Nursing school enrollments rose sharply this year, according to a new study, raising hopes that the 4-year-old nursing shortage may be easing.
Preliminary results from the study, by the National League for Nursing, found that about 230,000 students were enrolled in registered nurse programs this fall, a 14 percent increase over last year's enrollment of 201,458. The highest enrollment in the -- past 20 years was 250,000 students in 1983.
While the current shortage still has many hospitals scrambling to find enough qualified nurses, experts in the field say they expect it to ease gradually over the next few years.
"I think the nursing shortage is beginning to subside, not just because of rising enrollments, but because of increased sensitivity to the idea that nurses are a scarce resource and should not be used to fill in for orderlies, bookkeepers and dietitians," said Peri Rosenfeld of the National League of Nursing, a non-profit research and advocacy group based in New York.
"Hospitals are rethinking what nurses should do and freeing them from other tasks to do real nursing."
Ms. Rosenfeld and others said the revamping of nursing jobs, plus rising salaries and an improving image of the nursing profession, have combined to make nursing a more attractive career.
At the University of Texas nursing school in San Antonio, there have been far more applicants than the school could handle for the last few terms.
"We admit about 90 full-time students and 15 part-time students twice a year, and for the fall term, we had 121 students on our waiting list," said Barbara Lust, the associate dean of student affairs.
"And we've probably got 70 on the waiting list for the spring term. Back in 1985, we admitted everybody who was eligible and still had a few spaces."
With the economic downturn limiting job opportunities in other fields, experts say, nursing school is likely to become an even more popular option.
There is a consensus among nursing educators and students that the image of nursing is improving, because of more favorable media representations on television shows such as TTC "China Beach" and because of the increasing responsibilities that nurses bear.
Nursing schools are also attracting a new and older breed of students, the National League of Nursing says. The average age of new nurses is now 31, as against 24 or 25 in the early 1980s. More than half are married, Ms. Rosenfeld said, and half of those have children.