Online Nursing Degrees: a prescription for online success

By June 25, 2015 No Comments

In the rush to go online, many universities take a “ready, fire, aim” approach, launching programs that are ultimately unsuccessful due to poor planning, underestimating the amount of work and resources needed, and/or failing to understand market demand.
All three are program killers, but the latter is the most easily addressed, and one that all university leaders should strive to avoid by conducting relevant market research to study—and heed—the immutable law of supply and demand. Determining market demand for any degree should be the very first step in deciding which online degrees to launch.
Many start with an online MBA, but data suggest looking elsewhere. IPEDS shows a five-year growth rate in conferred MBAs of 7%, but this figure for AY 2012-13 was  -3%—negative growth. And with 454 online MBAs, competition is fierce and cost-of-acquisition metrics are extremely high, so unless your institution is extremely prestigious, capturing marketshare looks to be unlikely.
For a more positive story, we explored the online RN-BSN (Bachelor of Science in Nursing) completion degree. IPEDS data show a five-year growth rate in conferred degrees of 50% with a 10% growth rate in AY 2012-13. Even with at least 400 fully or partially online RN-BSN degrees offered, the information provided below shows that demand warrants additional entries into this compelling space.


  1. Labor Market Demand: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the need for registered nurses (RNs) will grow by 19% between 2012 and 2022, nearly twice the 11% growth rate for all professions. As seen in the chart below, the BLS predicts an additional 526,800 new nursing jobs by 2022.



BLS also forecasts 525,000 RN retirements by 2022—a strong wave if not an actual tsunami—leading to 1.05 net new nursing openings by 2022, just seven years from now. [i]


  1. Institute of Medicine’s call for 80% of RNs to have a bachelor’s degree by 2020: The Institute of Medicine’s (IOM) 2010 report calls for increasing the proportion of nurses with a baccalaureate degree: “Academic nurse leaders across all schools of nursing should work together to increase the proportion of nurses with a baccalaureate degree to 80 percent by 2020.” [ii] This has sparked massive transformation in the nursing industry and been a key driver of new online RN-BSN programs across the country. Increasingly, hospitals are requiring their RNs to have or earn a bachelor’s degree, and for working RNs, doing so online is often the best option.

Given the sheer number of practicing RNs without a bachelor’s degree (estimated in a 2013 report by the Health Resources and Services Administration to be 45% of the workforce[iii]), there is tremendous pressure on schools and colleges of nursing to graduate more baccalaureate-educated nurses. Thus we see a unique opportunity for universities to confidently enter the online space, a call that dozens of institutions have answered in the affirmative.

  1. Affordable Care Act (ACA): Loved, hated, revered, and maligned, the Affordable Care Act (aka, “Obamacare”) is radically altering American health care. As of March 2015, 16.4 million people were covered due to ACA.[iv] As more Americans obtain health insurance, the need for skilled nurses will continue to increase. And as the shortage of primary care physicians escalates, some argue that nurses will take on ever-increasing responsibilities, which, in turn, will drive the demand for better-educated nurses who can deliver these services.
  1. Aging US Population: The aging U.S. population is further driving demand for degreed nurses. U.S. Census Bureau data indicate that by 2030, Americans aged 65 or higher will account for 20% of the population, a historically high percentage. Older citizens consume more health care, which will drive the need for more, better-educated healthcare providers, including nurses. The Census Bureau further notes that Americans over the age of 85—who consume by far the most healthcare—will soar by 377% by 2050.[v]

With these demographic and market forces driving the demand for more well-educated nurses, the need for more online RN-BSN offerings has also grown.


According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), there were 692 RN-BSN programs available in 2014, 400 (or 58%) of which offer at least partially online baccalaureate degrees.[vi] IPEDS shows that 102,025 BSNs were awarded in 2013. If this rose to 110,000 conferred BSNs/year, between now and 2022, that means an additional 770,000 practicing RNs will earn their BSN.
That is, to be sure, a lot of newly degreed nurses. However, it falls far short of the expected 1.05 million vacancies in 2022. There are many variables and contingencies, but this simple mathematical equation suggests that the need for opportunities for RNs to earn their Bachelor’s degree is pronounced.
As these data points illustrate, the demand for more nurses with a bachelor’s degree is significant. And while supply (the number of programs for licensed RNs to earn their bachelor’s degree online) has grown in recent years, the imbalance that remains suggests ample room for more institutions to offer an online RN-BSN to meet the needs of working RNs. (Notably, graduate degrees for nurses are also in demand, both at the Master’s and Doctoral levels.)


Clearly, the data show very strong market demand for the online RN-BSN. We encourage all institutions to consider launching this program—especially if a ground-based RN-BSN already exists.
However, with strong market demand and fierce competition comes a significant challenge: generating leads in a cost-effective manner. Lead gen for the online RN-BSN has become extremely, often prohibitively, expensive. By one account, online RN-BSN leads are nearly as costly as those for online MBAs (the most popular online degree in the US). For mid-tier institutions with solid, but not sterling, brands, professional assistance from a digital marketing firm is money well spent.
Thanks to the regionality of nursing degrees, online RN-BSN students often live within a fairly close proximity of the institution. Augmenting digital marketing with a strong ground-based recruitment effort is highly advisable. For instance, having a staff person dedicated to building relationship with hospitals (and, to a lesser degree, doctors’ offices) can generate leads in a more cost-effective way than paid search or traditional media such as billboards or magazine advertisements. Ultimately, marketers should consider a combination of all three marketing efforts.


Once the decision is made to take the RN-BSN online, there are numerous important steps the institution must take. Chief among them is determining which of the three options make the most sense:

  1. Go it alone, using internal resources for marketing, recruitment, course design, retention, help desk support, etc.
  1. Outsource to point providers as needed (e.g., hiring a digital marketing firm, but managing the admissions effort with current staff)
  1. Partner with an Online Program Management firm to handle these tasks, typically as part of a long-term, revenue-share arrangement

Each option has its merits and drawbacks, which we’ll address in a future post. But in the meantime, there is little doubt regarding the need for more online nursing degrees and little doubt that institutions looking to go online or grow their online footprint should closely consider doing so with the RN-BSN.
Scott LevineScott Levine is the Founder and CEO of Higher Education Research Consultants. His research focuses on enrollment and marketing across academe, with a strong emphasis on online degrees. He has managed online degrees at leading institutions including the Universities of Delaware, Florida, North Carolina, and Tennessee and Boston, Howard, and Pepperdine Universities. He researched and wrote the groundbreaking Eduventures Market Guide to Online Program Management. And he rocks a black turtleneck. For more information, visit the longest URL in the free world at www.higheredresearchconsultants.com.

[i] http://www.bls.gov/news.release/ecopro.t08.htm  / [ii] http://www.iom.edu/Reports/2010/The-Future-of-Nursing-Leading-Change-Advancing-Health/Recommendations.aspx?page=3 / [iii] http://bhpr.hrsa.gov/healthworkforce/reports/nursingworkforce/nursingworkforcefullreport.pdf / [iv] http://obamacarefacts.com/sign-ups/obamacare-enrollment-numbers / [v] Census.gov / [vi] http://www.aacn.nche.edu/media-relations/fact-sheets/degree-completion-programs

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