BSNs: How Old is Too Old for Nursing School?

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By Jennifer Larson, contributor 

April 29, 2013 - Have you ever wondered if you’re too old to go back to nursing school? Is it worth it to go back to get a bachelor’s of science in nursing (BSN) degree if you’re already well into your nursing career?

As the effort to get more nurses educated at the baccalaureate level gains momentum, many nurses have found themselves thinking about these questions. 

For many younger nurses, getting a BSN seems to be a reasonable proposition. They’ll have a better shot at jobs with employers who want baccalaureate-prepared nurses. But for older nurses, especially those who only plan to work a few more years before retiring, the prospect seems more unlikely. 

Is there a point when the cost of the furthering your nursing education may not return enough financial and career rewards?

It’s hard to generalize, say many nursing leaders. Of course there are benefits to additional education, but the reality is that it can be a better path for some than for others. 

Rita Frantz says employers are hiring more BSN-prepared nurses.
Employers are starting to hire baccalaureate-prepared nurses when they can, said Rita A. Frantz, PhD, RN, Kelting Dean and professor, University of Iowa College of Nursing.

“It really does depend on the individual and how much longer they intend to practice,” said Rita Frantz, PhD, RN, Kelting Dean and professor at the University of Iowa College of Nursing.

The growing emphasis on baccalaureate-prepared nurses 

According to a growing body of research, better patient outcomes are associated with better prepared nurses.

The Institute of Medicine’s (IOM) landmark report, The Future of Nursing, published in 2010, called for 80 percent of the nation’s nursing workforce to have a baccalaureate degree by 2020. National nursing workforce expert Linda Aiken, PhD, FRCN, RN, FAAN, a professor of nursing and the director of the Center for Health Outcomes and Policy Research at the University of Pennsylvania, has also called for more nurses to begin their nursing practice with a BSN

Currently, about half of the nation’s registered nurses have a bachelor’s of science degree in nursing. The 2008 National Sample Survey of Registered Nurses showed that 50 percent of the RN workforce held a baccalaureate or graduate degree; 36.1 percent held an associate’s degree and 13.9 percent a diploma in nursing.

Perhaps as a result of the IOM report and supporting research, some employers have begun preferential hiring--choosing nurses with BSNs over nurses with diplomas or associate degrees. Additionally, hospitals working to achieve the prestigious Magnet designation from the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) must boost their numbers of baccalaureate-prepared nurses, which may be another contributing factor. 

Karen Goldschmidt: more hospitals requiring nurses to have BSNs.
Karen Goldschmidt, MSN, RN, chair of the RN-to-BSN online degree completion program at Drexel University, said that more hospitals are requiring nurses to have BSNs.

“The hospitals are making edicts,” noted Karen Goldschmidt, MSN, RN, department chair of the RN-to-BSN online degree completion program for Drexel University’s College of Nursing and Health Professions.  “If you want to keep your job here, you need to get your bachelor’s degree.” 

Additionally, some states are even considering legislation to require nurses to obtain a baccalaureate degree within a certain number of years of entering practice; these are commonly known as BSN-in-10 bills. Many spell out exemptions for nurses who are already in the workforce.

Fortunately, nurses who are compelled to further their education will find a lot of options available. The number of RN-to-BSN bridge programs continues to proliferate; the American Association of Colleges of Nursing reports that there are more than 640 RN-to-BSN programs, and more than 400 of them are offered at least partially online. Additionally, people with bachelor’s degrees in other fields can take advantage of a growing number of accelerated baccalaureate programs; as of 2011, there were 235 accelerated baccalaureate programs in the United States, with 33 new ones in the planning stages, according to AACN.

The cost factor 

For some nurses, the cost of returning to school is the major obstacle. They’re worried about saving enough money for retirement, and the prospect of finding the funds to pay for school seems daunting. 

MaryAnn Pappas, 51, who works at a nursing home, became an RN just five years ago and still has some debt left over. She was interested in getting additional education, though, and took several classes toward a BSN degree. But the cost of additional schooling, coupled with her existing debt, has put her plans on the back burner. 

“More loans do not seem to be fiscally wise, because of my age and financial situation,” said Pappas, who lives near Pittsburgh. “If cost was not a factor, I would never stop going to school! I guess if someone helped me attain my BSN, that would help defray the cost.”

Frantz said she hopes that people who genuinely desire to earn a baccalaureate degree won’t let potential cost get in the way. 

“There are scholarships, and most every school has them,” she said. “We even have to push people to apply for them.” 

Additionally, online programs can be a less-expensive alternative. As an example, Drexel University Online offers students a 25 percent discount off the regular on-campus tuition rate for those working for one of the school’s partnering organizations. Plus, there is the convenience factor that is helpful for nurses who need to find a way to work school into their already-busy lives, noted Goldschmidt. 

Frantz also recommended nurses check with their employers to inquire about tuition reimbursement, particularly if the employer is encouraging or requiring nurses to obtain a baccalaureate degree. Many professional associations also offer scholarships and tuition assistance, as well, she added. 

A transformative experience 

Mary Rita Hirley: many RNs unsure if they should return to school for BSN.
Many nurses across the nation are wondering if they can or should return to school, said Mary Rita Hurley, RN, MPA, executive director of the Oregon Center for Nursing.

Mary Rita Hurley, RN, MPA, executive director of the Oregon Center for Nursing, remembers how reluctantly she returned to school after working as a nurse for a few years. And she knows that others, especially people who may be in their late 40s or 50s, are struggling with the idea. 

“‘At this point in my career,’ I can imagine a lot of people are saying, ‘what’s this going to do for me?’” she said. 

But Hurley reports that it was more than worthwhile for her, a perspective she’s heard expressed by many other nurses who did return to school and by nursing instructors who work with returning students. 

“The education opens up doors for them that they couldn’t even imagine before,” added Goldschmidt.

Beverly Malone of NLN advises nurses to follow their desires for BSN degrees.
"If you have the desire [for a BSN], why not go ahead and do it?" said National League for Nursing CEO Beverly Malone, PhD, RN, noting that people are living and working longer than ever.

Returning to school does require commitment. According to Aiken’s research, only about 20 percent of nurses return to school for even one degree; perhaps because nurses must consider a number of factors in their education decisions, including finances, family situations, their career prospects and their retirement plans.

“Any time you go back to school after you’ve been out for a while, it takes some determination to do that,” said Beverly Malone, PhD, RN, CEO of the National League for Nursing. “You have to want it.”

If you do want to go back to school, Malone and others say it’s important to get the process started. “And if you make the decision not to go back yourself, encourage others who do want to,” she said.

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