As back-to-school season kicks off, some nursing students may find it hard to secure a spot in the classroom. Despite an expected shortage of nurses, U.S. nursing schools turned away 75,587 qualified students in 2011.
That startling statistic comes from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing and underscores another shortage that hasn't received nearly as much attention: Almost two-thirds of schools responding to the association's survey reported being unable to find enough qualified nursing faculty for their baccalaureate nursing programs.
"Schools cannot accept qualified students because of lack of faculty," said Robert Rosseter, chief communications officer with the AACN. "They can't meet demand."
Why the nursing faculty shortage exists
According to Rosseter, there are two main reasons behind the nursing faculty shortage: a retiring workforce and salaries below what field nurses earn. The result is 1,088 faculty vacancies in nursing schools across the country, as of September 2011.
Data collected by the AACN found the average age of nursing faculty with graduate degrees ranged from 50.7 years for assistant professors with a master's degree to 60.5 years for professors with doctoral degrees. As these instructors reach retirement age, schools are expecting replacements will be hard to come by.
For schools looking for instructors at the graduate level, one challenge is finding nurses with the right level of education. A 2010 report from The National Advisory Council on Nurse Education and Practice found less than 1 percent of the nation's more than 3 million nurses have a doctoral degree, which is the preferred level of education for instructors in graduate programs.
Compounding the problem is the fact that nurses in academia tend to earn less than their counterparts with the same education who are working in the field, according to Rosseter. That's not to say nursing instructors don't earn a decent wage, but they consistently earn less than what they could potentially earn in clinical settings.
"It goes back to salary," said Rosseter. "There are a lot higher salaries in the field."
AACN statistics from March 2011 show nursing faculty who have a master's degree earned average incomes of $72,028. In comparison, the average salary of a full-time nurse practitioner was $90,583 in 2011, according to a 2011 National Survey of NPs & PAs. However, Rosseter is quick to point out that nursing instructors with a doctoral degree can make more money than instructors with only a master's degree.
Instructors value more than money
While instructor salaries are not too shabby, those working as educators are often motivated by more than money.
"It's about keeping the profession vibrant and current," said Elaine Keavney. "We have a lot to share with new nurses coming in."
Keavney is the director of the RN to BSN program for the American Public University System which offers a fully online program for registered nurses who are seeking their bachelor's degree. However, before she entered academia, Keavney spent 24 years working as a clinical nurse and 16 years as a clinical educator.
She says a career in education can be an especially good choice for experienced nurses looking to move away from the clinical demands of nursing.
"From a logistical standpoint, it is nice," said Keavney. "Nursing is not a physically easy profession."
Rosseter agrees, saying careers in nursing education offer flexibility not always available in hospital nursing jobs. In addition, nursing faculty careers should provide job security.
"It's one of the big growth areas," said Rosseter. "If you are looking to phase out of clinical practice, it's a wonderful opportunity."
Becoming a nursing instructor
For nurses interested in a career as an educator, pursuing higher education is the first step.
Education requirements for instructors vary depending on the program. According to Keavney, in traditional programs, instructors with doctorates typically provide classroom instruction while clinical classes may be led by those with a master's degree. However, she says as a general rule, you need to have an education at least one level above the program in which you'd like to teach.
Meanwhile, Rosseter says doctoral degrees are quickly become the preferred credential for all instructors at the baccalaureate level and above.
"In a lot of places, you need to have a doctoral degree," he said. "If you are looking to teach in an associate degree program, a master's is ok but for a bachelor's or above, a doctorate is required."
Both Rosseter and Keavney agree the best place for nurses to get their feet wet in nursing education is at their current workplace. Clinical, unit-based education programs may offer an opportunity for nurses to learn what it is like to work as an educator without quitting their jobs. Then, if they feel education is a good fit for them, Rosseter suggests shadowing a faculty person.
Why sit in a classroom when you could be the one standing at the front of the room? Nursing instructors are a hot job worthy of your short list.