Advancing Education for Nurses—Now is The Time

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Lynn George_Robert MorrisBy Lynn E. George, PhD, RN, CNE

Recommendations from national organizations have helped to focus attention on the need for systems that facilitate advancing education for nurses. The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health (2010) calls for increasing the number of nurses who are educated with a BSN degree to 80% by 2020 and recommends providing a more seamless transition for continuing education.  Healthcare systems, employers and educators must work together to facilitate the achievement of these goals by reducing the barriers to continuing education for nurses.

Although educational options for nurses with associate degrees or diploma education exist in a variety of forms, successful transition to advanced education programs has proven to be problematic for many nurses despite their interest in advanced degrees. Motivation to seek an advanced degree would appear to be strong among students pursuing an associate degree or diploma in nursing.

Maneval and Teeter (2010), in a survey of Pennsylvania Associate Degree and Diploma nursing students, found that 86.3% of respondents planned to pursue a bachelor’s degree in nursing.  However, the percent of practicing RNs who complete advanced degree programs falls far short of these numbers. The 2008 HRSA study (DHHS, 2010) indicated that nationwide about 25% of diploma or associate degree educated nurses actually attained a BSN.
Many practicing RNs pose the question, “Why pursue advanced education when I am already a practicing RN with experience?” Why indeed? Practicing RNs who pursue advanced degrees report professional career satisfaction, flexibility and opportunities for advancement as motivating factors.  Research indicates that increased education for nurses has been linked to improved patient outcomes and employers are increasingly interested in a more highly educated workforce.  So why aren’t more nurses pursuing advanced education?

Barriers to the pursuit of additional education for nurses include the cost and inflexibility of educational programs.  Other factors, not as readily acknowledged, include the perceived lack of relevance of advanced education to practice and the lack of validation for education and experience already achieved by practicing RNs.  Although, as educators, we have come a long way from previous models for degree programs that required experienced RNs to repeat undergraduate content already mastered. Data indicate that we still have work to do in designing programs that meet the needs of these potential students.

The cost of education is increasingly a barrier and employers who value the benefits of advanced education for their nurses must support their efforts in tangible ways.  Tuition reimbursement is an important motivator.  Support from administrators also includes flexibility of work scheduling and recognition of the efforts of those who pursue advanced degrees.   One of the most significant motivators for those considering advanced education is support and encouragement from their supervisors.

What advanced degree is most appealing to practicing RNs?  Currently, there are more than 646 RN to BSN programs with more than 400 of them offered at least partially online.  In addition, there are 173 programs available nationwide to transition RNs with diplomas and associate degrees to the master’s degree level (AACN, 2012).  How to choose?  Consider those programs that provide more opportunity and more flexibility.  Programs that facilitate the achievement of both the BSN and MSN degree can accelerate the process of graduate education.  Practicing RNs may find that these RN to MSN programs are a “better fit” and provide more recognition for what they have already achieved.

The format of the education is also important for nurses who are continuing their education.  Learners make choices about the format of their education based upon their preferred learning styles and the flexibility of course offerings.  Those returning to school have options that include on- ground, online or partially online formats.  The online format has proven to be increasingly appealing to working professional nurses who often have unpredictable work schedules.  The online format provides flexibility for many who are returning for additional education.  According to US News and World Report, enrollment in online courses rose 9.3% in 2011.

Advancing the education of the RN workforce is an important goal.  To achieve this goal, academic institutions and employers must work to remove barriers to academic progression and develop effective strategies to support continuing education for nurses.   Now is the time.

Lynn E. George, PhD, RN, CNE is the Associate Dean of the School of Nursing and Health Sciences at Robert Morris University.  She can be reached at george@rmu.edu.