Nurses are the backbone of the healthcare industry. They provide critical care and support to patients in hospitals and medical treatment facilities. There are a variety of specializations to choose from, with a growing number of new jobs expected in the next decade. Online nursing degree programs offer a path for existing Registered Nurses (RNs) to achieve a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). This is a great way to advance your career after you've received your nursing license and generate upward mobility in the healthcare industry. First you'll need to find an RN to BSN online nursing degree that fits your budget, schedule, and career goals. Some require in-person residencies, while others are accelerated to speed up the learning process.
Mercy College is a medium-sized nonprofit that offers an online Nursing RN to BS requiring 120 credit hours. The curriculum aims to prepare students for leadership roles in nursing. Some core classes in this major include Leadership and Management and Nursing Informatics. To graduate, students must complete all program requirements including upper level nursing courses and 135 hours of clinical health work, which can take up to two years with a full-time schedule. Graduates of the program may go on to explore careers in research and leadership in the healthcare industry.
At Mercy, students use Blackboard to access their coursework, which is fully online. Online students have access to faculty and advisors.
Pacific College (PU) is a small, private institution that offers an online RN to BSN program. The program focuses on critical thinking, leadership, and health promotion. To apply, students must already have an associate degree in nursing, or a comparable amount of credits. The program consists of 49 credit hours, including classes such as Technological Impact on Society, Health Assessment, Education, & Promotion, and Nursing Research. This degree program may take a year and a half to complete with a full-time schedule, and students must successfully pass the capstone course: Nursing Management. Graduates may work as advanced practice nurses, case managers, administrators, and more.
At PU, students use Canvas to access their coursework, which is entirely online. Students may complete coursework either synchronously or asynchronously, depending on their preference. Online students have access to all university resources.
California State University - Dominguez Hills (CSUDH) is a large, public institution that offers an online RN to BSN program requiring 120 credit hours. The curriculum delves into professional nursing practices, including core classes that range from Cultural Diversity in Healthcare and Nursing Research Utilization to Community-Based Nursing. Students must complete a two-day health assessment seminar via Zoom and 90 clinical hours. All in all, the degree can be completed in 30 weeks with a full-time schedule. Alumni may enter careers in professional nursing and healthcare leadership roles.
At CSUDH, students use Blackboard to access their online coursework, which is completed asynchronously except some required clinical time. Online students have access to the You CSUDH app, which offers a variety of mental health, community, and academic services.
University of Providence (UP) is a small, non-profit institution that offers an online Nursing RN to BSN program requiring 120 credit hours. The curriculum covers a variety of professional skills in nursing. Some core classes include Research Methods and Statistics, Evidence-Based Practice, and Organizational Leadership in Quality and Safety. To graduate, students must complete all program requirements, such as upper-level nursing courses and a mandatory face-to-face program immersion day. Overall, the program can take one year at a full-time pace.
At UP, students use Moodle to access their coursework, which is fully online. Distance learning students have access to digital libraries and career services.
The California State University - Stanislaus (Stanislaus State) is a medium-sized, public university. It offers an online BSN with an RN to BSN track, which requires applicants to have their RN license and either an associate degree in nursing or 60 transferable credit hours completed. This program can be finished in three years with a full-time schedule, including a required Writing Proficiency Screening Test and the associated course. Some courses in this program are Nursing Leadership and Management, Advanced Pathophysiology, and Advanced Health Assessment. Graduates go on to assume leadership positions in health care facilities, policy-making, and financing.
Stanislaus State students use Canvas to access their coursework, which is 100% online. Distance learning students have access to all on-campus university resources.
Bay Path University (BPU) is a small nonprofit that offers an online RN to BSN program requiring 120 credit hours. The curriculum teaches the latest skill requirements and technologies in the nursing field. Some core classes include Nursing and Global Diversity and Research for the Nursing Profession. To graduate, students must complete all core nursing course requirements, including an investigative capstone project, which can take 18 to 24 months with a full-time schedule. Graduates typically enter careers as nurse generalists.
At BPU, students use Canvas to access their coursework, which is fully online. Online students have access to learning support services from advisors, professors, and staff.
University of Arkansas Grantham (UA Grantham) is a medium-sized, public institution that offers an online RN to BSN program requiring 120 credit hours. The curriculum aims to train students in clinical technologies, ethical nursing practices, and communication skills. Some core classes include Pathophysiology, Pharmacology, and Theoretical Concepts of Nursing. To graduate, students must complete a capstone project in a clinical setting. Overall, this program typically takes just over a year to complete with a full-time schedule. UA Grantham also offers an accelerated program for nurses that have practiced in a clinical setting for two years, which can take 10 months to complete. Graduates may go on to explore careers as nurse generalists.
At UA Grantham, students use Blackboard to access their coursework, which is fully online. Online students have access to career tutoring and a community platform to connect with fellow students.
Bushnell University (BU) is a small nonprofit that offers an online RN to BSN program requiring 120 credit hours. The curriculum goes into detail about nursing research, practices, and ethics, with core classes such as Ethics in Nursing, Leadership in Nursing Practice, and Foundations for Lifelong Learning in Nursing. Students must complete all 30 major credits, which includes a nursing capstone project. This degree can take 12 months to finish with a full-time schedule or 20 months with a part-time schedule.
At BU, students use BeaconLearning to access their coursework, which is fully online. Online students have access to career development services.
Farmingdale State College (FSD) is a medium-sized, public institution that offers an online Nursing RN to BS requiring 120 credit hours. The curriculum equips students with professional nursing skills for a variety of healthcare settings. Some core classes include Art of Nursing in Professional Practice and Health Promotion, and Patient Education. To graduate, students must complete all program requirements, such as applied learning courses and writing intensives, which can take two years with a full-time schedule. Alumni may go on to enter leadership careers in nursing.
