in the field, repay loans for nursing students who work in facilities that have critical nurse shortages and for geriatric nurse education.

But we need to add additional incentives to specifically support master- and doctorate-prepared nurse educators. Generous tuition grants would attract more nurses to nursing education.

The gap in salaries between nurse practitioners and nurse educators must be bridged to make nursing education more attractive to those who truly want to teach. Increased funding at the state level, specifically for programs in public nursing colleges, must be applied to salaries to attract more nurse educators.

And, colleges of nursing must develop innovative recruitment and retention strategies for nurse educators. For example, Texas A&M is working with partner hospitals to help them create education units within their organizations. This will not only help them manage the added workload that results from having nursing students on the floor for their clinical experiences, but it may serve as a process for identifying registered nurses who want to become nurse educators.

Recruiting efforts for nurse educators must stress flexibility in nursing educator positions. Early-career registered nurses raising families may find the flexibility and predictability of schedules for nurse educators appealing. Later-career nurses may find teaching less physically demanding than working in clinic and hospital settings. At either entry point, a nurse educator may decide to return to the hospital or clinic setting; it is an extremely flexible role in a nursing career.

Retaining nursing faculty requires mentoring, providing opportunity for professional and personal growth, advancement and financial rewards for a job well done.

To navigate through this perfect storm in the nursing profession, we need to make recruiting and retaining nurse educators a federal, state and institutional priority. In light of the current and projected nursing shortage, we cannot afford to turn away qualified applicants from our nursing programs.

Sharon A. Wilkerson

Founding dean, Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Nursing

Mary Hamilton

Founding dean, College of Nursing, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi