There are more than 3.8 million registered nurses (RNs) in the U.S., but the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates we need 1.1 million new RNs to replace retirees, expand capacity and address the current and worsening staffing crisis in the nursing profession.

In 2019, U.S. nursing schools turned away more than 80,000 applicants from baccalaureate and graduate nursing education programs due to the nurse faculty shortage. In 2020, nearly half of generic baccalaureate nursing education programs reported rejecting qualified applicants because they didn’t have enough nurse faculty to teach them.

As expected, this roadblock within the nursing profession has profound impacts. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that patients’ risk of death increased 2% for every nursing shift they were exposed to below target staffing levels and 4% for every shift with high turnover.

For the nurses and other healthcare professionals in place working within the shortage, burnout and stress are high as they are continued to be tasked to do more with less support.

Nursing Education Is a Bottleneck

The national vacancy rate for nurse faculty has hovered between 6.5% and 8% since 2016, and in 2020, there were 1,492 vacant nursing faculty positions. The states with the highest rates of nurse faculty shortage are Alaska (30%), Wyoming (20.8%) and Oregon (14.8%).

Even when there is faculty on-staff, the numbers paint a worsening crisis: The current nursing faculty are typically near retirement age. According to the American Association of Colleges of College of Nursing (AACN), the average ages of nurse faculty with doctorates holding the ranks of professor, associate professor and assistant professor were 63, 57 and 51 years old, respectively. For those with master’s degrees, the average ages for professors, associate professors, and assistant professors were 57, 56 and 50 years, respectively.

In addition to vacancies from faculty retirement, the AACN cites the following as the top reasons for the nurse educator shortage:

    • Insufficient funds to hire
    • Inability to recruit due to competition for jobs
    • Qualified applicants unavailable in the geographic area
    • Faculty resignation

Nurse Faculty Take a Pay Cut

Presented with the choice to pursue teaching or clinical practice, the large difference in salaries makes the choice clear for most aspiring nurses. Nursing educators in academic positions earn about $20,000 less on average than clinical or private-sector nurses with the same education.

Brenda Holland, department chair of nursing at Cape Fear Community College in North Carolina, said her program regularly receives more than 400 applicants for just 80 nursing student spots. Yet she says recruiting nurses to teach is a challenge, because a nurse making $80,000 in clinical practice might make $50,000 teaching at the CFCC program.

Even among higher level nurses, the pay difference is significant. According to the American Association of Nurse Practitioners, the average salary of a nurse practitioner is $110,000. By contrast, the AACNF reported in 2020 that the average salary for a master’s-prepared assistant professor in schools of nursing was just $79,444.

Ultimately, the nurse faculty shortage is not about whether nurses want to teach, it’s about whether they can afford it.

The difference in salaries between pursuing the nursing profession vs. nursing education does not even factor in the significant time and expense of earning an advanced nursing degree required to teach. Nursing faculty members are also often expected to have recent and relevant teaching, clinical and research experience, in addition to specific experience state boards require to teach certain specialties.

Tactics to Prime the Nurse Faculty Pipeline

Americans are facing a seismic demographic shift as the baby boomer generation retires and the number of Americans age 65 and older will nearly double to 95 million by 2060. An aging population will require more nursing care, yet the nursing profession is unable to meet the current or projected demand for future nurses due to the pronounced nurse faculty shortage.

Even a more conservative estimate showed a shortage of 510,394 nurses by 2030, with the most severe shortages in the south and western U.S.

With no simple solution, different constituencies are trying novel ways to address the nurse faculty shortage:

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