As Nursing School Enrollment Declines, Healthcare Staffing Concerns Rise

By Carol Davis

For the first time in 20 years, enrollment in entry-level baccalaureate nursing programs decreased by 1.4%, and declines continue to occur in master’s and PhD programs, according to new data from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN).

On top of that nursing schools nationwide turned away more than 78,000 qualified applications—not applicants— in 2022 largely because of shortages of clinical placement sites, faculty, preceptors, and classroom space, as well as budget cuts, according to AACN.

More than 10,000 of those applications were turned away from graduate programs, which threatens to further limit the number of potential nurse educators, the data revealed.

Reduction in nursing students and its effect on staffing is a top concern of hospital and health system leaders across settings, said Dr. Deborah Trautman, AACN president and CEO.

“The pipeline into nursing must be protected and supported by all stakeholders with an interest in ensuring access to quality healthcare,” Trautman said.

Though a single-year decline doesn’t necessarily signal a trend, any decrease in these critical programs raises concerns and merits further investigation, noted the AACN, which conducted this latest annual survey, titled 2022-2023 Enrollment and Graduations in Baccalaureate and Graduate Programs in Nursing, in fall 2022. The survey contains data reported by 974 schools of nursing.

Enrollment in PhD nursing programs declined by 4.1% from 2021 to 2022, continuing a downward trend that began in 2013. Indeed, since 2013, enrollments have decreased by 14.8%, creating deep concern among academic nursing leaders.

In its report on the Future of Nursing: 2020-2030, the National Academy of Medicine, Science, and Engineering said the declining enrollment in nursing PhD candidates is “a major concern for the profession and for the nation.”

Students in master’s-level programs, which prepare individuals for roles in research, informatics, direct patient care, administration, and teaching, decreased by 9.4% since 2021, marking the second year of enrollment decline.

AACN’s research and data team is continuing to examine survey findings to determine some of the factors affecting enrollment declines.

“With enrollments trending downward, academic and practice leaders should work together to ensure that schools are able to accommodate all qualified applicants to meet the growing demand for nurses to provide care and serve as faculty, researchers, and leaders,” Trautman said.

Carol Davis is the Nursing Editor at HealthLeaders, an HCPro brand.