School of Nursing

February 16, 2021

Nursing Program Challenges

For next fall’s entering undergraduate class, the UW School of Nursing received almost 10 times as many applications for its bachelor of science in nursing program as we had admission spaces. Similar scenarios are playing out at nursing schools across the country.

Consider, for a moment, that every year more than 50,000 eager, qualified applicants are being turned away from undergraduate nursing school programs at colleges and universities. These women and men want to be nurses, they want to help provide care when the next pandemic strikes, they want to fill the shoes of the tens of thousands of nurses who will retire in the coming decade. But there is no room for them in nursing school.

There are many reasons for this.

  • We are graduating too few nurses with advanced degrees who can be the educators of the next generation of nurses
  • A large number of nurse-educators are approaching retirement age
  • Federal funding for nursing education has lagged far behind demand
  • Federal and state funding for nursing school facilities has also trailed the need
  • Funding from tuition is not adjusted for the higher cost of nursing education that results from mandated faculty-to-student ratios for clinical and laboratory settings
  • Far too few clinical placement opportunities for nursing students with hospital and clinic partners; such opportunities can be withdrawn on short notice, as we have seen during the pandemic, leaving students short of the clinical experience hours required to take licensing exams
  • Many experienced nurses who a decade ago would have become nursing school faculty now have lucrative options as executives and managers of not only healthcare organizations, but also entrepreneurial endeavors; they are also becoming researchers, and administrators of national and international nongovernmental organizations

The current pandemic has been a strong and visible demonstration of the absolutely critical role that nurses play in the healthcare ecosystem. Almost every picture of COVID patients being treated showed nurses at the bedside, offering care and comfort under extraordinarily difficult circumstances.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a need for 175,900 new nurses every year from now through 2029. At the moment, about 155,000 nurses graduate annually—a deficit of 20,000 or more nurses each year. Think about what that will mean five years down the road, when we are short by 100,000 nurses nationally. And that does not include estimates of a higher-than-normal rate of nurses likely to leave the profession post-pandemic.

This isn’t just a concern; it’s a crisis. Nursing education needs to be a national priority and it needs to be a priority now. It will take years to effect major changes. There needs to be a complete, comprehensive approach that is implemented all at once—you can’t just say, “Admit more students.” To do that, there must be more faculty. In order for there to be more faculty, there must be more classroom and other teaching facilities—either through expansion of existing accredited schools or the opening of new ones. These facilities must be equipped with state-of-the-art technology for communication, simulation, and education in the use of increasingly-complex equipment. Faculty salaries must be competitive to raise the retention rate and attract the best and brightest as educators.

The public has an important role to play. Let legislators and other decision makers know that you are concerned about the future, and that you want to see the necessary investment made so that when you or a loved one need nursing care in the future, it will be available.

Nurses care. We need many more of them who can provide that care.