Guide to Online Nursing Programs

portrait of Bethanny Parker
by Bethanny Parker
Published on October 19, 2021
Reviewed by Brandy Gleason, MSN, MHA, BC-NC, and Shrilekha Deshaies, MSN, CCRN, RN

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Nursing is the nation's largest healthcare profession, with more than 3.8 million registered nurses (RNs) nationwide as of 2020. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), nurses' salaries can vary from a median salary of $48,820 per year for licensed practical nurses (LPNs) to a median salary of $183,580 for nurse anesthetists.

The BLS projects 9% growth for LPNs and RNs from 2020-2030 and a 45% growth rate for nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, and nurse practitioners. An ongoing shortage of physicians should contribute to the growing demand for nurse practitioners, as should the aging baby-boom population.

Why Earn Your Nursing Degree Online?

There are many benefits to online nursing programs. For example, online nursing classes are usually more flexible than on-campus options. If your program is asynchronous, you can fit your classes around your work schedule. You also can save money by shopping around for the most affordable online nursing school — you're not limited to schools in your area.

Accessibility

One great thing about earning your nursing degree online is that you can attend classes from anywhere. If it's too loud in your home, you can take your laptop to the library or a coffee shop and access your courses from there. Depending on the platform your school uses, you may even be able to use your phone or a tablet to access your classes.

Flexibility

Most online nursing programs offer flexible scheduling. Students can log in and listen to lectures at their convenience, as long as they complete their assignments by the deadline. However, this is not always the case — some programs feature synchronous coursework. Ask each school how flexible its curriculum is before making your decision.

Program Variety

Being able to take classes online allows you more choices in nursing specialties. If your first-choice college doesn't offer the specialty you're looking for, you can try to find another online school that does offer it. You can shop around for a school that provides exactly what you're looking for.

Affordability

You also can shop around for the best price. Since you can attend an online nursing program from anywhere, you have a lot of choices when it comes time to choose a school. You are not limited to only those schools that are within driving distance. You can pick the most affordable school that offers your chosen program and specialty.

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Types of Nursing Degrees

The type of nursing degree you need depends on your career goals. If you want to become a registered nurse, you'll probably need at least an associate degree in nursing (ADN) and an RN license. However, your job prospects may be much greater with a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN).

A master of science in nursing (MSN) is required for advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) positions. However, a doctor of nursing practice (DNP) will soon be required for nurse anesthetists. Nurses working in academia may be required to have a doctorate.


Associate Degree in Nursing | Bachelor of Science in Nursing | Master of Science in Nursing | Doctor of Nursing Practice | Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing


Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN)

Best for: Those who want to enter the workforce as RNs as quickly as possible.

Length of Time: 2 years

Average Annual Salary: $71,000 (as of September 2021)

A traditional ADN program takes about two years to complete and typically consists of 64-75 credits. Bridge pathways such as certified nursing assistant (CNA)-to-RN or LPN-to-RN usually take less time and require fewer credits since students have taken some training previously.

Students in an ADN program learn the skills they need to become registered nurses. The courses required for this type of program include human anatomy and physiology, healthcare ethics, general microbiology, and pharmacology for healthcare professionals.

An online RN program typically includes in-person clinical experiences such as clinical rotations, simulation labs, and skills labs. Before selecting a program, students should make sure there is a hospital or other healthcare setting near their home where they can complete clinical requirements. The typical ADN program includes about 700 clinical hours.

Examples of Pathways

Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)

Best for: Those who want to increase their employment prospects as RNs and earn more money.

Length of Time: 4 years

Average Annual Salary: $87,000 (as of September 2021)

A bachelor's degree requires about 120 credits and takes about four years of full-time study to complete. However, if you enroll in an accelerated program, you may be able to earn your BSN degree in three years by attending school year-round.

Additionally, an RN-to-BSN program grants credit for your RN license and the credits you've already earned in college. As a result, you'll have fewer credits to complete and may be able to earn your BSN in just 1-2 years.

BSN students take courses such as family-centered health promotion, concepts in community and public health, health assessment, and introduction to nursing research. BSN programs often require 500-1,000 hours of clinical training.

Examples of Concentrations

Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)

Best for: Those who want to become APRNs or go into nursing administration or education.

Length of Time: 1.5-3 years

Average Annual Salary: $97,000 (as of September 2021)

An MSN degree typically takes about two years to complete, but some accelerated programs may allow you to earn your degree in as little as 18 months. Students who enroll in an RN-to-MSN program earn their BSN along the way to a master's; this type of program typically takes about four years to complete.

MSN students learn more advanced nursing techniques and strategies. Typical courses include professional values, health promotion and disease prevention, evidence-based practice, and health information management systems.

An MSN degree usually consists of around 36 credits. Many programs require a practicum, which may need to be completed in person.

Examples of Concentrations

Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)

Best for: Those who want to become nurse anesthetists or increase their salaries as leaders in nursing.

