Even Florence Nightingale would need a higher degree

Nurse Susan Cooke and daughter Tara of Mullica Hill in the simulation lab at Drexel's nursing. Susan Cooke, a nurse for 29 years, is working toward her master's in nursing leadership at Drexel University Online while continuing her job as an intensive-care unit nursing manager with Kennedy Health System in Stratford. Tara, a sophomore and graduate of Clearview Regional High School, is taking classes at the university to earn her bachelor's degree in nursing.

Am I prepared to go back to school?  It’s a question I recently have been forced to asked myself.  My employer is in the earlier stages of applying for Magnet Recognition (a term for a credentialing program that recognizes hospitals for higher education among nursing staff, and ultimately better job satisfaction and patient outcomes).  I have a four-year nursing degree but I am quickly beginning the search for a Masters of Nursing program to remain a ‘desired employee.’  This would be my second Masters degree, but first in the field of nursing, which is becoming increasingly essential to compete for jobs in the future.  I am sick at the thought of starting a new curriculum, paying tuition, and studying for midterms.  I thought I went into debt to be done with college classes and move forward with my life.  I feel like enrolling in classes is a backwards step or a simply linear one without a definite goal in reach.  Working full time, juggling childcare and family matters, I feel time and money are limited. However, my director said it best: “You just keep building, you want a strong resume… It is not going to be a kind job market to those who only have a lesser year degree.” 


The wave of panic about enrolling for a higher degree in nursing is widespread. Rationales for riding the wave are just as diverse.  Some nurses want to remain competitive and get job security, while others are threatened by a demotion and even termination especially with Magnet Recognition becoming more popular, and high administration positions and educator roles holding strict new criteria for employment. Sure, there’s excitement that comes with every new journey but also resentment and panic at the fact that our profession is forcing us in this direction.  When will clinical experience count for college credit?!?


Within the past 10 years, an LPN (licensed practical nurse, under 2 years of training) and an ASN (a 2-year Associates degree in the Science of Nursing, the most entry level college degree) were acceptable for a working nurse.  But in 2011, the most experienced nurses are dealing with pressure to compete for their jobs and prove their worth is greater than their LPN or ASN degree might suggest.  A nurse can sit for the licensing exam after just 2 years of education and then choose to continue for a four-year Bachelors of Science in Nursing degree (BSN) yet it is quickly becoming less of a choice. Many nurses are still paying for their own college-age children or approaching retirement age and are reluctant to return to college just to keep their job and not necessarily advance in their institution.  New graduates, regardless of their degree, are also finding it extremely difficult to be hired especially as they are among a large group of interviewees, fighting for one position, against hundreds of others with competitive resumes. 

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that more than 581,500 new RN positions will be created through 2018, which would increase the size of the RN workforce by 22%.

However, more than ever, college degrees are directing how open nursing positions are filled.  The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Future of Nursing: Report, sets a goal for nurses to achieve higher levels of education and training through an “improved education system that promotes seamless academic progression.” Basically, it recommends that ASN and diploma programs (hospital-run curriculums) are eliminated and ASN programs link directly to BSN degree before a nurse can graduate and sit for the licensing exam.  The report supports at least a four- year, baccalaureate-prepared nurse, aiming for 80% of the workforce to have earned a BSN but encourages nurses to strive for Masters degree, a PhD, and beyond.  Currently, nurses fall far short of these recommendations with only 50% of registered nurses prepared at the baccalaureate or graduate degree level. 


Unfortunately, many nurses will argue that there is no motivation, other than job security, for a nurse to go back to school- I hope it changes!  Currently, nurses come from all different college backgrounds and work side-by-side, earning very similar pay.  Some nurses have a two-year college degree and some have six or more years.  If salaries do not start reflecting education, fewer nurses will return to school.  Many employers will pay a portion of tuition costs for their staff to enroll in ‘continuing education,’ a fancy term that does not promise higher salaries.


Are you also facing the same hesitations about enrolling in college classes?  What is your rationale for enrolling in classes for a higher degree?  Will you be rewarded to going back to school with, say, a promotion or salary increase?