Program Innovation

The Doctor of Nursing Practice – Low Hanging Enrollment Fruit?

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Drawing on Eduventures’ 20-plus years of experience helping universities develop, launch, and assess academic programs, the Program Spotlight Series of Wake-Up Calls seeks to call attention to best practices in program development.

If you have followed healthcare education over the past decade, you have noticed a push toward higher levels of education for health care practitioners. Nursing education is no stranger to this trend, and for good reason. Evidence suggests improved patient outcomes due to better educated nurses.

Additionally, increased responsibilities and the expanding roles of advanced practice nurses demand more advanced skills. Not surprisingly, many schools of nursing are considering adding, or have added, a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program.

In this spirit, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) issued a Position Statement on the Practice Doctorate in Nursing in 2004, recommending that the DNP should be the terminal practice-focused degree and the graduate degree preparing nurses for advanced practice. AACN member institutions endorsed this statement and voted for the DNP to replace the Master’s of Nursing Science (MSN) as the standard degree for advanced nursing practice by October 2015.

This date has since passed, and Eduventures has consequently seen an increase in client inquiries about the Doctor of Nursing Practice. Some of these originate from client institutions who plan to enter this promising market. Others, however, are submitted by institutions who already offer the DNP but wonder why their enrollments in this program have not grown as expected. With the new standard in place, surely this program should be low hanging fruit?

To explore this question, Eduventures looked at enrollment trends for DNP programs, published in AACN’s 2015-2016 data report on enrollments and graduations.

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Source: AACN, 2015-2016 Enrollment and Graduations in Baccalaureate and Graduate Programs in Nursing

We see that DNP enrollments have, in fact, grown steadily from 7,037 enrollments in 2010 to 21,995 enrollments in 2015; a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 26%. We also see that schools of nursing have been quick to seize the opportunity and launch new DNP programs.

While 135 new providers entered this market between 2011 and 2015, the DNP market is still relatively small compared to the MSN market. In 2015, 119,025 students were enrolled in one of the 531 national MSN programs, according to AACN. This suggests that, despite AACN’s recommendations, many nurses still prefer to gain experience as practitioners, rather than become leaders in their profession, as the next step in their careers.

In a nutshell, while there is opportunity to grow your nursing school enrollments through adding a DNP program, it is not the enrollment gold mine it may seem at first glance. The main obstacle is competition from other DNP programs and MSN programs alike.

So who are the top players in the DNP market, and what share do they hold?

The University of Alabama AL 4% 115 22%
University of Minnesota -Twin Cities MN 4% 100 28%
University of South Alabama AL 3% 90 44%
Chamberlain College of Nursing -Illinois IL 3% 79 N/A
Chatham University PA 3% 76 4%
University of Utah UT 2% 62 7%
Northeastern University Global Network MA 2% 61 N/A
Brandman University CA 2% 60 N/A
Frontier Nursing University KY 2% 59 16%
University of Alabama at Birmingham AL 2% 59 -1%

Source: IPEDS

The national top 10 of DNP providers are an interesting mix of public and private (both nonprofit and for-profit) institutions, as well as brick-and-mortar schools and online providers. It is notable that none of the top providers hold significant market share, indicating a rather fragmented market. Only the top two institutions conferred at least 100 degrees in 2015, while one institution experienced a small decline in conferrals.

By the way, if your institution conferred more than 30 DNP degrees in 2015 – congratulations! You may count yourselves among the top 20 national DNP providers.

With this diverse list of providers, can we identify common characteristics that may point to their recipe for success? We took a closer look at program tracks, clinical specialties, and program delivery for the top 10 programs. Most, but not all, offer both the bachelor’s in nursing (BSN) to DNP as well as the post-master’s tracks. There is also variation in the number of clinical specialties offered, ranging from none to 13 offered specialties.

The common denominator for all these programs is convenience. All providers offer their programs online, whether exclusively, in a mostly-online hybrid format, or in addition to an on-campus program. Furthermore, many offer the option to complete the program part-time, with course times set to accommodate busy work schedules.

Whether you are planning to launch a DNP program or hope to grow enrollments in your current program, what should be your key considerations?

  • Know your audience: Whether you offer admission to advanced practice nurses only or also recruit BSN-trained nurses, understand that you are trying to attract working professionals. The commitment of time and money to pursue this degree is substantial. Offer your students options to move swiftly through the program, the ability to work while being enrolled, or financial assistance.
  • Understand your competitive position: While this degree is expected to remain popular and continue to grow, competition is growing. Examine what types of students you are attracting, what differentiates you from your competitors, and how many students you can realistically expect to enroll.
  • Examine supply and demand: While the standards set by AACN are already in effect, change does not happen overnight. Be prepared to answer questions about job opportunities specific to DNP-trained nurses. Employers, in particular, may not yet fully appreciate the skills and expertise of the DNP-trained nurse. Build on your relationships with your current and future clinical partners and be an advocate for the benefits of doctoral-trained advanced practice nurses and their unique contribution to improved patient outcomes.


If you are an Eduventures client and this high-level market overview resonates with you, please contact your Client Research Analyst. We at Eduventures would be happy to have a conversation with you about your institution’s unique position in this complex market.



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