BSN by 2020: How Close Are We?

Since 2010, there has been an industrywide effort to ensure that at least 80% of the nursing workforce has a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree by 2020. While significant progress has been made, due in part to the availability of RN to BSN programs, the target has yet to be reached. Here is a look at why the initiative was first introduced, where the numbers stand today and what has hindered greater progress.

Why 80% by 2020?

In 2010, the Institute of Medicine (IOM), known as the National Academy of Medicine (NAM) since 2015, released a groundbreaking report entitled The Future of Nursing. It was the culmination of a two-year project undertaken in cooperation with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to develop an action plan with four key messages:

  1. Nurses should have opportunities to practice to the full extent of their knowledge and scope of practice.
  2. The education system for nurses must promote and provide seamless academic progression for nurses in pursuit of advancing their degrees.
  3. Physicians and other healthcare providers must include nurses as full partners when healthcare design and processes are being updated.
  4. Improved data collection and information exchange is essential for effective workforce planning and policies.

One of the primary outcomes of these recommendations focused on having an 80% baccalaureate-educated nursing workforce by 2020 — up from just 49% in 2010. By redefining nursing roles and education, nurses would be equipped with the skills to navigate the increasing complexity of patient care, promote evidence-based practices, and function in decision-making and leadership capacities.

Where Does the 80% Goal Stand Today?

Despite tremendous efforts, the 80% BSN-prepared benchmark has not been met. According to the Campaign for Action, a nationwide initiative formed in response to the IOM report, progress has been steady:

  • The number of nurses earning a BSN has outpaced associate degree earners since 2012.
  • From 2010 to 2017, the total number of RN to BSN program graduates grew by 180%.
  • As of 2017, 56% of nurses had earned a BSN.

What Have Been the Greatest Obstacles?

There are several potential obstacles impacting the goal:

Lack of time. Many nurses interested in a BSN are already working full time while tending to family obligations and personal interests. The logistics of adding in coursework and possibly travel time to and from campus are often overwhelming and prevent enrollment, as does the reluctance to commit to another two or more years of education.

Cost. The expense of earning a bachelor’s degree can be a deterrent, as RN’s consider the total investment and how to pay tuition and related costs without taking on additional debt.

Limited access to accredited programs. Nurses may have difficulty finding an accredited program within their geographic area that fits their needs and offers flexible scheduling.

Are Online RN to BSN Programs a Possible Solution?  

The Campaign for Action recommends that community colleges offer RN to BSN programs as a practical avenue for nurses interested in furthering their education. However, the primary concerns of time, expense and accreditation often remain when nurses consider these programs in their traditional capacities.

Online RN to BSN degree programs address each of these concerns. By eliminating travel and geographic barriers, nurses can pursue quality education regardless of their location. Virtual completion of coursework allows more flexibility and scheduling autonomy. Many nurses are able to continue full-time employment, preserving access to critical income streams as well as any employer-sponsored tuition reimbursement opportunities. Accelerated formats minimize the length of commitment to as few as 12 months, and enrollment in a program that is nationally accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) ensures the integrity and learning outcomes of the curriculum.

Aiming for 80

While the nursing workforce has not reached the 80% BSN goal, the nursing field has made significant progress. More nurses recognize the benefits of a bachelor’s degree and the viability of RN to BSN pathways. Despite falling short, the initiative will continue to encourage nurses to advance their educations and skillsets as instrumental collaborators in an increasingly dynamic healthcare landscape.

Learn more about USC Aiken’s online RN to BSN program.


American Association of Colleges of Nursing: Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education

Campaign for Action: Goal and Impact

National Academy of Medicine: The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health

Teaching and Learning in Nursing: Understanding the Barriers to BSN Education Among ADN Students: A Qualitative Study

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