Overview of Online Nursing Bachelor's Degrees
Nursing is one of the most popular majors, and hundreds of schools now offer nursing degree programs virtually. For online nursing programs, students complete much of their coursework remotely and then engage in on-site clinical practice activities at an approved health care facility near their home.
Programs in nursing are popular, in part, because they lead to careers in a high-growth occupation. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that over the next 10 years, 276,800 new registered nurse (RN) jobs will emerge, and an additional 63,800 new practical nurse jobs will emerge. All of these jobs require a nursing degree, and these degrees need to be earned through accredited institutions or nursing programs — either on campus or online.
There are several levels of undergraduate nursing degrees. Each one prepares students to pass the RN certification exam and obtain a license to practice nursing.
In the end, the best type of nursing degree depends on which type of nurse a student wants to become. Those who are eager to enter the workforce may want to consider becoming a licensed practical nurse (LPN) or licensed vocational nurse (LVN). Students can enter these careers with only a nursing certificate or diploma, which typically take one year to achieve.
For those who want to become RNs — taking on more responsibility and earning higher salaries — a two-year associate degree in nursing may be a better choice. Generally speaking, a nurse's earnings increase with their level of education, so a four-year Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) may be the best option for some. The most common online nursing programs are RN-to-BSN programs for RNs who have earned either a certificate or an associate degree and now want to complete a bachelor's degree in nursing. However, there are also online BSN programs for students who are not yet RNs and have no previous nursing education.
Which Nursing Degree Level Is Best for Me?
There are six primary types of online nursing programs: RN to BSN, RN to MSN, BSN to MSN, second degree BSN, second degree MSN, and DNP. Online nursing degrees are available at the certificate, undergraduate, and graduate level and combine information-based classes with on-site clinical experiences. Many online nursing programs may also be completed in an accelerated format. If you're not sure which degree is best for your career aspirations, please use the table below to see typical prerequisites, the average time to complete each degree and to find links to more information.
Bridge Programs for Students who Already Have Nursing Credentials
| RN to BSN ||RN License ||1-2 Years |
| RN to MSN ||RN License ||2-3 Years |
Traditional Online Nursing Programs
|Direct Entry Bachelor ||High School Diploma or GED ||4 Years |
| ASN ||High School Diploma or GED ||2 Years |
| MSN ||BSN ||2 Years |
| Nurse Practitioner ||MSN ||2 Years |
|DNP ||MSN ||2 Years |
Online nursing bridge programs are a unique category of online nursing degrees. These online programs can help nurses with lower credentials gain a higher degree in an accelerated time frame.
They usually require one year of previous, professional work; however, some programs allow students to submit an essay on nursing topics in lieu of this experience. Bridge programs also generally require that nurses transfer in 60 credits of general education and nursing courses. Applicants are required to have completed foundational courses in physical sciences, math, social sciences, and humanities.
Accelerated Nursing Programs
For students who wish to enroll in a nursing degree program but have scheduling needs that aren't well suited to a traditional degree program, there are some flexible options, including accelerated and second degree programs, that will allow you to graduate college early.
Second degree programs in nursing are accelerated, specially designed degree programs for students who already have a bachelor's degree in a non-nursing area and want to enter the nursing profession. Because second degree programs are so accelerated, they are intensive and generally have high admissions standards. The previous academic records of applicants are taken into account with some requiring a particular GPA.
Most second degree programs in nursing advise incoming students not to hold a job while completing the program, as the coursework and clinical practicums are very demanding.
Second Degree BSN
A second bachelor’s degree program in nursing typically takes one to three years to complete, depending on the student’s prerequisite coursework and the pacing of the degree (full or part time). These programs still include the same number of nursing theory classes and clinical experiences as a traditional BSN, but because these courses are squeezed into a shorter time frame, students can expect intense course loads and a lot of academic work.
Second Degree MSN
Second degree MSN programs ensure that students don’t waste their time retaking courses they have already completed. Graduates of MSN programs are prepared for a variety of advanced roles, such as head nurse, or administrative roles, such as director or vice president of a health care organization. Clinical nurses can become advanced practice nurses (APRN), who practice nursing more independently and — in many cases — provide primary care.
