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How can nurse educators convey to clinical nurses that advancing their education will make them better practitioners, even if they remain in exactly the same job? How can they communicate how valuable the knowledge, and the experience of obtaining it, will be to them? I think that, if we are able to convey the message that more education makes you look at even the same job differently, we would not have much

difficulty in persuading nurses to move up the education ladder. But, it’s a ‘soft’ message, so it’s more difficult to get across. They want to know what the additional degree will do for them professionally.

The majority of nurses in the United States begin their practice with an associate degree. Once they have their license and enter the professional working world, it becomes more challenging to continue down the road to baccalaureate education. This is true even if furthering education is an identified goal. Work and family schedules, loans from their associate degree education and other factors get in the way of nurses who want to continue on to a bachelor’s degree or higher.

And, yet, the associate degree is increasingly being viewed in nursing as an entry-level degree, not a terminal one. State legislatures throughout the country are debating the issue of minimum educational requirements for entry into nursing practice. Some areas are considering the BSN (Bachelor of Science in Nursing) as the entry-level degree, while others are discussing requiring further education within a defined time frame, such as 10 years.

In October 2010, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) released its report, “The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health.” These recommendations are the focus of 49 Regional Action Coalitions throughout the country. In its report, the IOM set a goal to increase the percentage of BSN-prepared nurses to 80 percent by 2020, from the current percentage of approximately 50 percent. RN (registered nurse) to BS programs like the one at American Public University, which offers an affordable and flexible online educational experience, are one way to help achieve this goal and enhance the nursing profession.

For those who do make the decision to go back to school, the online education option is increasingly attractive because students come to the program already holding active nursing licenses and do not need to have clinical learning as part of their curriculum. While we do require that our students be employed in a clinical setting, this is for purposes of course assignments, not for true clinical learning that takes place in entry-level RN programs. Asynchronous online learning can fit very well into the schedules of practicing nurses, many of whom work irregular hours that make it challenging to attend traditional courses.

Another distinct advantage of online programs is the geographical diversity that occurs. Students who are in a diverse geographical location, nursing practice and culture are brought together in the same learning environment, enriching the experience for all. Since students are in active nursing practice while they are in school, the sharing of their varied experiences creates the opportunity for students to learn a great deal from each other.

The American Public University System (APUS) nursing program, established in January 2011, was recently accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education. Students in our program learn about such things as genetics, genomics, global and community health, which are not focused on as

heavily in most associate degree nursing programs. Nursing leadership is traditionally a focus in RN to BSN programs, and APUS is no exception. Students gain an understanding that nurse leaders do not need to have the title of leader to hold the role, but can do so within the realm of their own professional experience. They also discuss such important issues as nursing advocacy, giving nursing a voice in local, regional, and national decisions about health care and patient safety. Students at APUS are taught by faculty who are experienced educators and clinicians in a variety of fields. They can start classes at any time, as all courses at APUS begin the first Monday of each month, year-round. This flexibility is a key factor in the decisions that nurses must make when deciding to return to school.

I strongly encourage nurses to return to school. I delayed furthering my education for years, while my children were young and even through their high school years. Had I realized how much differently I would see my profession and how many new opportunities my master’s degree opened for me, I would have found a way to do it much earlier.

Elaine Keavney, RN, MSN, is director of the RN to BSN program at American Public University