Younger generations set sights on higher nursing education
More than half of millennials have already earned BSNs
Lisette Hilton
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Lisette Hilton is a freelance writer.
Nursing education varies by generation, with millennial nurses being most likely to hold the bachelor’s of nursing degree and older generations having higher percentages of nurses who are master’s-prepared in nursing or professionally certified, according to
our salary survey
, representing responses from 4,520 RNs from all 50 states.
The clear trend in the profession is for nurses to pursue the BSN versus associate degrees, according to Peter I. Buerhaus, PhD, RN, FAAN, professor in the College of Nursing and director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Health Workforce Studies at Montana State University.
“It’s readily apparent that since 2011 graduation data shows the numbers of graduates of baccalaureate degrees surpassing the numbers graduating from associate degree programs,” Buerhaus said. “In the past few years associate degree nurses’ numbers are actually dropping.”
The changing educational composition in nursing could impact the profession and individual careers, Buerhaus said.
“Baccalaureate degree nurses tend to have a different view of the profession and their careers and opportunities,” he said. “Baccalaureate degree programs are more likely to expose nurses to non-hospital care sites. They’re in clinics, they’re in prisons, churches, community organizations — in different ambulatory settings. BSN-educated nurses obtain a much different and bigger outlook of what healthcare outside of the inpatient setting is all about. As we see healthcare shift out into community settings, nurses with baccalaureate degrees are like ‘Hey, I can see myself there. This can work for me.’”
Buerhaus and coauthors also noted a rapid increase in nursing graduate degrees in a
published in the January/February 2016 issue of Nursing Economics.
In their prior analysis published in 2014, Buerhaus reported the number of RNs achieving graduate degrees from the 1980s to the early 2000s grew slowly, never exceeding 10,000 in a given year, according to the paper.
By 2002, graduate nursing ranks grew much faster, with about 38,000 RNs receiving graduate degrees in 2014. Buerhaus indicated unpublished data suggest the number is now roughly 45,000. That trend is likely to continue, he added.
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Higher degrees trend up in nursing
More than a quarter of the youngest generation of nurses studied, Generation Y or millennial nurses, ages 19 to 35, had ADNs at the time of the survey and 63% had BSNs. Nearly 9% had achieved an MSN, DNP, EdD or PhD in nursing.
Among Gen Xers, ages 36 to 56, 34% were ADN-prepared, while 47% had BSNs. But while Gen Xers were slightly less likely to have a BSN compared to millennials, they were more likely than younger nurses to have an MSN degree, at 11%.
They were similar to millennials in the more advanced nursing degrees, but were slightly less likely to have a PhD in nursing. Not surprisingly, older generations were more likely than generations X and Y to have a nursing diploma, including a third of silent generation nurses.
Thirty-five percent of baby boomers, ages 57 to 74, had completed a BSN, which was less than their younger counterparts. But baby boomer and silent generation nurses were the most likely to have achieved the MSN.
Whether nurses held a professional certification also varied by generation, with baby boomer nurses being the most likely group to have a Progressive Care Certified Nurse, Critical Care Registered Nurse or other certification. Generation Y nurses were least likely to have professional certifications, at 31%.
Given the nation’s focus on higher nursing education, even ADN programs are onboard with sending the message that higher education is important in nursing, according to Joanne Spetz, PhD, professor of the Institute for Health Policy Studies and School of Nursing, University of California, San Francisco.
Organization for Associate Degree Nursing
, which represents directors of ADN programs, basically says the associate degree is a great entry level for nursing, but don’t stop there,” Spetz said. “You’re not seeing that kind of rivalry that you used to see between associate and bachelors’ degree programs. It’s more of a partnership in saying we want all nurses to pursue as much education as they can so they’re great at their jobs. That message has gotten out among young people.”
Younger nurses embrace higher education goals
Those percentages, however, might change notably in the years to come. Nearly 80% of millennials surveyed indicated they planned to use higher education to boost salary potential, versus 57% of Gen Xers and less than a quarter of the baby boomers, according to the survey data collected in summer 2017.
Buerhaus wrote a paper published
June 2018 in the New England Journal of Medicine
describing the strong projected growth of nurse practitioners between now and 2030.

“What I would suggest is the hospital environment is built around the baby boomer generation,” Buerhaus said. “About half of the baby boomers have retired out of nursing and some younger nurses who are millennials are coming into this environment and saying, ‘I’m not so sure about this environment.’ Becoming a nurse practitioner gives them greater opportunities for clinical employment and economic opportunity.”

Higher degrees could lead to higher nurse satisfaction, according to Ginger C. Hanson, PhD, assistant professor at Johns Hopkins School of Nursing.

“We know that jobs that offer more autonomy, reasonable workloads, greater support and a variety of interesting tasks are more satisfying in general,” Hanson said. “To the extent that having a higher degree affords nurses roles with more autonomy, the ability to decide how best to do their job, and a greater variety of interesting tasks, I suspect that their satisfaction will be higher. That said, nurses with higher education may have more opportunities to seek work outside of direct care or any type of nursing, whereas nurses with less education may feel they have fewer options.”
Higher nursing education levels also tend to result in increased nurses’ salaries.
Our survey found the total average salary for associate degree nurses was $66,092, while BSN-prepared nurses earned an average salary of $73,995. Master’s-prepared nurses earned an average salary of $90,288, but salary averages dipped for DNPs at $84,410 and EdDs at $61,700. The average nursing salary for nurses with a PhD in nursing was highest among the nursing education levels studied, at $106,820.
Nursing education differences by generations
Calculations by David Auerbach, Douglas Staiger and Peter Buerhaus based on data from the integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.
To the extent that having a higher degree affords nurses roles with more autonomy, the ability to decide how best to do their job, and a greater variety of interesting tasks, I suspect that their satisfaction will be higher."
— Ginger C. Hanson, PhD