Nursing Degrees by State
How Long Will It Take To Earn My Degree?
BSN programs are designed to be completed in four years of full-time study and with the completion of 120 credit hours, though many students take longer to earn their degree.
One factor that can change the length of a program is whether a student comes in with previous credits. Many nurses earn a nursing certificate or associate degree before completing an RN-to-BSN program. The number of credit hours required in these programs varies based on the student's previous education and number of prerequisite courses, but most students can complete these programs in one to two years.
Some students also earn bachelor's degrees in another field before enrolling in an accelerated BSN program. Again, depending on the student's previous education and the number of prerequisites in a program, accelerated programs may be completed in two to three years.
The Importance of an Accredited Online Nursing Degree
Before enrolling in any nursing school online, prospective students should confirm that the program has been accredited by one of the two accrediting bodies for nursing programs: (1) the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) or (2) the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE).
To become accredited, a nursing program must voluntarily go through a comprehensive evaluation process by one of these outside agencies and pass a rigorous review process. Accreditation ensures that a program's curriculum, faculty, and learning outcomes meet state and national standards.
Attending an accredited program also offers a number of significant benefits. It helps students meet eligibility requirements for federal financial aid and for transferring credits among other accredited institutions. It can help students feel confident that they are investing their time and money in a credible degree program that meets high academic standards. Perhaps most important, graduation from an accredited program is a requirement of many state nursing boards to obtain nursing licensure.
To identify accredited nursing programs, students can visit the Council for Higher Education Accreditation or the U.S. Department of Education.
What Is the Best Accreditation for Online Nursing Schools?
The CCNE provides accreditation primarily for traditional bachelor’s and master’s nursing programs, whereas the ACEN provides accreditation for a broader range of online RN programs. Either type of accreditation will be accepted by state nursing licensing boards, but most online nursing programs are accredited by the ACEN.
BSN programs prepare students for professional nursing practice. Coursework helps students develop skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, research, education, and leadership.
Some classes will involve hands-on, experiential learning activities, and most nursing programs online require a practicum in which students work in a supervised health care setting to gain a required number of clinical hours.
Some of the most common nursing courses include the following:
- Community Health: In this course, students learn how to care for individuals, families, groups, and high-risk populations in community health settings. They learn to care for patients of all ages by recognizing physical, psychological, social, and cultural needs in order to provide interventions as needed. The course often requires hands-on application of concepts as students work in various community health environments.
- Evidence-based Practice: This course provides nursing students with a systematic process for using current evidence and data to make decisions about patient care. Students learn how to research health literature, identify relevant qualitative and quantitative data, and analyze this information to make informed decisions.
- Health Assessment, Education, and Promotion: Students transition to a higher level of nursing practice in this course, where they learn to conduct a comprehensive physical examination, including collecting, organizing, interpreting, and recording patient data. They also explore the role of nurses as educators by learning to use health education and promotion strategies and to overcome patients' barriers to change.
- Health Informatics: A course in health informatics introduces students to the latest information technology used in nursing practice. Students will use these tools to communicate data and other knowledge to inform patients and work with them to manage their care.
- Nursing Leadership: Often taught through clinical experiences, students deepen their understanding of the nurse's role as a leader, manager, and agent of change. Opportunities for practical experience help students develop their communication, problem-solving, and critical thinking skills. Ethical issues related to patient care may be addressed in this course.
Applying to an Online Nursing Program: Three Paths
Applying to an online program is a similar process to applying to a campus-based program. There are three paths to earning a BSN, and each involves a different set of admission requirements:
Bridge Programs: For students who have already earned a nursing degree from a certificate or associate program, have passed the RN exam, and have worked as a nurse in a professional health care setting, the RN-to-BSN path is the most popular. However, there are also LPN-to-BSN bridge programs available.
In addition to a degree in nursing, admission criteria to a bridge program often include a GPA of 2.5 or higher, an unrestricted current RN license, and the completion of several prerequisite courses. These are typically science and humanities courses, such as chemistry, biology, and business or technical writing.
When submitting an application to a bridge program, prospective students are usually required to submit transcripts of their previous education and possibly one or more letters of recommendation, an essay, and other documentation. Some students may be able to transfer in some of the required credits or test out of certain required courses, depending on the school's policies.