Length of Time: 1-5 years

Average Annual Salary: $105,000 (as of September 2021)

DNP programs usually require around 33-43 credits and include at least 500 hours of clinical practice. It typically takes 1-2 years to complete a DNP program. Although DNP programs usually require a master's degree, students who only have a BSN can enroll in a BSN-to-DNP program; these programs require around 70-90 credit hours and take 5-6 years to complete.

The DNP curriculum focuses on topics like advanced nursing specialties, evidence-based practice, and healthcare leadership. Typical courses include organizations theory and systems leadership, ethics for advanced nursing practice, and advanced healthcare policy. In addition to clinical requirements, these programs may require a capstone project.

Examples of Concentrations

Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing

Best for: Nurses who want to work in academia.

Length of Time: 3-5 years

Average Annual Salary: $88,000 (as of September 2021)

A Ph.D. in nursing typically requires 64-90 credits and takes 3-5 years to complete. This type of program focuses on nursing research, theory, and science. Students can develop their knowledge of nursing and learn about research methods in the field.

Typical courses include advanced statistics for the health sciences, theory development and evaluation, philosophy of nursing science and practice, qualitative methods in clinical nursing research, and quantitative methods in clinical nursing research. Most Ph.D. in nursing programs require a dissertation or a residency.

Examples of Concentrations

Non-Degree Nursing Programs

While most nurses hold a postsecondary degree, there are a limited number of positions that don't require a degree. You can attend a non-degree training program to become a certified nursing assistant or a licensed practical nurse.

Licensed Practical Nurse Certificate

It typically takes about a year to earn an LPN certificate. The certificate requires approximately 36-48 college credits. This certificate is best for candidates who want to enter the workforce quickly, perhaps with the intention of returning to school later to complete an ADN or BSN. The credits earned in an LPN program can often be applied toward an ADN or BSN degree.

Community colleges often offer LPN programs. Students learn the skills they need to become licensed professionals. Typical courses include practical nursing skills, principles of mental health nursing, and principles of gerontological nursing.

Top Nursing Specialities

Nurses who choose to specialize often make more money. For example, nurse practitioners earned a median of $111,680 per year as of May 2020, according to the BLS. Registered nurses earned a median of $75,330. That's a big difference for adding a specialization and an additional two years of school. Most specialties require at least a master's degree.

Nurse Anesthetist

Nurse anesthetists administer pain medication before, during, and after surgery. Currently, nurse anesthetists need a master's degree and national certification, as well as state certification. However, beginning in 2025, new certified registered nurse anesthetists will need a doctoral-level education. Nurse anesthetists earned a median annual salary of $183,580 in 2020.

Nurse Midwife

Nurse midwives provide healthcare to people who are pregnant. The care includes but is not limited to delivering babies. Certified nurse midwives and certified midwives get their certification through the American Midwifery Certification Board. Nurse midwives earned a median salary of $111,130 per year in 2020.

Family Nurse Practitioner

Family nurse practitioners treat patients as primary care providers. They treat illnesses and injuries, order tests, prescribe medications, and perform physical exams. There are five different certification boards that certify nurse practitioners. Once nationally certified, nurse practitioners must be certified through their state, as well. As of 2020, FNPs earned a median salary of $111,680 per year.

Nurse Manager

Nurse managers oversee other nurses, make sure patients and staff members are satisfied, maintain standards of care, and ensure a safe work environment. These managers need an active RN license and at least a bachelor's degree. Medical and health services managers earned a median salary of $104,280 per year in 2020.

Neonatal Nurse

Neonatal nurses perform neonatal tests during pregnancy, test the cognitive skills of newborns, and perform professional nursing duties. Neonatal nurses need to be licensed RNs. Certification in an area like neonatal intensive care nursing, low-risk neonatal intensive care nursing, maternal newborn nursing, or inpatient obstetric nursing is optional. Neonatal nurses earned an average salary of $71,560 per year, as of September 2021, according to PayScale.

Nursing Licensure and Certification

Nursing requires state licensing or certification at every level — from LPN to APRN. To become licensed, you must first complete an approved nursing program and then take a test. If you pass the test, you can apply for your license with the state's nursing board.

To become a certified APRN, you must first have an RN license. Then, after completing an educational program with an APRN specialty, you can take a test to become nationally certified. Once you are nationally certified, you can apply for state certification or licensure.

In most states, nursing licenses must be renewed every year or two. In order to renew your license, you may need to complete a certain number of continuing education credits or practice for a minimum number of hours in the year(s) preceding the license renewal. However, these requirements vary by state. For example, in Delaware, RNs must have practiced nursing for at least 1,000 hours in the past five years or 400 hours in the past two years to renew their license.

What Are the Admission Requirements for Online Nursing Programs?

For most schools, the admission requirements are the same whether you will be studying online or attending classes in person. In general, you'll need to submit academic transcripts showing that you have an adequate GPA.

