Publication: Nursing Education Perspectives
Date published:
Language: English
PMID: 43404
ISSN: 15365026
Journal code: NHCP

FOR MORE THAN 50 YEARS, the NLN Annual Survey of Schools of Nursing has generated national statistics on the full breadth of nursing education programs in the United States, including PN/VN, pre-licensure RN, and graduate nursing programs. As demand for data grows, the NLN is continually revising its research methodology in order to produce and deliver the highest quality data to those who need it to make critical decisions. For more information on the NLN Annual Survey methodology, please visit NLN DataView(TM) at

African American Enrollment Drops, Hispanic Representation Inches Upward

The percentage of racial-ethnic minority students enrolled in pre-licensure RN programs has declined steadily over the past two years, ultimately dropping from a high of 29 percent in 2009 to 24 percent in 2011. (See Figure 1.) The majority of that decline stems from a steep reduction in the percentage of African American students enrolled in associate degree nursing programs, which dropped by almost 5 percent to 8.6 percent in just two years.

BSN programs saw a small drop in African American enrollment, down from 13 to 12 percent, in contrast to diploma programs, which saw a sharp increase. However, because they represent just 4 percent of all basic RN programs, the impact of diploma schools on the overall composition of the US nursing student population is relatively minor.

This fall-offin African American enrollment in nursing programs took place at a moment when the percentage of African American high school graduates was inching upward nationally, reaching a peak of 15.4 percent in 2010-2011. Demographers predict that African American representation among high school graduates will now decline, making the task of recruiting a diverse nursing workforce more challenging in the future.

While the proportions of many minorities in pre-licensure RN programs are just slightly below the percentage of minorities found among US college students in general, Hispanics remain dramatically underrepresented among nursing students. Representing a mere 6 percent of AD and BSN nursing students, Hispanics were enrolled in basic nursing programs at less than half the rate at which they were enrolled in undergraduate programs overall.

On a more promising note, the percentage of Hispanics enrolled in post-licensure programs has nearly doubled over the past two years at every level. Hispanic enrollment rose from 5 to 12 percent in RN-BSN programs, from 5 to 10 percent in master's programs, and from 3 to 6 percent in doctoral programs. Hispanic enrollment in PN programs also jumped, rising from 6 percent in 2009 to more than 11 percent in 2011.

At 15 percent, men enrolled in basic RN programs remained at the historic high reached at the start of the current economic recession. Across all levels of nursing education (except doctoral programs), 13 to 15 percent of nursing students (approximately one in seven) were male in 2011. By contrast, only 9 percent of students in doctoral programs were male.

Age of Doctoral Students Continues to Fall

After years of concern over the aging nursing workforce and the imminent widespread retirements of both RNs and nurse educators, there is evidence that the trend toward late entry into nursing may be reversing. Between 2009 and 2010, the percentage of nursing students who were over age 30 declined in every type of nursing program except master's. While most program types saw little change in the age distribution of students in 2011, doctoral programs were a notable exception. The fraction of doctoral students over age 30 continued to drop last year, declining an additional 4 percent to from 93 percent in 2009 to 87 percent in 2011. (See Figure 2.)

Competition Grows for Entry into Master's and Doctoral Programs

Despite a reported tightening of the job market for entry-level RNs over the past few years, demand for spots in nursing education programs continued to outstrip supply in 2011. This was particularly true in AD programs, where more than two thirds were "highly selective." At 47 percent, BSN programs falling into the highly selective category also remained at a near-term high.

Additional evidence of a scarcity of vacancies in nursing programs emerges from program acceptance rates, also known as selectivity rates. These were either down or steady in 2011 across all nursing program types. While the average US fouryear college accepted 66 percent of applicants in 2010, last year, the overall acceptance rate for BSN programs was only 53 percent.

Although applicants seeking to enter post-licensure programs found more spots available than their pre-licensure counterparts, competition is increasing. In 2011, just over one in four MSN programs and about one in six doctoral programs were highly selective, with 7 percent of RN-BSN programs meeting that criteria. Moreover, the percentage of programs that turned away qualified applicants rose among every post-licensure program type between 2009 and 2011. Most strikingly, the percentage of MSN programs turning away qualified applicants jumped by 15 percent over the past two years, from one in three programs to almost half in 2011. (See Figure 3.)

Capacity Is Constrained by Shortage of Faculty, Shortage of Clinical Settings

The percentage of schools that pointed to a faculty shortage fell offslightly over the past two years from its 2009 peak, but the faculty shortage remains the key obstacle to expanding the capacity of nursing programs. The shortage of clinical placement settings was cited as the primary impediment to expansion by 48 percent of AD programs, 42 percent of PN programs, and 31 percent of BSN programs.

The percentage of programs reporting that they were unable to fill all available spots dropped precipitously across all program types between 2010 and 2011, but a significant percentage of programs did operate at less than full capacity One in 10 doctoral, BSN, and PN programs did not fill all seats in 2011. Schools most often cite a lack of qualified students as the primary impediment to filling vacancies in their doctoral programs. For one third of RN-BSN and MSN programs, the cost of tuition was the main obstacle to filling seats.


The NLN is extremely grateful to the hundreds of schools of nursing and thousands of nursing education programs that contribute their time and effort each year in order to make this invaluable resource available. Without their generous support, this project would not be possible. NLN

Author affiliation:


Senior Research Scientist, Public Policy

National League for Nursing

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