Editor-in-Chief; Senior Vice President and Chief Nurse Officer, Meridian Health System, Neptune, N.J.
"I was going to go back to school, but..." Sound familiar? If you're waiting for the perfect time to return to school, it will never happen. Making a commitment to return to school requires a significant amount of preplanning and support from your family and friends, professional colleagues, and your employer. At first, it may seem like a daunting challenge. But after carefully removing the barriers, the rewards will be worth the sacrifices.
Nearly half of the nursing professionals in the country are educated at either the associate degree or diploma level; however, many other healthcare professionals are required to have a minimum of a professional doctoral degree for entry level into practice. Although RNs make up the majority of healthcare professionals and maintain the highest degree of public trust, they're the least educated. Why is it that the nursing profession hasn't kept pace with the educational levels of other healthcare disciplines?
One of the reasons why we haven't made educational strides in the profession is a simple matter of supply and demand. The cyclical nursing shortages have required that large numbers of students be prepared as RNs, and baccalaureate programs have been unable to keep pace with preparing the quantity of new graduates required. The prolonged economic downturn—forcing many nurses who had plans to retire to postpone leaving the profession—coupled with many individuals returning to school for nursing because they've lost their jobs has resulted in a nursing glut in many parts of the country. Schools of nursing now have many more applicants than they can accommodate, and many community colleges are reporting waiting lists of several years to be accepted into nursing programs. As supply and demand has historically dictated the manner by which nurses are educated, it may be assumed that we'll have more baccalaureate-prepared nurses interviewing for positions. Neither professional nursing organizations nor state boards of nursing have achieved the goal of elevating the educational levels of nursing, but it will be dictated by the market as healthcare organizations fill their positions with more highly educated nurses.
Because of the complexity of care and the greater reliance on performing at a level dictated by science and not tradition, it only seems reasonable that nurses are prepared at an educational level required to perform competently, efficiently, and effectively. A greater reliance on translating science and critically evaluating care will necessitate the skills learned by completing a full complement of undergraduate education.
We need to ensure that we provide an environment that highly encourages continued formal education. Flexible scheduling, tuition assistance, and economic incentives for the completion of a formal educational degree should be both strategically planned and systematically orchestrated to relieve barriers associated with nurses returning to school. Role modeling the completion of a formal educational program is a great way to illustrate to your staff that formal education is important and essential to achieving organizational and quality of care goals.
Achieving a higher level of educational preparation will enhance the productivity and competency of professional nursing practice. Encouraging the development of your staff is an essential component of leadership and should be promoted and supported to enhance practice.