Traditional, Four-Year Degree Programs: For students who have no prior nursing education or experience, a four-year online nurse program may be a good start. Admission requirements are comparable to those of other majors. Applicants are usually required to have a GPA of 2.5 or higher, and they are often required to take one or more of the standardized college entrance exams.
In addition to submitting an application form, prospective students are usually required to submit transcripts of their previous education and may be asked to submit letters of recommendation, essays, and other documentation. Students who have completed some college coursework, or have other types of training or work experience, may be able to transfer some of the required credits or test out of certain courses, depending on the school's transfer credit policies.
Accelerated BSN Programs: These programs are for students who have earned bachelor's degrees in non-nursing fields, and are often 18-month or two-year programs. Applicants who have already completed numerous science and humanities courses (for example, microbiology, anatomy, psychology, and sociology) while earning their first degrees may be able to begin this program immediately, often starting as a junior. If not, they may need to complete a number of prerequisites for the remainder of the program.
Applicants are usually required to have maintained a GPA of 2.5 or higher while earning their first degree, and may be asked to submit transcripts of their previous education, recommendation letters, essays, and other documentation along with their application.
Cost of an Online BSN Degree
The median annual tuition for an online bachelor's degree in nursing is $12,601, according to our analysis of 360 schools.
Future nurses who opt for online nursing schools may save some money while earning their degrees. Although all students pay charges that vary by institution, such as books and supplies, online students usually don't need to pay for room and board or other campus-based fees. At some schools, virtual learners pay the same lower tuition rate as in-state students. Additionally, online nursing students may need to pay for transportation to the health care facilities where they gain clinical experience, although these costs are usually minimal as the chosen facilities are generally near students' homes.
To practice nursing, graduates must have a license, and there are several fees involved in obtaining and maintaining a nursing license. Application fees vary widely by state, and the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) certification exam fee is $200. Licensed nurses must also pay a renewal fee periodically, usually every two years.
In addition to the up-front cost of a nursing degree through tuition and related fees, students should consider the payoff after finishing their program. To help with this, we've provided the online schools with the highest alumni salaries in the rankings list above.
Nursing students enrolled in accredited online BSN programs may be eligible for financial aid. To determine eligibility, students should submit a Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA).
The best types of financial aid to receive are scholarships and grants, which may be awarded by the federal or state government or directly by colleges for the students they've accepted. Unlike student loans, students don't have to repay grant and scholarship money. Applicants should thoroughly review the terms of a student loan before accepting one. Federal or state student loans are generally preferred over private loans because they often have lower interest rates and more flexible repayment plans.
There are also numerous private nursing and health care scholarships available:
Awards of $500 each are given out quarterly, with special consideration for those enrolled in RN-to-BSN, RN-to-MSN, or accelerated programs.
This $1,000 scholarship is open to full-time, nontraditional students who are returning to college to pursue an undergraduate degree in nursing.
Each year, three nursing students are selected to receive a $2,500, non-renewable scholarship from the Daughters of the American Revolution philanthropic organization.
A student membership in NBNA opens a wide array of benefits and scholarship opportunities from $1,000 up to $15,000 for nursing students of color in a BSN program.
Students may wonder whether online nursing programs are enough to set them up for a nursing career. Individuals can become registered nurses with a nursing certificate, associate degree, or bachelor's degree. All of these programs prepare students to pass their nursing certifications, including the NCLEX exam, and obtain a license to practice nursing.
Each nursing option also opens the door to different specializations. Prospective nurses who want to pursue a particular area of focus should pick a program that allows them to reach their desired level of specialization:
Annual Median Salary: $48,070
Job Growth Rate: 9%
LPNs and LVNs are employed in all health care settings, often assisting doctors and RNs with tasks, such as dressing changes and administering medications. LPN and LVN programs, which are typically one-year certificate programs, can be found at community colleges and vocational schools.
Annual Median Salary: $77,600
Job Growth Rate: 9%
Pediatric nurses are RNs, who work with children, performing such health care tasks as providing routine check-ups, administering medications and immunizations, and conducting screenings for developmental conditions. Many states require pediatric nurses to have earned a BSN, and some require them to obtain special certification in addition to their nursing licenses.
