Nurses are in high demand. People have always needed good nurses, but as the population ages and more people become insured, the outlook for the profession becomes even better for those considering a nursing degree.
An added piece of good news is that online nursing programs are widely available throughout the United States, even at many of the country’s most prestigious universities. Whether you’re interested in earning your first nursing degree, or aiming to move up to a higher-level one, you can find a wide array of flexible learning options online.
Over the years, online nursing programs have gained enough respect to ensure that your job options won’t be hampered by choosing to go with an online program rather than an on-campus one – but you do have to be careful to research the quality of the particular program and its accreditation status.
Nursing is a big field with a lot of options and intricacies. We’ll explore many of the different options available to you while pursuing an online education in nursing, as well as the risks and issues to be aware of as you choose your path.
What types of nursing programs are available online?
Many nursing programs are available at least partially online, but you have to be aware that almost all of the programs we discuss on this page require some clinical work. There are some RN-to-BSN programs that are an exception and can be completed entirely online, but for all of the others you will need to travel to a nearby hospital to complete the required work for the program.
If the online nursing program you attend is from a college located close to you, they may have connections to a few nearby hospitals and thus make finding your clinical site easier. If you’re a distance student, the task of finding a clinical site close to you will likely be more difficult (but not impossible).
How do I find out if a program I’m considering is reputable?
The number one thing you need to consider before committing to any program is whether or not it’s accredited by one of the two national accrediting agencies: AACN and ACNE. Some nursing schools have stronger reputations than others, so it never hurts to do a little extra research into what people and rankings lists say about the programs you’re considering. But, accreditation status matters more than anything else.
How should I choose which nursing degree is best for me?
Initially, the main question will be how long (and how much) you’re willing to spend before getting into the job market. A higher-level degree will help you earn a higher salary and offer more opportunities when it comes to choosing your specialization and role. Many nurses choose to start with a lower level degree to get started working faster, and then take online nursing courses once they already have a job to work their way up to higher degrees and positions.
We highly recommend that, whatever path you take to get there, you consider earning a BSN. Nurses with a BSN have more job opportunities, get paid more, and have been found to achieve better patient outcomes. As a result, many employers are working to ensure that a large percentage (if not all) of their nursing workforce have a BSN.
As an online student, can I enroll in a program anywhere in the country?
It depends. For RN-to-BSN programs this is an option in most cases. For degrees that require clinical work, some schools require that your clinical work be done at a hospital close to the school. Even for those that don’t, you’re likely to have a harder time finding a hospital nearby that your program will approve for your clinical work. You’ll have to check with the school you’re considering before applying to see what their requirements and advice are on this.
How much money do nurses typically make?
Where you live, your degree type, and your level of experience will all have an influence on this. The median pay for a registered nurse in 2014 was $66,640 annually according to O Net Online, and you can break down the averages per state on their site.
How can I determine if nursing is a good fit for me before committing to a program?
Your nursing degree program will cover the knowledge and skills you need to know to perform the job. Also, knowing if you have the right personality type for a nursing position is crucial. Talk to some current nurses to find out what their job looks like in the day-to-day and what they consider the biggest challenges of the work. The Nursing Network can help you find nursing groups and events in your area to meet nurses, or you can spend some time volunteering at a nearby hospital to get a more direct taste of the atmosphere.
Will getting a nursing degree online rather than on-campus hurt my chances of finding a job?
Whether your degree is from an on-campus or online nursing program will ultimately matter less than what institution it comes from. A nursing degree from a college that isn’t accredited won’t count for much in the job market whether it’s earned in a classroom or from home. If you earn your degree at a college that’s accredited and has a decent reputation, then doing so online shouldn’t hurt your job prospects at all.
Most of the degrees we have listed below are different more in level than type. You have the option of starting off with a longer program that puts you further ahead in your career to start, or getting a quicker degree that gets you working faster, but still leaves open the possibility to work your way up the degree levels while continuing to work. If you start working before earning your BSN, some employers will help cover the costs of earning a higher-level degree, but you can’t count on that.
