Skip nav to main content.

Student Enrollment Surged in U.S. Schools of Nursing in 2020 Despite Challenges Presented by the Pandemic

Student enrollment in baccalaureate, master’s, and doctoral nursing programs increased in 2020 despite concerns that…

  • April 28, 2021

Student enrollment in baccalaureate, master’s, and doctoral nursing programs increased in 2020 despite concerns that the pandemic might diminish interest in nursing careers, according to new data released today by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN).

In programs designed to prepare new registered nurses (RNs) at the baccalaureate level, enrollment increased by 5.6% with 251,145 students now studying in these programs nationwide.

AACN’s annual survey findings are based on data reported from 956 of the 1,035 nursing schools in the U.S. (92.4% response rate) with baccalaureate and/or graduate programs.

Based on findings from AACN’s latest annual survey conducted in Fall 2020, significant increases in enrollment were found in entry-level baccalaureate (5.6%), master’s (4.1%), and Doctor of Nursing Practice (8.9%) programs.

In fact, nursing programs offered at each of these degree levels have seen more than 15 years of continuous enrollment growth.

Though interest in baccalaureate and graduate nursing programs is strong, thousands of qualified applicants are being turned away from four-year colleges and universities.

In 2020, 80,521 qualified applications were not accepted at schools of nursing due primarily to a shortage of clinical sites, faculty, and resource constraints.

Within this total, applications turned away included 66,274 from entry-level baccalaureate, 1,376 from RN-to-baccalaureate, 8,987 from master’s, and 3,884 from doctoral programs.

Given the persistent shortage of nurse faculty, AACN remains concerned that 12,871 applications were turned away from graduate programs, which limits the pool of potential nurse faculty.

In more troubling news, enrollment in RN to baccalaureate (BSN) programs declined for the second consecutive year with a 2.6% decrease in the number of enrolled students in 2020.

Nurses with baccalaureate-level education have been linked to better patient outcomes, fewer errors, and lower mortality rates.

RN to BSN programs offer an efficient route for practicing nurses to advance their initial preparation to the next level.

With 11 new RN to BSN programs in the planning stages and the high demand among nurse employers for baccalaureate-prepared clinicians, AACN remains hopeful that this slight decline will soon be corrected.

In terms of the research-focused doctorate (PhD), AACN data show that enrollment has declined by 9.5% or 484 students since enrollments peaked in 2012.

Last year, enrollments in PhD nursing programs increased by 0.9% or 58 students, and applications to these programs surged by 24.3%, which may indicate an end to the enrollment decline.

This downward trend over the last 8 years has created great concern among academic nursing leaders responsible for preparing future nurse scientists, educators, and leaders.