Nurses make up the largest sector of the health care system with over 3.1 million RNs nationwide. Even with this astounding number, the nursing field is still in jeopardy of not being adequate enough to care for the aging population. The number of nurse educators has dwindled, and in turn, less people who desire to become nurses are able to enter nursing programs.

The key to alleviating the shortage lies not only in the number of qualified nursing applicants, but in the number of nursing faculty available—without quality educators, nursing will not survive the shortage. “Nursing education is the leader of the nursing profession as a whole because it all has to start with education,” says Nicole Thomas, MSN, CCM, LNC, an adjunct instructor at Virginia College in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. “If nurses and other health care professionals are not properly educated then our industry will not thrive,” she adds.

The Challenges

In August 2010, the National Advisory Council on Nurse Education and Practice (NACNEP) issued a report to the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Congress titled The Impact of the Nursing Faculty Shortage on Nurse Education and Practice, which outlines the nursing faculty shortage. The NACNEP report addressed 4 key challenges to the educator profession:

1. Recruitment challenges, including:

  • Difficulties in attracting and retaining qualified nurse faculty
  • Challenges in achieving demographic diversity within nursing facult
  • A general lack of awareness on the part of the public and among nurses that the faculty role is a viable career option

2. Problems in providing adequate nurse educational preparation specific to teaching

3. Obstacles to sustaining and funding nurse faculty programs

4. The aging and imminent retirement of current nurse faculty

As a direct result of the nursing faculty shortage, as recent as 2014, 31% of all BSN qualified applicants, 37% of ADN qualified applicants, and 27% of PN qualified applicants were turned away, according to the National League for Nursing’s Annual Survey of Schools of Nursing Academic Year 2013-2014. Nurses who want to continue their education and pursue a higher degree have also been affected by the shortage. In 2014, 22% of qualified MSN applicants and 16% of qualified doctorate applicants were rejected.

The large number of nurses pursuing higher education being turned away not only affects the general nursing population, but also those who wish to pursue a nurse educator role in the future. Decreasing acceptance rates at the master’s level is in part exacerbated by increased competition and the fact that one in four MSN programs has highly selective requirements for admission. Trends like these help perpetuate a continual cycle of not having enough nursing graduates to take on nurse educator roles in schools of nursing.

Another issue facing nurse educators is that the current nurse educator population is aging, and therefore, not enough newer educators are able to fill the gap. This is in part because of a general lack of awareness of the profession as an option to nurses. More awareness to this specialty in nursing needs to be made. Surprisingly, a nurse does not need to major in education specifically to become an educator; a nurse can become an educator with either a master’s or doctorate degree.

Rebecca Harris-Smith, EdD, MSN, BA, an assistant dean and interim director of an entry level master’s program, has her own take on nurses who want to move into academia: “Many nurses and nurse practitioners move into education with little to no training in education; I would require that nurse educators spend time learning the art of education. Let us not forget the need to ensure that we are expert facilitators of the teaching/learning process.”

For the Love of Teaching

Stark salary discrepancies between clinical nurses and nurse educators may discourage many from pursuing academia. Some nurses may not be drawn to academia simply because of the pay. Salaries of nurse educators are notably lower than those in similarly ranked faculty across education according to The NLN Faculty Census. Salaries at the professor rank averaged nearly 45% less than those teaching in non-nursing fields. Harris-Smith, who teaches at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in the Mervyn M. Dymally School of Nursing, acknowledges the pay discrepancy: “Nurse educators prepare future nurses and often watch graduates’ salaries increase beyond the educators’ salary within a few years, so if money is your motivation then you are not prepared for academia.”

Neither Thomas nor Harris-Smith are motivated by money and both enjoy teaching. Thomas always knew she wanted to be a teacher: “I am a teacher at heart. I would spend countless hours as a floor nurse educating my patients and their families because I think it’s important to empower them with the knowledge that they need to take care of themselves beyond an inpatient setting—the hospital is just a interim fix, but if they are equipped with the knowledge that they need then they can properly manage their health.”

Harris-Smith’s path to academia was slightly different, with her mother urging her to pursue nursing at her reluctance. “My mother wanted me to be a nurse, and at first, I was not open to the idea,” she says. Even after pursuing a degree in education, Harris-Smith didn’t put it to use until years later. “I put that degree (education) on the shelf for many years, but as I matured, I could not shake the desire to work with students. One day I finally realized that it was my destiny to become a nursing educator.”

Looking Ahead

Nurse education is changing with technology taking the forefront. Technology is expanding with online classes, patient simulators, and other tools that make education more accessible when it otherwise wouldn’t be. “Nurse educators and students must be open to the use of technology because it is here to stay,” notes Harris-Smith. “The use of human patient simulators when clinical sites are unavailable is a major help for schools of nursing, and the use of technology in the classrooms invaluable when it comes to engaging students.” Electronic Medical Records (EMRs) have also played a large role in nursing education over the years, with students learning new charting systems during clinical rotations.

The face of nursing is becoming more dynamic in nature as well, which poses other necessary alterations to nursing education. Nursing as a whole has become more diverse and nurse educators must adapt to this change. “The influx of intergenerational, multicultural students that are currently in the class requires the nurse educator to facilitate the learning needs of a very diverse population of students,” says Harris-Smith.

Nurse educators must continuously stay abreast of nursing issues and trends to keep up with the ever-changing nature of the field. Nursing as a whole can and will improve with active recruitment of this underrepresented specialty. Those who choose to pursue academia hold a special role in the profession, because without them, nurses wouldn’t exist. When asked of the most notable change she has seen in education, Thomas adds: “The biggest change I have seen is an increased rigorous curriculum for nurses and other health professionals, which I think is good.” Thomas’ statement reflects what nurses already knew—nurse educators are doing their job well; we just need more of them.

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