How Colleges Can Deal with the Shortage of Nursing Professors

Qualified nursing faculty members are in short supply in the U.S. In October 2013, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing reported a faculty vacancy rate of 8.3 percent, or 1,358 vacancies in 662 nursing programs. Further compounding the problem is the aging of existing nursing faculty. The average age of a doctorally prepared nursing faculty member ranges from 51.5 (assistant professor) to 61.3 (full professor). Age ranges for master’s prepared faculty are similar.

As a result, over 79,650 qualified nursing student applicants were turned away from the nation’s nursing schools in 2012 due to several factors, including lack of faculty. Many nursing schools indicated that there was an additional need for faculty positions beyond the vacancy rates documented. Since many nursing faculty members retire in their early to mid-60s, the professoriate is falling short of educating the appropriate nursing workforce to meet the healthcare needs of Americans.

What can nursing schools do to attract more nurses into the faculty ranks? This question vexes nursing program administrators and search committees. A two-pronged approach is needed to meet short-term demands and to prepare a long-term strategy to secure a steady pipeline of appropriately prepared nurse educators.

Short-term approach

If you visit most nursing schools in the U.S. today, you are likely to find a combination of a relatively small full-time doctorally prepared faculty augmented with a large adjunct clinical teaching faculty comprising primarily master’s prepared nurses who hold clinical positions. However, as the need for nursing faculty has increased, so have salaries, making nursing schools expensive to operate. Complicating the issue is the low faculty-to-student ratio required in clinical rotations, mandated by accreditation standards, further driving up costs.

Nursing schools have responded by decreasing full-time faculty and increasing part-time clinical faculty. Some positive aspects of a large adjunct faculty include the use of practicing clinicians to supervise students and the opportunity for clinicians to try out the faculty role. Savvy nursing school administrators identify the best adjunct faculty and encourage them to consider a full-time career as nursing school educators.

Schools also offer benefits, such as reduced costs for graduate level courses to further the adjunct faculty members’ careers,  which can provide an impetus to return to school for an advanced degree. Courses in effective teaching methods, moreover, can help the novice adjunct instructor and later be applied to an advanced degree. Other ways of attracting and retaining adjunct faculty include built-in periodic raises and use of a full-time clinical coordinator to provide support to adjuncts, more closely connecting them to the school’s curriculum and mission.

Long-term approach

A more permanent solution to the nursing faculty shortage can be found in nursing school classrooms. Students need to be made aware of the joys of a career as a nurse educator. While it is never too early to introduce this concept, graduate programs are the best place to encourage nurses to join the ranks of their professors. Entering a master’s program to enhance their professional clinical credentials, graduate students can be offered opportunities to experience the teaching role through graduate assistant positions.

Providing scholarship support to graduate students interested in a teaching career can also be useful. For example, the Jonas Nurse Leaders Scholar program, designed to ameliorate the shortage of nursing faculty, is an excellent recruitment device, as well as the Nurse Faculty Loan Program funded by the Health Resources and Services Administration, which forgives the loans based on teaching following graduation.

After earning a bachelor’s degree, for most nursing faculty the path to a doctoral degree is interrupted by periods of full-time clinical practice, delaying their entry into the professoriate. Two new curricula at the University of Connecticut are speeding this progress through a BS-to-Ph.D. and a BS-to-DNP program. These curricula will initiate nurse professors earlier in careers with a longer duration.

Nursing schools need to make faculty positions attractive to new doctoral graduates. While salaries are often not as high as those in clinical practice or in executive roles, there are many benefits associated with the academic life that may not be immediately evident to the new graduate. Flexible hours, the ability to work from home, academic calendars that provide significantly low-intensity times throughout the year, and generous benefit packages, particularly at state institutions, provide opportunities for a better lifestyle than do many clinical positions.

In addition, many schools are building their clinical faculty with doctorally prepared professors who also maintain a clinical practice while teaching. Partnering with clinical agencies can lead to an active faculty practice in a site where students are then precepted by their own faculty. Faculty salaries can be set higher if the clinical agency contributes to the salary. Faculty members find satisfaction in maintaining clinical skills, which promotes their retention. Everyone benefits from this type of arrangement. This partnership is particularly suited to doctoral graduates with a doctor of nursing practice degree who desire to remain active in clinical practice.

Novice faculty members can often become overwhelmed by the demands of a tenure-track position. Nursing schools can consider a reduced teaching load during early years as a recruitment strategy. Providing support to begin the tenure-track position, such as a startup package (including graduate assistant support) similar to those in other science disciplines, can jump-start a faculty research career. Aligning faculty expertise with responsibilities also makes a faculty position more attractive. When faculty can combine their area of research interest with their teaching load, the synergy leads to better outcomes in all areas, attracting honors and graduate students and increasing productivity.

The importance of a mentoring program cannot be overlooked. Mentors are essential to helping novice faculty adapt to the academic lifestyle and performance expectations. While the old adage of “publish or perish” still holds true, each school will be unique in what its internal culture expects of junior faculty. A mentor can be a guide, a champion and a constructive critic, with a role in enhancing the new faculty member’s success.

Faculty candidates should ask about support provided by a school, and a mentoring program can help a school stand out from others, signaling that the institution cares enough about the success of its tenure-track faculty to invest senior faculty effort on them. Similarly, a faculty development program also demonstrates the school’s commitment to prepare professors to succeed.

The nursing faculty shortage is bigger than one school or one state. It is a universal problem that affects the production of an adequate nursing workforce and, consequently, the nation’s health. Solutions may be needed at the national level through a joint effort of nursing schools, professional organizations, and regulatory agencies. However, offering incentives to nurses to enter the academic ranks, such as free or reduced tuition, a stipend during study, and loan forgiveness, has been successful during past times of nursing faculty shortage. It is time once again to consider the most effective strategies to provide a stable nursing faculty.

Regina M. Cusson is dean of the UConn School of Nursing. An advanced practice nurse with a specialization in neonatal care, she is a fellow of the American Academy of Nursing. This essay was first published in Inside Higher Ed.