Nursing School Enrollment Low, Despite Skyrocketing Interest

6 Min Read Published October 12, 2023
Nursing interest study

Over the past few years, the nursing profession has witnessed significant shifts in interest and public perception. The emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic has had an unprecedented impact, propelling the profession into the spotlight like never before. 

We explored some of the changes in interest in the nursing profession over the past 14 years by delving into Google trends,  a tool from Google that shows the frequency of a search term entered into Google, and models that data over time to reveal popularity trends. Here's what we found:

Key Takeaways

  • Interest in becoming a nurse is at an all-time high in 2023
  • Nursing school searches, however, peaked in 2020-2021 and have been dropping since 
  • Nursing enrollment was down 1.4% last year, ending a 20-year growth period
  • Concerns around the nursing profession and the high rates of applicants being turned away from nursing schools may be factors as to why interest in nursing programs is dropping
  • For advanced programs, the softening of interest may be the result of more nurses wanting to leave the profession rather than advance within it

Interest in Becoming a Nurse is at an All-Time High

Nursing is the largest healthcare occupation in the United States, with approximately 4.3 million registered nurses nationwide. The federal government foresees a significant expansion in the near future, expecting the creation of over 203,000 new positions for registered nurses annually from 2021 to 2031.

It is worth noting the remarkable growth witnessed in the past 20 years, as the number of registered nurses in the US surged from 2.3 million in 2004 to its current figure.

Increased interest in the nursing profession over the last 14 years can be seen in Google Trends data. From 2009 to 2023, the terms “How to become a nurse” and  “How long does it take to become a nurse” both saw steady growth over time, reaching all-time interest highs in 2023.

Google trends map of "how to become a nurse" searches

Google trends map of "how long does it take to become a nurse"

Nursing School Searches Peaked in 2020-2021 and Have Been Dropping Since

Despite the high public interest in nursing and increased search volume around becoming a nurse, Google Trends data revealed that interest in nursing programs hasn’t followed the same trend.

From generic queries like “Nursing schools near me” to more specific searches like “BSN programs,” “MSN programs,” and “nurse practitioner programs,” we saw that searches for actual nursing programs have been on the decline.

“Nursing schools near me”

Nursing schools near me trend map

“BSN programs”

BSN programs trend map

“RN to BSN programs”

RN to BSN programs trend map

“MSN programs” 

MSN programs trend map

“Nurse practitioner programs”

Nurse practitioner programs trend map

Why Are Nursing School Searches on the Decline, While Interest in Nursing Continues to Rise?

This decrease in Google Trend searches on nursing programs begs the question: Why do more people continue to search about becoming a nurse, but fewer are searching for programs they could attend?

When we look at new data from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), we see that this trend isn’t isolated to just keyword searches; enrollment rates are falling as well. 

According to the AACN, “The number of students in entry-level baccalaureate nursing programs decreased by 1.4% last year, ending a 20-year period of enrollment growth in programs designed to prepare new registered nurses (RNs).” 

But what is causing this disconnect? There may be a few reasons. 

Potential Nursing Students Have Concerns About Entering the Profession

Prospective nursing students who otherwise would have researched nursing programs intending to become a nurse may be deterred by the many issues that the nursing profession faces. 

When we searched “should I become a nurse,” we saw that it had also seen steady growth with recent popularity peaks. 

should I become a nurse trend map

But when you search that query on Google, one of the first results is a Reddit thread titled “Nurses be completely honest with me.. should I still become a nurse?” that outlines the many concerns this nurse has around entering the profession. 

reddit thread

Source: Reddit

The thread received 247 comments, and the responses to her question showed that she was not the only one with these questions. Many respondents raised concerns about the pay nurses receive not being worth the student loan debt required to become a nurse. 

Many nurses advised going the ADN route rather than going into debt for a BSN. Interestingly, ADN programs have seen continued interest growth, unlike other nursing programs. 

adn nursing programs trend map

Other concerns that were brought up in the Reddit thread were around the sacrifice required for the job and the toll it can take on your mental health, especially in recent years. 

