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Op-ed: Nursing faculty shortage must be addressed

While the nursing shortage in the United States is well-known, many are unaware of a pending crisis due to the shortage of nursing faculty.

In fact, the shortage of faculty may make the nursing crisis more acute, since many prospective students cannot enter nursing programs due to a lack of faculty. Nursing schools in the United States turned away 75,029 qualified applicants from baccalaureate and graduate nursing programs in 2018, with causes including an insufficient number of faculty.

This number will continue to grow as current nursing faculty retire. Without an increase in nursing faculty, there will be fewer nurses to care for a growing population of senior adults.

There are multiple reasons this issue exists.

First, to become faculty in a nursing program, a candidate must be a nurse. The qualifications vary with the type of nursing program; however, the candidate must often have a master’s degree or doctorate in nursing. Nursing differs from other programs in that it looks for faculty with clinical expertise and oftentimes previous teaching experience.

Nurse educators are expected to have subject knowledge, awareness of health care systems, clinical skills, expertise in teaching methods and classroom management skills, in addition to keeping current with changes in healthcare delivery. Nurse educators should be sensitive to meeting student needs, with retention a priority. Nurse educators have the additional role of serving on program and school-wide committees, advising students, and participating in student recruitment. Once hired, many novice nurse educators experience stress transitioning from a confident, capable nurse to their new role as educator.

The prospect of returning to school to earn a graduate degree with the goal of teaching while working as a full-time nurse, along with the burden of time away from family and a decreased social life, is daunting. The funding required to earn a higher degree, the commitment of study time, and a fear of not knowing all the answers to student questions contribute to a decrease in nurses desiring to teach.

Current salaries of nurses provide little incentive to leave the hospital setting for a lesser-paid position as an educator. Many nurse educators must continue to work in a healthcare setting on their off days to supplement their teaching income. This often produces stress and exhaustion. Faculty vacancies contribute to an increased teaching workload and little time to remain current in their role as educator, and can lead to resignations. The lack of sufficient nursing faculty often produces a challenge to determine coverage for time off.

Strategies are needed to attract and retain qualified nurse educators:

  • Programs can “grow their own” by assisting graduates and current faculty in acquiring higher degrees with incentives such as a decreased workload and paid tuition.
  • Employing part-time or adjunct faculty can alleviate some of the burden; however, many universities and colleges have constraints on the number of adjuncts in a degree program.
  • Employing faculty who have no formal nursing education to teach non-nursing required courses such as pharmacology or advanced pathophysiology can lessen the burden on the nursing faculty.
  • Employing instructors who are nurses but lack a doctoral degree for courses such as statistics is also a possibility.
  • Universities and colleges may consider decreasing the length of the nursing program or decreasing the number of required courses.

While these are all possibilities, there does not exist one tried-and-true course of action that will alleviate the shortage issue. The first step is to recognize this crisis and begin to take steps to solve this growing problem.

Charlene Bell, RN, Ph.D., is a faculty member in Trine University’s RN-to-BSN program.