For an LPN-or-BSN program, you'll need either a high school or GED diploma. You also may need to take some prerequisite courses, depending on what classes you took in high school. Depending on the school, you might need to submit ACT or SAT scores. If you're already an LPN or an RN and you want to get your BSN, you'll need to provide official transcripts from your previous college classes. You also may need to prove that you're licensed in your state.

For graduate admissions, you'll have to provide transcripts from your BSN program. You may also need letters of recommendation from previous supervisors and/or instructors.

Application

No matter which school you want to attend, the first step is to submit an application. Most schools have online applications. Many also accept the Common App. The Common App allows you to apply to multiple schools without having to fill out the same information over and over again. It saves your information once and submits it to the schools you select.

Test Scores

Some schools require test scores as part of the admissions process. College entrance exams, such as the SAT, ACT, or HESI, are commonly needed for LPN and BSN programs. Graduate programs are more likely to ask for your GRE scores. Schools use these tests to try and predict how well you're likely to do in college or grad school.

Letters of Recommendation

You may have to submit letters of recommendation as part of the admissions process. Usually, these should come from a supervisor or professor who is familiar with your work habits. However, if you are applying straight out of high school, you should ask your teachers or a counselor. Depending on the program, a good letter of recommendation could be even more important than your test scores or extracurricular activities.

Essays

College admissions essays are usually 500-600 words in length. They provide space for you to highlight some difficulty you've overcome or something you've achieved. Some colleges provide topics for you to choose from, while others leave it up to you to decide what to write about. Either way, this is your chance to tell the admissions officers what's special about you.

Official Transcripts

Whenever you apply to a college program, you'll need to submit academic transcripts from high school and/or colleges you've attended. If you've earned credits from an accredited college, your new school may grant transfer credits that can be applied toward your degree. Your school may also use your transcripts to determine whether you've met the prerequisites for the program.

How Do I Choose an Online Nursing Program?

Cost

College can be expensive, so it pays to shop around. During the 2020-2021 academic year, the average cost of in-state tuition at a four-year public college was $9,580 per year, compared to about $27,440 at an out-of-state public institution. In addition, private schools are often more expensive than public schools. Some online schools charge the same tuition rate to all students, regardless of where they live.

Program Format

One thing to consider when choosing an online nursing program is whether it's synchronous or asynchronous. Synchronous programs have set log-in times. Asynchronous programs allow you to log in whenever it is convenient for you. You'll also want to consider whether the program is full time or part time. If you're working, a part-time program may be better for you.

Location

Make sure you check to see if there are any on-campus requirements for your online program. Some schools require you to come to campus for orientation or labs. If it's too far, you might need to choose a different school.

NCLEX Pass Rates

NCLEX pass rates can provide an indication of how well a school prepares its students for this national nursing exam. If you attend a school with a high NCLEX pass rate, you might have a better chance of passing the NCLEX exam on your first try. You can download a list of NCLEX pass rates online.

Accreditation

Third-party accreditation boards evaluate a school's curriculum and determine whether it meets important academic standards. If it does, they grant accreditation to that school or program. There are many types of accreditation; at the institutional level, the most important is regional accreditation. If you attend a school that is regionally accredited, your credits are more likely to transfer if you switch schools. Individual nursing programs are also accredited. To sit for licensure and certification exams, students must have attended an accredited nursing program.

Student Support

Another thing to consider is what kinds of support services a school offers to its online students. Many schools offer academic advising, mentorships, tutoring, internship assistance, and career services to remote students, as well as to those who attend in person. Think about what services you might need and check to see if the school offers them.

Frequently Asked Questions About Online Nursing Programs

Can you complete a nursing degree online? true

Yes, you can complete a nursing degree online. However, nursing programs do have in-person requirements. In many cases, you will be able to complete any clinical requirements close to home. However, there may be on-campus requirements for orientation or labs. Check with your school to find out about in-person requirements.

What is the best accreditation for online nursing schools? true

For nursing programs, it is best if a program is accredited by either the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing. The school should also hold accreditation from an accrediting body recognized by U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

What is the no. 1 nursing school in the U.S.? true

Many organizations rank nursing schools, but what's most important is which school is best for you. Start by finding out which schools offer the program you want. Then evaluate each school based on cost, location, and anything else you feel is important. In the end, you'll have to decide for yourself which school is the best choice.

What is the shortest nursing program?

The shortest nursing program is a certified nursing assistant program. Some of these programs may take just a few weeks or months to complete. However, the median annual salary for nursing assistants was just $30,850 per year, as of May 2020, according to the BLS. LPNs and licensed vocational nurses earned a median annual salary of $48,820. An LPN program often takes about one year to complete.

What is the pay difference between ASN- and BSN-educated nurses?

According to PayScale, as of September 20201, the average salary for a BSN-educated nurse was about $87,000 per year, while the average salary for an ADN-educated nurse was about $71,000 per year. It definitely can pay to get your BSN.

Find the Tools You Need to Get Started on Your Nursing Degree

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