3 Learning Strategies to Combat the Nursing Shortage — While Creating Equity

To address the current nursing shortage, the U.S. will need a projected 1.2M new registered nurses by 2030. And that’s not accounting for the impact of the pandemic and the accelerated exodus of seasoned RNs.

This stark reality is causing healthcare systems to re-evaluate how they can both address workforce shortages while also better supporting and creating opportunity for their employees.

Forward-looking healthcare systems, including Bon Secours Mercy Health and UCHealth, are responding to the crisis by offering education as a benefit. Through debt-free education and reskilling programs, these employers are removing financial barriers to education and enabling upward career and socioeconomic mobility.

These programs can provide a unique, sustainable solution to the nursing shortage crisis while also increasing diversity in the field (and improving patient outcomes in the process).

Part of the innovation lies in how these programs work with learning institutions to meet the needs of working adults — which in turn benefit the organization by improving completion rates, saving costs, and building accessible career pathways. Here are three learning strategies that can help organizations combat the nursing shortage while increasing equity.

1. Competency-based education offers flexibility and boosts confidence for learners — while clarifying expectations for employers.

Competency-based education (CBE) is a teaching methodology that prioritizes student learning over time spent in the classroom. Programs are designed to help learners master specific competencies that tie directly into their desired future careers, and these outcomes are clearly communicated to students prior to enrollment and reiterated consistently throughout. This transparency, combined with hands-on course work to prove mastery, can equip RNs to enter the field more prepared to practice — and provide healthcare organizations with clearer expectations of the capabilities of their newly minted RNs.

CBE programs are also inherently flexible as they do not dictate when and how learning takes place. “It works well for the lives of students,” said Nicole Simonson DNP, RN, Director of the RSN-to-BSN Completion Programs at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, “The program is flexible so they can self-pace and take on bits and pieces when they are available.” Students are not forced to choose between work and school when their hours are unpredictable, or miss a parent-teacher conference for an exam. This flexibility can be reassuring and instill a level of confidence that success is attainable.

Numerous organizations, including the ANCC, AACN, and C-BEN have worked to define key competency expectations for nurses, and develop a framework to ensure quality and rigor from formal education through professional development and beyond. This demonstrates a recognition within the field that healthcare team members need the tools and resources to provide competent and high-quality care as well as opportunities for role advancement.

2. Credit for prior learning can save costs and accelerate program completion.

Learning can happen anywhere. Institutions that are able to measure and qualify classroom and on-the-job learning —and provide learners with credit for it — will ultimately attract more working adults and equip them to move through programs more equitably. Guild research with one employer partner found that 1 in 5 students would not be in school today without the opportunity to transfer their on-the-job learning for credits.

“It was really cool to be able to count my on-the-job training as credits for school because in the long run it saved me time and it saved me money potentially,” one Guild student said, “it kind of showed me that what I was learning on the job was actually applicable to my degree.”

In a recent Guild survey*, 65% of frontline healthcare workers said they want to pursue clinical, advanced clinical, or healthcare management roles. This is an untapped population of future RNs who may begin nursing school with relevant experience and skills. Many already have an allied health certificate or on-the-job training that has resulted in mastery of specific nursing competencies.

Credit for existing competencies avoids redundant learning, and can therefore accelerate program completion. If we assume students enter their nursing program with even 15% of the competencies taught, acknowledging this learning with credit effectively empowers schools to educate 15% more of the ~80,000 qualified applicants that were turned away in 2019 due to lack of capacity –or 12,000 more RNs.

3. Stackable credentials create more accessible career pathways.

Any degree can be broken down into its requisite parts. Acknowledging that not every part must happen sequentially, or in the same place, creates a system in which all high-quality, verifiable learning can stack into a degree.

This creates easy on- and off-ramps for students as well as opportunities for learning to occur in smaller portions, which time- and cash-strapped working adults tend to prefer. With every new credential, a student is able to access a new job opportunity or salary bump and fill a high priority role for their employer while setting themselves up for the next step tomorrow; an accessible pathway to their BSN.

If credentials become fully stackable, a medical assistant who ultimately aspires to be an RN can choose to enroll in, for example, a phlebotomy program. Once she passes her certification, she will be able to continue working at the same hospital but in a new capacity and with an increased salary — two qualities essential for retention. When she is ready to enroll in her ADN or BSN program, she can return to the school where her work in the certificate program will count towards her degree and she will be able to graduate sooner.

Equitable education is a win-win solution

The country needs more RNs and a more diverse workforce to serve our communities. Solutions designed to support equitable access and outcomes for working adult students, who represent a mature and diverse prospective student group, can provide healthcare employers with a win-win solution: support opportunity for employees while filling talent gaps at their organizations.

Learn more by reading the full white paper, Pathways to Lessen the Nursing Shortage and Increase Equity in the Field for Working Adult Learners.

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