Beyond the BSN, you have the option of an MSN, which we’ve covered in more detail here.
While the names are different, we’re including them in one line because the LPN and LVN are essentially two ways of describing the same thing. They both prepare you to take the NCLEX exam, which will set you up with the license you need to start working as a nurse in an entry-level position. LVN programs are what you’ll find in California and Texas, while LPN is the name commonly used throughout the rest of the United States.
An LPN or LVN program takes about a year, which makes it the fastest method to jump into nursing. But that usually means you’re starting at a lower salary and working under those who have attained a higher-level nursing degree.These programs typically require an extensive amount of clinical work, so while you can do some of your coursework online you should expect to spend part of your time at a nearby hospital.
Associate’s of Science in Nursing (ADN)
An ADN is the next step up from an LPN or LVN. You can either start a ADN program directly, or take an LPN or LVN-to-ADN program if you’ve already received your license. With an associate’s you can move up to the role of registered nurse (RN). This degree also requires a component of clinical practice, so you should expect to spend time at a nearby hospital in order to complete your program.
Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)
Earning a BSN launches you into the sector of nursing with the most job options available. According to a study from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), 60% of nurses that earned a BSN in 2012 had jobs lined up by the time they graduated. And the need for nurses with this level of education is only expected to increase. The Institute of Medicine has recommended that 80% of all nurses have a bachelor’s by 2020. In addition to more job offers, a BSN paves the pathway to higher salary opportunities and more job types.
As with the ADN, you can either start a BSN program from scratch, or enroll in an LPN/LVN-to-BSN program or an RN-to-BSN program. These are fairly common offerings at online colleges, although you should expect to do some work on-site at a nearby hospital on the way to earning your degree.
Online Degrees & Accreditation
With schools as prestigious as Penn State and Johns Hopkins offering online nursing programs, any sense of a stigma attached to earning a nursing degree online has largely dissipated. Most employers will care much more about the particular institution you studied at, the level of degree you earned, and whether or not you passed the NCLEX than how you went about earning your degree.
What every employer will care about though, is whether the school you attend is accredited. If you want your nursing degree to carry the kind of weight that will help you get a job, you must choose an accredited program.
We cannot emphasize this enough. Make sure the nursing program you attend is accredited by one of the two national accrediting boards below.
Most accredited schools will mention it somewhere on their website, but you can check for yourself by visiting the website of the accrediting organization. Here are the two national accrediting boards to check:
The list of possible job titles and career paths for nurses is extremely long, especially once you reach the master’s degree level and can tap into many of the more specialized positions. We’ll focus here on some of the most common and lucrative positions available to RNs and BSNs.
Careers with a LPN/LVN and/or Associates:
- Licensed Practical Nurse or Licensed Vocational Nurse
Once again, these are two words describing the same type of position depending on where in the US you’re located. Nurses in these positions provide basic nursing care, taking direction from RNs and doctors.
- Home Care Nurse
As the population ages, there’s a growing need for home health care. Home care nurses help patients that are sick or injured and need basic medical care within their own home.
- Nursing Home Nurse
This is a common position for LPN and LVN nurses. Nursing home nurses provide care to the elderly staying in nursing homes.
- Emergency Room Nurse
Nurses who work in emergency rooms provide care to patients that are often in critical condition in a fast-paced setting.
- Registered Nurse
RNs provide a wide range of services to assist doctors caring for patients, including administering medication, monitoring their health and progress, and communicating with the patients and their families.
Careers with a BSN:
- Surgical Nurse
A surgical nurse helps prep a patient for surgery, monitor their vital signs during the surgery, and help care for them once it’s complete.
- Pediatric Nurse
Pediatric nurses assist doctors who work with kids and are often tasked with helping in the physical examination, taking blood and urine samples, and ordering diagnostic tests.
- ICU Nurse
ICU nurses help patients who are in critical care, typically with life threatening conditions. They help monitor their condition, administer medication as needed, and communicate with the patients and their families.
- Hospice Nurse
Hospice nurses are responsible for helping patients nearing the end of their lives and their families. They help minimize the patient’s pain and make the last days more comfortable.