At FSD, students use Blackboard to access their coursework, which is fully online. Students have access to an online career center for advice and guidance.
Pace University (PU) is a medium-sized, private institution that offers an online RN to BSN program, which can take two to three years with a full-time schedule. The program requires students to have their RN license as well as an associate degree (which can be completed at PU). This BSN program includes core courses, such as Core Competencies for Multidimensional Care, Leadership & Management, and Health Assessment & Clinical Reasoning. Overall, it focuses on the integration of theoretical knowledge and evidence-based strategies in nursing practice. Graduates may work at facilities, such as the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York-Presbyterian, and the Westchester Medical Center.
Students at PU use Blackboard to access their coursework, which is entirely online. Distance learners even have the option to finish the degree at an accelerated rate.
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. Students complete much of their coursework online and then engage in on-site clinical practice activities at an approved healthcare 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, 221,900 new registered nurse (RN) jobs will emerge, and an additional 65,700 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—all of which prepare students to pass the RN certification exam and to obtain a license to practice nursing, so the best type of nursing degree depends on an individual's personal goals. 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. We dive into more detail about nursing degree levels below.
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 and the average time to complete each degree, and to find links to more information.
Bridge Programs for Students who Already Have Nursing Credentials
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.
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; some require 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-time 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 healthcare organization. Clinical nurses can become advanced practice nurses (APRN), who practice nursing more independently and, in many cases, provide primary care.
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 enrollment in any BSN program, prospective students should confirm that the program has been accredited by one of the two accrediting bodies for nursing programs: the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) or 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 the program's curriculum, faculty, and learning outcomes meet state and national standards.
Perhaps most important, graduation from an accredited program is a requirement of many state nursing boards to obtain nursing licensure.
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.
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 nursing programs that includes online 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 BSN programs require a nursing practicum in which students work in a supervised healthcare setting to gain a required number of clinical practice hours. Some of the most common courses include:
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 will 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 as applying to a campus program. There are three paths to earning a BSN, and each involves a different set of admission requirements:
1. 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 healthcare 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.
2. Traditional, Four-Year Degree Programs: For students who have no prior nursing education or experience, a four-year degree 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 are often required to take one or more of the standardized college entrance exams to be accepted.
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 who 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.
3. 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. The lowest annual tuition in this sample is $3,204, and the highest is $47,806.
Future nurses who opt to earn their BSN online may realize some savings 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 healthcare 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 average debt of a nursing student, the median starting salary, and the 10-year return on investment in the rankings list above.
Nursing students enrolled in accredited, online degree programs may be eligible for financial aid. To determine eligibility, students should submit a Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA). Representatives of both the federal government and the schools then review the applications, and applicants are notified about the type and amount of financial aid being offered. If there are any questions about financial aid offers, applicants should contact the financial aid representatives at the college(s) they have applied to.
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, grant and scholarship money does not have to be repaid. 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 healthcare scholarships available. These require separate applications from the FAFSA, but obtaining additional funding can be well worth the time and effort to apply. Some of these nursing scholarship opportunities include:
Caroline E. Holt Nursing Scholarship: Each year, three nursing students are selected to receive a $2,500, non-renewable scholarship from the Daughters of the American Revolution philanthropic organization.
Students may wonder whether a bachelor's degree in nursing is enough to set them up for a career in the field. Individuals can become registered nurses with a nursing certificate, associate degree, or bachelor's degree. All of these programs prepare students to pass the NCLEX certification exam and to obtain a license to practice nursing.
As of 2018, there were approximately four million jobs in five major nursing occupations, and this number is expected to grow much faster than average through 2029. Additional information on various nursing careers is available from the Occupational Outlook Handbook, published by the BLS.
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. 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. Some possibilities include:
Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) or Licensed Vocational Nurse (LVN)
Median Annual Salary: $48,820
LPNs and LVNs are employed in all healthcare 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. The BLS reports that the median annual wage for LPNs and LVNs is $48,820, and the number of job openings is expected to increase by 9% through 2029.
Median Annual Salary: $75,330
Pediatric nurses work with children, performing such healthcare 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. Pediatric nurses are RNs, which the BLS reports as earning a median annual income of $75,330.
Median Annual Salary: $75,330
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. Also similar to pediatric nurses, the median annual income for geriatric nurses is $75,330.
Family Nurse Practitioner
Median Annual Salary:$117,670
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 for family nurse practitioners to increase by 45% over the next decade. The median annual salary for this specialty is $117,670.
We've put together guides to popular nursing jobs, which you can explore for more information:
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 for RNs with bachelor's degrees is $75,330, as compared to licensed nurses with associate degrees who earn a median annual salary of $48,820.
Nursing is a high growth field, and the BLS predicts that more than 287,000 new jobs for registered and practical 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, to complete coursework on their own schedules, and to fulfill requirements for clinical hours at healthcare facilities close to home.
A BSN requires two additional years of education beyond an associate 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 that often occurs within the classroom.
Ultimately, the true value of an online bachelor's in nursing depends on each individual's personal circumstances, resources, and goals.
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. They must then apply for an RN nursing license from their state nursing board, which requires passing an extensive certification exam called the National Council Licensure Examination.
The National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) administers the NCLEX. 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 healthcare and professional knowledge before they begin working with patients and handling sensitive healthcare 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.
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-time or part-time.
Nurses who have allowed their licenses to lapse may have to pay a delinquency fee in addition to the renewal fee. However, nurses can request to have their licenses put on inactive status if they expect to take an extended period of time off work. When returning to work, they can change the status back to active without paying a penalty.
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.
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