Annual Median Salary: $77,600
Job Growth Rate: 9%
Geriatric nurses specialize in working with older adults. They perform assessments, administer medications, and prepare and update nursing plans for their patients, among other tasks. Similar to pediatric nurses, RNs can become geriatric nurses with only an associate degree, but some states require a BSN and possibly additional certification.
Annual Median Salary: $123,780
Job Growth Rate: 45%
RNs who earn master's degrees in nursing may be interested in becoming family nurse practitioners. These advanced nursing specialists are considered primary care providers, assessing patients' health and determining treatment. Due to an increased focus on preventive medical care, the BLS projects job opportunities to grow substantially faster than the national average.
We've put together guides to popular nursing jobs, which you can explore for more information:
How Do I Get a Nursing License?
To legally practice as a nurse, all nursing candidates in the U.S. must first graduate from an accredited nursing program, including any of the numerous nationally accredited online nursing programs. They must then apply for an RN nursing license from their state nursing board, which requires passing an extensive certification exam called the NCLE, which the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) administers.;
There are two types of examinations — the NCLEX-RN, which is for registered nurses, and the NCLEX-PN, which is for practical nurses. The tests are designed to ensure that nursing professionals have the appropriate health care and professional knowledge before they begin working with patients and handling sensitive health care information. Nursing students can find more details about the contents of the exams on the NCSBN website.
In addition to passing the appropriate NCLEX exam, nursing candidates must meet their state’s board of nursing requirements to obtain licensure. Some states also require licensed nurses to complete continuing education hours during each license renewal period to demonstrate their knowledge and update their skills. Students can check with their state board to learn more about their specific licensing requirements.
What Are the Requirements for Renewing a Nursing License?
Requirements for renewing a nursing license vary by state, but in most cases, nursing licenses need to be renewed once every two years. Some states set a specific deadline for renewal, such as the nurse's birthday.;
Almost every state requires nurses to complete a documented number of continuing education hours, called CEUs or "contact hours," in order to maintain their licenses. The number of contact hours required may vary depending on whether the nurse works full or part time. If a license lapses, delinquency fees may occur. However, fees can be avoided if nurses request to have their licenses put on inactive status during their time away from work.
Do I Have to Get a Separate Nursing License for Every State I Want to Practice In?
Approximately two-thirds of the states in the U.S. have entered into the Nurse Licensure Compact. This interstate agreement allows nurses who qualify for the multistate license to practice on-site nursing, telenursing, and nursing education in any of the states in the NLC without obtaining separate licenses for each state.
Is an Online Bachelor's in Nursing Degree Worth It?
A bachelor's degree in nursing can open up many career opportunities. However, there are some specific advantages and disadvantages students may want to explore when deciding whether to pursue a BSN, particularly through distance learning:
This degree has the potential to pay off in terms of salary. According to the BLS, the median annual salary is $77,600 for RNs with bachelor's degrees, as compared to licensed nurses with associate degrees who earn a median annual salary of $48,070.
Nursing is a high-growth field, and the BLS predicts that more than 276,800 new jobs for registered nurses will emerge over the next 10 years.
Earning a BSN online allows students to choose from a broader range of schools without moving to a new location. It also means that they can complete coursework on their own schedules and fulfill requirements for clinical hours at health care facilities close to home.
A BSN requires two additional years of education beyond an associate nursing degree, which means a higher cost for the degree and more time out of the workforce are required.
As with other distance learning programs, some online nursing students may feel somewhat disconnected from their peers, and they may not always reap the rewards of sharing information and experiences with classmates, which often occurs within the classroom environment.
Some nursing jobs require long shifts during non-traditional hours — especially when working in a hospital or emergency care environment. Aspiring nurses who want a more traditional work schedule may prefer a career in a physician’s office.
Nursing careers offer fulfilling, meaningful work in a lucrative industry that's expected to see a lot of growth in the coming decade. The best online nursing programs can excel your career at a lower cost and with coursework that corresponds to your schedule. Ultimately, the true value of an online bachelor's in nursing depends on each individual's personal circumstances, resources, and goals.