It’s very possible that people considering entering a nursing career make the decision to pursue another career path after learning more about some of the hardships nurses face.

Nursing Schools Still Turned Away Thousands of Applicants 

Another potential reason for the dip in nursing school interest has to do with how competitive nursing programs are. 

Even with the decline in enrollments across various nursing programs, thousands of capable students were still unable to secure spots in colleges and universities. 

The AACN reported that in 2022, 78,191 qualified nursing school applications were rejected nationwide. 

This includes:

  • 66,261 for entry-level BSN programs
  • 1,239 for RN-to-BSN programs
  • 5,907 for master’s programs
  • 4,583 for DNP programs, and 
  • 201 for PH.D. programs 

CNN reports that the reason for these rejections is due to faculty staffing shortages at nursing schools. There simply aren’t enough instructors to meet the demands of the students who want to become nurses. 

It’s very possible that previously rejected applicants, as well as potential applicants who have heard their chances of getting into a nursing program are low, will be less likely to research these programs if they think they don’t have a shot at acceptance.

Practicing Nurses Who Might Have Planned on Advancing Their Education May Be Leaving the Profession Instead

Interest in nursing programs isn’t just down for aspiring nurses considering joining the profession for the first time, but also amongst existing nurses who are seemingly less interested in advancing their education. 

The AACN  found that in 2022 and 2023, there was a notable decline of 5.3% in total nursing program applications. The decline was evident across almost all program types, with only DNP and Ph.D. programs seeing slight increases. 

  • BSN program applications were down 2.4%
  • RN to BSN program applications were down 14%
  • Master’s program applications were down 7.3%. 

Interestingly, programs aimed at existing nurses (RN to BSN and MSN) saw much larger dips in applications than programs aimed at new nurses (BSN), indicating that the drop in nursing program interest may be coming more from established nurses who no longer want to advance their education. 

Why are nurses less inclined to pursue higher education? According to a recent study, it may be because they are leaving the profession instead. The National Council of State Board of Nursing (NCSBN) found that many nurses have left or are considering leaving the profession in recent years:

  • Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic in the last two years, an estimated 100,000 RNs left the workforce as a result of stress, burnout, and retirement. 
  • An additional 610,388 RNs expressed their intention to leave the profession by 2027, citing similar reasons of stress, burnout, and retirement.
  • Approximately 20% of RNs nationwide are expected to exit the healthcare workforce.

We explored some search terms around leaving the nursing profession and found that interest was, in fact, up. 

“Nurse career change” saw a big uptick in 2021 and reached peak interest at the start of 2023. 

nurse career change trend map

Nurse burnout” has been steadily increasing in interest since 2017, reaching a peak in 2022, but still remaining quite high in 2023.

nurse burnout trend map

This data is unfortunate news, not just for the nursing profession, but also because there is a growing demand for APRNs. According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), to fulfill the increasing need for healthcare, around 30,200 freshly trained APRNs, who have completed master's or doctoral programs, will be required annually until 2031.


The pandemic put the nursing profession in the spotlight like never before. While this has led to a newfound uptick in public interest in nursing, it’s also shed light on some serious issues that the pandemic has only exacerbated. 

Nursing program enrollment is declining across the board, amongst new nurses and existing ones. From concerns around nursing to limited spots in competitive programs, aspiring nurses have to overcome a lot to join this profession. And for existing nurses who’ve spent the past 3 years working through the pandemic, a substantial number of them have chosen to leave or intend to leave the profession rather than advance their education. 

These findings highlight the urgent need to address the challenges faced by nurses and provide support to sustain a robust nursing workforce in the face of future healthcare demands and the current nursing shortage.

Sarah Jividen
Sarah Jividen Contributor

Sarah Jividen, RN, BSN, is a trained neuro/trauma and emergency room nurse turned freelance healthcare writer/editor. As a journalism major, she combined her love for writing with her passion for high-level patient care. Sarah is the creator of Health Writing Solutions, LLC, specializing in writing about healthcare topics, including health journalism, education, and evidence-based health and wellness trends. She lives in Northern California with her husband and two children. 

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