healthIn 2010, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) released a report entitled, “The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health.” In that report, the IOM called for substantial changes to the nursing profession. Among those changes was a call for more nurses to get higher education — the IOM wants to increase the percentage of nurses with a BSN from 50 to 80 percent by 2020. By that same year, the IOM would like to double the number of advance practice nurses with clinical doctorates, or Doctor of Nursing Practice degrees.

America’s working nurses aren’t letting the IOM down — at least, not according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), which claims that enrollment in higher nursing education is up across the board. Record numbers of nursing students are seeking the BSNs, MSNs, and DNPs they need to qualify for the most prestigious nursing positions and meet the needs of their patients. At this rate, it’s possible that the IOM’s call for more BSN and DNP-educated nurses could be met by the end of the decade.

Why Nurses Need More Higher Education

Traditionally, nurses have needed only an associate’s degree in Nursing, or ADN, to qualify for nursing jobs. Most new nurses, about 59 percent, still graduate from ADN programs, most of which are administered by community colleges and take about three years to complete — one year for prerequisites and two years for the nursing program itself. Some go on to earn a BSN at a nursing college right away, but most go straight into the work force. In many clinics, hospitals, doctor’s offices, and long-term care facilities, an ADN is still considered sufficient qualification for nurses.

That, however, is changing. Many hospitals now want their nurses to have at least a BSN. A BSN provides nurses with a more in-depth education that encompasses the sciences, both physical and social, nursing leadership, nursing research, public health nursing, community nursing, and nurse management. Research shows that BSN-educated nurses provide better patient outcomes; at Rochester General Hospital in New York, for example, patient falls and medication errors decreased as the percentage of BSN-educated nurses on staff increased, and the average length of patient stay also declined with more BSN-educated nurses on staff.

More Nurses Than Ever Seeking Higher Education

The number of BSN-educated nurses in the United States is already higher than it’s ever been at about 50 percent. That’s largely because, up until the late 20th century, nurses needed only a nursing diploma, usually conferred by a hospital training program, in order to qualify to take the NCLEX. Only four percent of nurses still pursue a nursing diploma instead of a college degree.

So far, increases in the number of BSN, MSN, and DNP-educated nurses have been small. From 2010 to 2013, the number of BSN-educated nurses increased by only two percent. From 2011 to 2013, the number of DNP-educated nurses increased only 0.5 percent. But nursing college enrollment statistics show that these numbers will soon go up. Enrollment in BSN programs has increased 69 percent since 2010, while enrollment in DNP programs has increased 26.2 percent. New students have chosen to enroll in advanced nursing degree programs too, increasing MSN enrollments by 6.6 percent.

As of 2014, 130,300 nurses were enrolled in RN-to-BSN programs and 14,600 nurses were enrolled in DNP programs. Community college nursing programs, in a bid to stay competitive and continue to provide the kind of nurse training that the health care industry has come to rely on, are working to make it easier for students enrolled in ADN programs to complete a BSN degree. At community colleges in New Mexico, students in ADN programs may soon be able to take online university courses in order to complete a BSN while they’re enrolled in their community college programs. This would make it easier for aspiring nurses who have family obligations to obtain a BSN, and it would make those degrees available at the price of community college tuition.

DNP programs appeal to the BSN or MSN-educated nurse who wants more education, but isn’t interested in a research-focused career.  The proliferation of these programs should help the IOM meet its goal of doubling the number of doctorate-educated nurses. It’s still important, however, for nurses to pursue Ph.D.’s. Nurses with Ph.D.’s can perform important research that advances the profession and improves patient outcomes. They’re also often the only professionals qualified to teach at nursing colleges.

The IOM wants to double the number of doctorate educated nurses and increase the number of BSN-educated nurses to 80 percent by 2020. Data released by the AACN shows that these goals may not be as difficult to reach as previously thought. Nurses are flocking to BSN, MSN, and DNP programs in the thousands, and soon most nurses will have at least four years of university education, if not more.