By 2024, registered dietitians (RD) will have to earn a master’s degree before they can take their credentialing exam from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), which the Commission on Dietetic Registration accredits. With employment opportunities for dietitians and nutritionists expected to increase 16 percent by that time, colleges and universities with dietetics degrees are looking at changes to their degree programs. One option: allow students the flexibility to pursue an online graduate degree.
Currently about 50 percent of registered dietitians have master's degrees, according to a Compensation and Benefits Survey by AND. Most online nutrition master's programs serve established dietitians wishing to earn a degree while continuing to work. This need may increase as working dietitians want to obtain a master's degree in order to stay competitive within their field.
AND says it recommended the credentialing change, in part, to elevate the practice at all levels of the profession, as well as to encourage an increase in pay commensurate with other professions in the health-care industry.
“The need to elevate entry-level RD education to a graduate level is consistent with the knowledge, skills and research base required in the field of nutrition and dietetics and is necessary to protect the public, remain competitive, and increase recognition and respect,” according to the organization’s Visioning Report.
The University of Texas at Austin is expanding its residential nutritional sciences graduate degree this fall and offering its first fully online master’s degree in two tracks: health promotion and disease prevention; and biochemical and functional nutrition.
The new requirements are one of the factors behind the change. The online degree positions UT Austin to serve current professionals, as well as students who want to get ahead of the credentialing change. Most master's programs require an internship, as well as a research-based capstone project.
“Online graduate programs such as ours will be utilized for individuals who want to complete the master's degree requirement prior to applying to supervised practice programs that do not offer a master's degree or to demonstrate that they can handle graduate-level work prior to applying to other programs if it has been several years since their bachelor's degree,” said Sara Sweitzer, director of UT Austin’s Online Master of Science Nutrition Services.
While this is the first fully online graduate program in UT Austin’s Department of Nutrition Science, there are other online programs at the school. Sweitzer and Natalie Poulos, assistant director of the program, consulted with the University of Texas Institute on Transformative Learning and the Faculty Innovation Center on campus to learn about best practices and refine concepts for the courses.
“One of the things we learned is that we need to stay responsive to the learner,” said Poulos. “We want to make sure there are lots of opportunities to interact with the faculty, ask questions, monitor that they’re staying current with the materials and have lots of online discussions. The more connected we stay with students and make sure they feel part of that cohort, the more successful they will be.”
Institutions looking to develop an online degree may choose to work through a consortium such as the online dietetic program at Colorado State University (CSU). The degree is run through a consortium with seven other schools, called the Great Plains Interactive Distance Education Alliance (GPIdea), and led by Kansas State, said Mary Harris, undergraduate dietetic program director at Colorado State University.
Although GPIdea is not accredited, the advantage of a consortium is the richness of offerings when each school offers three to four courses. Along with that advantage come some challenges. Because educators at all the universities teach the classes, students have to learn three or four different learning management systems. Also, students registering for the Colorado State program have to go through an extra layer and register with Kansas State as well.
The new requirements don’t take effect until 2024, meaning the profession and institutions have several years to decide how they will adjust to the new requirements. The Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND) is still in the process of preparing competencies and standards for the graduate degree program.
The CSU’s degree, in its current form, will be less useful when the new entry-level requirements come on board, Harris said. “As the profession changes to master's entry level, our program won’t be viable,” she said. “We will have to evolve, but several institutions in Colorado are developing online master's and have online internships.”
Online degrees are well suited to help the profession transition to the new requirements, UT Austin’s Sweitzer said. “Individuals who are graduating a few years prior to completing the supervised practice program may need to work a few years,” she said, “but can still make progress toward completing all of the credentialing requirements.”