Scrubbing In

More nontraditional students are heading back to school for nursing

By Dwain Hebda 


Any way you look at it, it’s a great time to be a nurse in America. The profession is respected, well-compensated and, thanks to a years-long shortage of nurses, a job with excellent opportunities and job security.

“There are openings in a wide variety of fields and types of work in nursing,” said Judy Pile, chancellor of Baptist Health College in Little Rock. “One of the awesome things about it is you can be in nursing and even work for the same organization for 40 years and do 15 different things if you want to.” 

The demand for nurses is a result of several factors. One, the Baby Boomer population is getting older by the day and, as one of the largest generations in history, this is pushing demand for health care workers in all areas, particularly nurses. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Employment Projections 2016-2026, demand for registered nurses (RN) is predicted to grow 15 percent to 3.4 million nurses by 2026, up from 2.9 million in 2016. 


Another reason the industry has such a need for people is because existing nurses themselves are growing older and are leaving the workforce for retirement. The July 2017 Journal of Nursing Regulation forecast 1 million RNs will retire by 2030, according to findings in a study, “Four Challenges Facing the Nursing Workforce in the United States.”

To meet future needs, the industry cannot rely on traditional college students alone coming right out of high school, but has launched a concerted effort to recruit nontraditional students to the profession. This includes people looking to change careers or people who have been out of the workforce, such as stay-at-home moms looking to get back into the marketplace.

“I would say, as far as moms considering going back to college, they certainly will not be alone,” said Jon Vickers, enrollment coordinator and academic counselor for the UA Little Rock Department of Nursing. “It is a very common second career or second degree; I think almost 20 percent of our students have a bachelor’s degree already. [Nontraditional students] should not think they’re going back to class with a classroom full of 19-year-olds, because that is just not the case.”

Nursing students at Baptist Health College in Little Rock.

Nursing students at Baptist Health College in Little Rock.

The first thing any nursing school will look at is the coursework a nontraditional student has already completed. For example, a woman who completed some or all of a bachelor’s degree before staying home to raise her kids may only need to take some science courses to get caught up, while someone who has little to no college will have more work to do. Nursing schools don’t have unlimited seats, so previous college coursework can sometimes decide who gets in and who doesn’t, too.

“We rank our students to determine who we accept based on grades and prerequisite or corequisite courses,” Vickers said. “UA Little Rock has about nine classes [students] need to complete prior to entering nursing school [including] human anatomy, physiology, college algebra and English composition.”

From there, nursing school courses are a combination of classroom lectures and what are called clinicals, which is instruction that involves working with actual patients (or, in some cases, mannequin simulators) under the guidance of an instructor. How long it takes to complete all educational aspects of a nursing degree varies by program.

“Depending on what general education courses they bring in, it can take 18 months to two years to become an RN,” Vickers said. “I think it’s a reasonable expectation for a student to go from deciding they want to become a nurse to actually graduating in three years.”

Piles said the primary determinant of success in nursing school is academic ability, but once out in the field other skills are equally valuable. These skills include the life experiences non traditional students generally have over their younger counterparts.

“The content is pretty advanced and it’s a lot at once at a quick schedule. The academic criteria needs to be there,” she said. “But the mature student, any student that’s had a little bit of life experience caring for others or has customer-service skills are also what I think most hospital systems are looking for.”

“We have a lot of students circle back after they have a degree in something else or after gaining life experience, and that’s something that’s important to us, too.”


Nurses choose their specialty while they’re in nursing school, and there are many to pick from. Here are some of the most in-demand according to

1. Certified Dialysis Nurse
This specialty assists individuals with severe kidney problems. It boasts an average salary of $63,500 and is expected to grow 26 percent by 2022.

2. Legal Nurse Consultant
A certified legal nurse consultant provides consultative support on medical lawsuits. It’s also expected to grow 26 percent and pays $62,100.

3. Nurse Midwife
A nurse midwife delivers babies and provides health care before, during and after the birth for both mother and child. This specialty is expected to grow 31 percent by 2022 and pays $79,000 per year.

4. Nurse Anesthetist
This nurse provides patients with anesthesia when they are being prepared for surgery. Experts say it will grow by 22 percent by 2022 and pays $154,300.

5. Nurse Case Manager
Monitoring the progress of patients and suggesting alternative treatments are two of the job duties of the nurse case manager. This specialty pays just over $68,000 and is expected to grow 26 percent by 2022.