In this Higher Ed Careers interview, the president and CEO of the American Association of Colleges of Nursing discusses the nursing faculty shortage, areas where colleges can improve, and the impact nurse educators can make.
Andrew Hibel, HigherEdJobs: In 2021, your association released the new AACN Essentials, which serve as a guide for core competencies necessary for the nursing workforce of the future. What inspired the new format for this educational framework, and what are the most important takeaways?
Deborah Trautman, PhD, RN, FAAN, President and Chief Executive Officer, American Association of Colleges of Nursing: AACN routinely updates the competency expectations for nursing program graduates using a consensus-building process that starts with an environmental scan. During the latest Essentials revision, we heard repeatedly that there was confusion about the multiple degree pathways in nursing, variability across similar degree programs, and inconsistency in the knowledge, skills, and competencies of new graduates. Practice partners worked closely with us throughout the Essentials update process and confirmed the need for more practice-ready nurses. A new model and framework for nursing education was needed to achieve these outcomes. The transition to competency-based education and assessment will address issues related to providing more consistency among graduates; clarity in expectations for program outcomes; and a smoother transition from one education program to another as well as from one career path to another.
Hibel: What can we learn from the COVID-19 pandemic to advance nurse education? Is there anything nursing faculty can do differently to prepare future nurses for public health crises like this?
Trautman: The pandemic underscored the important roles nurse educators play in protecting the public and responding to public health emergencies. Nurse faculty moved quickly to adapt programs to ensure the safety of students in the clinical setting and used innovative approaches to maintain the production of new nurses needed to enter the workforce at this critical time. Navigating the pandemic highlighted to the importance of disaster response, educational technology, and continuity planning to sustain nursing education.
Work to update the 2021 Essentials continued throughout the pandemic, and we were intentional about strengthening competencies related to disaster preparedness and emergency response. One of the 10 Domains of practice featured in the Essentials is Population Health, which calls for preparing nurses to protect the public during public health emergencies, including contributing to systems-level planning and community outreach.
Hibel: We’ve all heard it — there’s a shortage of nursing faculty. Is there any solution when the compensation for nursing faculty doesn’t compete with that of clinical nursing? How can colleges or universities incentivize faculty careers?
Trautman: Nursing schools recognize the importance of increasing faculty salaries to recruit and retain nurse educators. To supplement salaries, schools often seek joint appointments with a practice partner, whereby compensation is provided by both the nursing school and the clinical agency. AACN data show that salary increases with level of education, and professors with doctoral degrees do command six-figure salaries. Though salary is important, it is only one component of career satisfaction. Nurse educators often express a high degree of satisfaction with their work, and typically cite interaction with students and watching future nurses grow in confidence and skill as the most rewarding aspects of their jobs. Other benefits include access to cutting-edge knowledge and research, opportunities to collaborate with health professionals, an intellectually stimulating workplace, and a flexible work environment.
Hibel: According to this 2021 report from AACN, the top reason for insufficient faculty in nursing education programs was “insufficient funds to hire new faculty.” Can you talk more about this specific challenge and how colleges and universities might overcome it?
Trautman: In recent years, many colleges and universities have faced significant budget cuts, due in part to declining enrollments and other market factors. These cuts impact schools of nursing and their ability to operate and expand student capacity. Since many nursing schools continue to see strong interest from prospective students, there are opportunities here to lobby for more funding and resources since nursing programs also generate enrollment across other university programs, including the sciences, communication, and the liberal arts. We also encourage schools to be more explicit about how their programs benefit the health of the campus and the local community, via clinical placements and outreach efforts, as a way to showcase their value.
Hibel: What can current nurse faculty do to stay positive with no end in sight for the shortage?
Trautman: Focusing on the important roles that faculty play and the “joy of teaching” expressed by so many educators is key to maintaining a positive outlook. Whether you work in the classroom or the practice setting, nurses who teach are responsible for preparing and mentoring patient care providers and the future leaders of our profession. Nurse educators play a pivotal role in strengthening the nursing workforce, serving as role models, and providing the leadership needed to implement evidence-based practice, and improve patient outcomes. This is clearly work worth doing!
Hibel: Aside from the shortage of both nursing faculty and clinical nurses, what are the biggest challenges nurse educators face today?
Trautman: Nurse educators today must meet the challenge of preparing a highly competent nursing workforce able to navigate a rapidly changing healthcare environment. Faculty are working diligently to re-envision traditional approaches to nursing education and explore how best to leverage the latest research and technology to graduate professional nurses. Priorities include creating inclusive learning environments that serve the learning needs of all nursing students; adapting traditional nursing programs to unlock the benefits of competency-based learning; identifying alternatives to traditional clinical-based education; and instilling a commitment to lifelong learning in all new nursing professionals.
Hibel: What excites you most about the future of nursing education?
Trautman: Today’s healthcare delivery system is evolving rapidly and creating new opportunities for nurses to step forward and lead change. Nursing education programs must adapt accordingly and re-envision how nurses are prepared with the clinical, technological, and leadership skills needed to practice in all places where care is delivered.
With the adoption of the new AACN Essentials, nurse educators made the bold decision to transform how nurses are prepared for contemporary practice. This journey is just beginning, and AACN is excited to help lead this transformation, which will strengthen nursing’s professional identity and articulate what makes graduates of baccalaureate, master’s, and DNP nursing programs truly unique and invaluable to patient care.
Embedded in the Essentials are new expectations for preparing nurses to address some of healthcare’s most pressing needs, including providing care that is responsive to the social determinants of health and leading efforts to achieve health equity. Moving to the new Essentials provides an ideal opportunity for academic and practice leaders to work together to create new clinical experiences that will better ensure competency development. By working together, we were able to break new ground and co-create the future of nursing education and practice.
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