In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted many educational programs, forcing them to be conducted mostly online. Faculty in higher education programs had little time to prepare for this shift to online instruction. And nursing education, with its large clinical component, faced particular challenges—distancing requirements, shortages of personal protective equipment, and canceled clinical placements that threatened to delay graduation for many students. On top of all that, nurses in the workforce—though hailed as heroes by the public and the media—endured high patient volumes, more patient deaths, and moral distress, causing some to leave acute care for a less stressful nursing job or even retire early from the profession.
Despite these negative effects of the pandemic, enrollments in nursing programs trended upward in 2020, according to an annual survey of almost 1,000 nursing schools conducted by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) in the fall of 2020. Baccalaureate enrollments, for example, increased by 5.6%, with more than 250,000 students now enrolled nationwide.
Several factors appear to have boosted interest in nursing programs. A survey of almost 900 nursing students, published in the September–October 2021 issue of Nursing Outlook, found that the pandemic had strengthened the resolve of most students to become nurses. Students said the pandemic had taught them flexibility and openness to new and unfamiliar situations. Some also noted the advantages of online learning, such as having more time to study while caring for family members and saving money on commuting costs like gas and parking.
Positive media coverage of frontline nurses during the pandemic and public recognition by communities may have encouraged others to seek a career in nursing as well. And minority student enrollments are up, too, according to the AACN, fulfilling a goal of the National Academy of Medicine's Future of Nursing 2020-2030 report. For example, Hispanic–Latino enrollment in U.S. nursing programs increased by 14% from 2016 to 2020.
But challenges to enrollments remain. The AACN found that a persistent shortage of clinical facilities, nursing faculty, and resources led to more than 80,000 qualified applicants being turned away from baccalaureate through postgraduate programs. A small increase last year in enrollments in research-focused doctoral programs, the pipeline for nursing faculty, offers hope of a turnaround. Doctoral program enrollment, which had declined 9.6% since its peak in 2012, saw a nearly 1% increase in 2020 and a promising 24.3% surge in applicants.—Gail M. Pfeifer, MA, RN