Licensing, Certifications, and Exams
Licensing requirements vary slightly by state and you can find the details for yours by visiting the website of the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, selecting your state, and choosing the Licensure option in the menu. For nurses interested in more advanced specializations, you may find that additional certifications are required.
All states require that students pass the NCLEX (National Council Licensure Examination). There are two versions of the test:
- NCLEX – PN
The PN here stands for “practical nurse.” This test is for those who have achieved an LVN or LPN-level degree and are ready to get started nursing.
- NCLEX – RN
This is the higher-level version of the test that you must take to become a registered nurse. It’s for students who have earned an ADN or higher.
Additional Resources for Certification Information
Certification is a crucial part of the process of becoming a nurse. For more information, here are some resources that may be worth exploring:
- List of Nursing Certification Boards by Specialty
- American Association of Critical Care Nurses – What is a Nurse Certification?
- American Nurses Association on the Interstate Nurse Licensure Compact
Future Outlook for Primary Career
Significant growth is expected in pretty much every nursing position available. The aging of the baby boomer population and the extension of healthcare coverage to new populations is creating a consistent increase in need.
The availability of both LVN/LPN and RN positions are growing at a rate far above the average for professions. Over 180,000 new jobs are predicted for nurses with the LPN/LVN certification, and over 500,000 new RN positions are expected to open up.
Many people are flocking to nursing programs, meaning that the competition for jobs could become more competitive even as new jobs open up. On the whole though, more predictions show concern for a nursing shortage than a surplus. Nursing students would benefit from researching the state of the nursing job market in their particular area and if things look tough, consider going for a BSN. Many employers are specifically looking for BSN candidates based on research that shows their patients have better outcomes.
The 2012 median pay for LPN/LVN nurses was $41,540 per year, a healthy amount for a starting salary in the profession. Predictably the salary increases as your degree level goes up. RNs have a median salary of $65,470 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. PayScale puts the salaries for nurses with a BSN anywhere from $57,136 to $81,014. Ultimately what you earn will depend on many factors beyond your degree level, particularly where you live and any specialized experience you have (or earn along the way).
Nursing programs will equip you with a range of skills that will be valuable in any nursing position you take on, but could also potentially serve you well if you go on to do other types of work in your career.
- Interpersonal skills
- Communication skills
- Organizational skills
- Detail oriented
- Basic biological and medical knowledge
- Working in a fast-paced environment
- Balancing many tasks
- Taking directions well
Hands-on experience is crucial to the process of learning to become a nurse. Most online nursing programs require a clinical component to help students put the theory they’ve learned in their courses into practice, but any additional experience you can gain through internships will only serve to strengthen your position in the eyes of employers.
If you already know you’re interested in working within a particular specialty, look for a nursing internship that will give you some experience in that field. Even if you can’t find one that’s particular to your desired area of work, any hands-on experience that allows you to learn about the demands of being a nurse in practice and demonstrate that you can handle them will help you in your career.
Joining a professional association will give you the opportunity to network with other nurses and stay on top of important trends in your field. There are lots of nursing associations out there, both at the national and local levels. Here are a few you might consider, but do some research into the regional and specialist associations in your area as well.
- American Association of Critical Care Nurses
- American Nurses Association
- American Association of Neuroscience Nurses
- Association of Rehabilitation Nurses
- The Dermatology Nurses’ Association
- National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialties
- National League of Nursing
- Organization for Associate Degree Nursing
- Respiratory Nursing Society
- Society of Pediatric Nurses
Suggested Online Degree Programs
Nursing programs are one of the most common types of degree programs offered online, so you can find plenty of options with a little research. Some of the most prestigious colleges offering online nursing programs with a solid reputation are:
- University of Colorado – Denver (BSN)
- University of South Carolina (BSN)
- Penn State (BSN)
- Western Governor’s University (RN and BSN)
LPNs and LVNs are most commonly offered at community colleges, you can find a list of available programs for your state here.
We’ve covered a lot of information here, but nursing education is a huge subject. You can find more information on these websites: