Nursing program enrollment rises during pandemic
Despite burnout and COVID-19 risks, the field is still drawing new students
Alison Davis started nursing school three times after high-school graduation, but had to stop each time due to family circumstances or personal health issues. She took a job as a medical assistant, but her desire to be a nurse didn’t go away. She remembers watching nurses at work and thinking, “That’s what I want to do.” Her husband told her, “If you don’t go, you’re going to regret it.” So in the fall of 2020, Davis, 46, once again started nursing school in a two-year program at Cox College in Springfield, Mo.
Despite reports of burnout among nurses in hospitals across the country, nursing school applications rose by just over 5 percent across the field in the 2020-2021 school year. The growth could be good news in a profession facing a national worker shortage.
In 2020, nursing bachelor’s programs saw a 5.6 percent increase in enrollment, while master’s degree programs grew by 4.1 percent, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. Doctorate degrees in nursing practice saw the biggest jump, with 8.9 percent growth.
Shanna Akers, dean of Liberty University’s nursing school, said the RN-to-bachelor’s-of-nursing program is “holding steady,” while the school’s baccalaureate, master’s, and doctorate programs have seen growth in the last couple of years. For the 2020-2021 school year, school officials worried a lack of clinical sites would prevent some of their bachelor’s students from completing graduation requirements, so they cut about 45 openings from their earlier goal of 300. The school received more than 500 applications.
Clinical sites were tricky to find even before the pandemic, but Akers said some hospitals barred medical students from caring for COVID-19 patients early on due to shortages in personal protective equipment. Some sites waited a long time to bring students back: Akers said one facility dropped restrictions on medical students only two weeks ago. In response, some schools turned to clinical simulations. Liberty University staff recorded nursing simulation videos for students to watch and answer questions about what the next step should be in the patient’s care, Akers said.
Kelly Harden, dean of Union University’s nursing and health sciences program, said the school has seen more applications for its nursing program, but actual enrollment hasn’t increased. Harden said the significant number of requested deferments suggests the gap between interest and enrollment could be due to financial concerns.
Vaccine mandates have proved a barrier for some nursing students, however. Harden said some prospective nursing students told the school they will not enroll if they have to get a COVID-19 vaccine. While Union University doesn’t require a vaccine, Harden said all of its clinical site partners do. At Liberty University, Akers estimated that one-fourth to one-third of the school’s clinical-ready students have apprehensions about COVID-19 vaccines. Liberty also doesn’t require the vaccine, and it tries to find clinical sites that don’t either. Akers said some students are transferring from other schools that require the shot.
Kathy Schoonover-Shoffner, national director of Nurses Christian Fellowship, described a webinar where a new nursing student shared her worries about starting school during a pandemic and how she considered quitting. Schoonover-Shoffner said nurses and other students on the call encouraged her, saying, “If God is calling you, He will help you and you can do this.”
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