The demand for nurses continues to grow in the United States, but nursing schools are not able to admit as many students as they would like. According to a survey by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), in 2016 more than 64,000 qualified applicants were turned away from U.S. nursing schools, with most institutions citing faculty shortages as one of the reasons they were unable to accommodate more students.
This shortage has emerged as a wave of older faculty members are retiring and students are increasingly choosing clinical settings over research or faculty positions. And given that doctorally prepared nursing professors are on average 62.5 years old, according to the AACN, the problem is likely to get worse.
[Above: Luis Rosario-McCabe, an assistant professor of clinical nursing at the University of Rochester School of Nursing, speaks to accelerated bachelor’s students in a women’s health class.]
Typically, fewer students choose to go the faculty route because it’s not what they have traditionally pictured when considering a nursing career, and it doesn’t pay as well as other jobs in the field, says Mel Freitag, PhD, diversity officer for the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison) School of Nursing. Her assessment aligns with a recent AACN report listing higher compensation in clinical and private-sector settings as one of the four main factors driving the faculty shortage.
“I think it takes a very different type of student and person to want to pursue research and the faculty role,” says Freitag. “The stereotype … is that they just do boring research and don’t get paid as much.”
She believes that introducing students to the idea of becoming a nursing educator early provides the best chance for successfully combating misconceptions about nursing education and research. At UW-Madison, for example, the nursing school’s Early Entry PhD option offers undergraduate pre-nursing students opportunities to do research while paired with a faculty mentor. Some students are surprised when they learn about the program, Freitag says, as many of them weren’t even aware that nurses could be researchers.
Another common misconception is that it’s necessary to work in a clinical setting for 20 or 30 years prior to becoming a faculty member at a nursing school. However, Freitag says that’s not necessarily the case anymore. Graduates of UW-Madison’s Early Entry PhD program, for example, can move directly into the nursing school’s PhD program without any professional clinical experience. This track also welcomes students with some clinical practice who have decided to pursue a research career, Freitag says.
Also, nurses don’t necessarily have to choose between becoming educators and clinical practitioners, says Kathy Rideout, EdD, dean of the University of Rochester School of Nursing. The school offers its advanced-practice providers joint appointments that allow them to both train the next generation of nurses and continue their own practice.
“We have found that this relationship has provided sufficient faculty to support our education programs while enhancing the professional and personal satisfaction of the advanced- practice providers,” says Rideout. But despite the success of this joint appointment program, she admits that the school still experiences challenges recruiting seasoned researchers.
Unless nursing schools can find ways to effectively fill faculty vacancies, the shortage of nurse educators in clinical settings will continue to grow. In fact, the National League for Nursing calls the scaling up of nursing faculty “a critical public policy priority in remedying the workforce shortfall.”
To help nursing schools with their recruitment efforts, in 2010 the AACN expanded its centralized application system, called NursingCAS, to include graduate nursing programs, making it easier for qualified candidates to find and apply for open positions. The organization has also worked with the Jonas Center for Nursing Excellence to expand the Jonas Nurse Leaders Scholar Program, which provides funding and support to doctoral nursing students, across the country.
Yet some nursing educators worry that in the rush to fill vacancies, faculty diversity will suffer. Rideout is one of them. “The pipeline for nursing researchers is not as robust as clinical faculty,” she says, “and [that] impacts the diversity of available candidates.”
A Focus on Diversity and Inclusion
In an effort to ensure that more schools of nursing have faculty who reflect the diverse students they hope to attract, in 2007 the AACN and Johnson & Johnson launched the Minority Nurse Faculty Scholarship to provide “financial support to graduate nursing students from minority backgrounds who agree to teach in a school of nursing after graduation,” according to the program’s website. Nine years later, the AACN has awarded 55 of these scholarships, which seem to be achieving their intended goal; currently, 32 recipients are teaching, and two have gone on to become deans of nursing schools. Overall, 44 scholarship recipients have taught in a faculty position in a school of nursing.
Freitag says the School of Nursing at UW-Madison is committed to hiring the most diverse staff possible. But regardless of faculty demographics, she says it’s essential that all nursing educators strive to create a more inclusive environment. “Let’s say [a professor is] a white male … [who] comes from a privileged background,” explains Freitag. “We still want him to show his level of commitment to social justice and cultural competency.”
By maintaining that mindset throughout recruitment, orientation, and the curriculum, Freitag says schools may be better able to successfully recruit a diverse faculty that will in turn help them attract diverse students. She says that even having one or two faculty members of color can make a big difference for underrepresented students. “[I often ask] ‘What made you want to pursue a PhD? What made you want to become a faculty member?’ And [students] say, ‘I saw someone who looked like me,’” Freitag explains. “So representation really does matter.”
Ultimately, she believes the faculty shortage offers an opportunity. “I see it as synergy,” Freitag says, “all working together.” And she thinks that the need to fill faculty seats will encourage schools of nursing to reach out to a more diverse set of students. If she’s right, a difficult situation in the present might lead to a better, more diverse group of nursing educators in the future.
Alice Pettway is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.