Guide to Online Nursing Programs

Liz Heintz

Written By: Liz Heintz

Published: 3/30/2022

An online nursing program is designed to prepare students for careers providing patient care as an integral part of medical teams. Programs are available at the certificate, undergraduate, and graduate levels combining information-based learning and clinical experiences under the supervision of trained and licensed staff. Online programs may be more affordable and convenient for students who desire to enter nursing or advance their nursing careers. Graduates often find that nursing jobs pay higher than the $41,950 median annual salary for all occupations. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that  licensed practical nurses earn a median salary of $48,820, and nurse midwives earn $111,130. This resource guide provides information prospective students may need to make an informed decision about pursuing an education and career in nursing.

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Online Nursing Programs

Online programs are just as rigorous as those on-campus, and the instructors who teach on-campus often teach online courses as well. While most distance-learning coursework is online, some programs may require on-campus attendance to complete lab work. Others may have what they call an "intensive" session on campus at the beginning and end of the program for about a week. Students will also have to complete on-site clinical training and practicums at a nearby healthcare facility.

What Are the Different Types of Nursing Programs?

There are several types of nursing programs that students can complete online. Certificate Programs may be completed in a shorter amount of time than a degree program and require little, if any, prior experience. These programs that can often be completed at community colleges include:

Programs prepare students for work as CNAs to provide basic care and day-to-day assistance to patients, which includes feeding, bathing, dressing, and helping move patients who are bedridden. About 6% of CNAs also work in private homes, according to the BLS.

Students enroll in LPN/LVN programs to gain the skills necessary to provide more advanced care than a CNA such as dispensing medications, updating patients' charts, drawing blood, and administering injections such as immunizations.

Degree Programs that prepare students to become RNs and beyond may take longer to complete, but will boost the graduate's credentials and ability to perform more advanced tasks.

Those interested in becoming an RN may complete an ADN or ASN at an accredited two-year college. It is often the first step towards earning a Bachelor of Science in Nursing.

A 2020 National Nursing Workforce Survey found that 42% of nurses earned their BSN as their first nursing degree. Those with a BSN receive higher clinical and decision-making skills training due to a more advanced curriculum.

Students may earn their MSN to focus more on population health. It can lead to specialized nursing roles and opportunities in advanced leadership roles, government lobbying or consulting, and education. A Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP) program is a common specialty that prepares graduates to provide care to people of all ages. MSN programs can also lead to becoming a certified nurse practitioner (NP).

A DNP is the highest clinical nursing degree program available and may require a residency. Earning a DNP prepares RNs for even more advanced practice roles, such as an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN), and can provide nurses with a competitive edge when seeking advanced leadership roles within healthcare organizations. In fact, the National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties has recommended that a DNP replace an MSN as the requirement for NPs and APRNs by 2025. 

There are also a couple of ways students can earn online nursing degrees aside from a traditional degree program, depending on their level of experience and career expectations:

Bridge Degree Programs

These programs bridge a lower degree to a higher one and help nurses earn more advanced degrees in less time.

  • ADN/ASN to MSN bridges help eliminate the need for licensed RNs to earn a BSN and go straight to a MSN
  • RN to MSN bridges are for RNs with undergraduate degrees in other fields who want to earn a master's degree specifically in nursing
  • BSN to DNP bridges are for BSN holders who want to earn an MSN along with their DPN

Students who already have a bachelor's degree in another field but want to become RNs may earn an accelerated BSN or MSN degree that can be completed in a shorter period of time. These programs are often rigorous and demanding, with high admission standards that need to be met for enrollment.

What Will I Learn in a Nursing Program?

In general, programs are designed so all healthcare professionals — including nurses — are prepared to carry out best practices supporting nursing standards of care and the six domains of healthcare quality: safety, effectiveness, patient-centered care, timeliness, efficiency, and equitability. Program curriculum and nursing courses help students gain the skills needed to become responsible and ethical nurses who provide the best care possible. Enrollment requirements may be unique to each level of learning, but may include some or all of the following general requirements:

  • A high school diploma or GED including transcripts
  • A minimum GPA, usually between 2.5 and 3.0
  • An entrance exam with a passing score, or other standardized test scores
  • A letter of recommendation
  • An essay or letter of intent
  • A background check
  • A completed application and fee of approximately $50
CNA
Skills Assisting with activities of daily living (ADL), performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) in emergencies, taking and recording vital sign measurements, dressing wounds
Program Length Six to eight weeks to complete approximately 75-120 hours of coursework
Additional Enrollment Requirements High school diploma or equivalent, and CPR and Automated External Defibrillator (AED) certification may be required
Common Courses Anatomy and Physiology, CNA Roles and Responsibilities, Ethics, and Patient Communications
LPN/LVN
Skills Similar to CNA, but also includes treatment planning, providing home health care, scheduling, administering medications, and providing long-term care
Program Length One year for full-time students to complete 40 credit hours, longer for part-time students
Additional Enrollment Requirements Similar to CNA program requirements
Common Courses Clinical Nursing Procedures, History of Nursing, Human Development, and Settings of Care
ADN/ASN
Skills Administering basic procedures, updating patient charts, observing patients and reporting changes in health, performing lab work
Program Length Two years for full-time students to complete approximately 70 credit hours, longer for those attending part-time
Additional Enrollment Requirements The completion of approximately 45 credit hours in prerequisite courses with a minimum 2.5 to 3.0 GPA in math, writing, science, and social science
Common Courses Clinical Pharmacology, Foundations in Acute Care, Foundations in Chronic Illness, Health Promotion, and Pathophysiological Processes
BSN
Skills Assessing health conditions, developing comprehensive healthcare plans, supervising staff, educating patients and the public about health conditions, monitoring admissions and discharges
Concentrations Family Medicine, Pediatrics, Geriatrics, Hospice, Psychiatry, and Public Health
Program Length Approximately four years for full-time students to complete 120 credit hours or longer for part-time students; varies for bridge and accelerated programs
Additional Enrollment Requirements Same as an ADN/ASN, but may also include prerequisite courses, such as anatomy, physiology, and microbiology
Common Courses Community Health Nursing, Healthcare Management and Finance, Pathophysiology for Nurses, Research and Evidence-Based Practice, and Systems Leadership

Explore our list of the Best Online BSN Degrees.

MSN
Skills Providing nursing leadership for teams in larger healthcare facilities such as hospitals, and treating target populations through more advanced nursing skills and specializations
Concentrations NP, FNP, Adult-Gerontology Primary Care, Nurse Midwifery, Acute Care Nurse Practitioner, Clinical Nurse Specialist
Program Length Approximately two years for full-time students to complete 70 credit hours or longer for part-time students; varies for bridge and accelerated programs
Additional Enrollment Requirements Requirements may include a BSN from an accredited university, minimum 3.0 GPA, and active RN license
Common Courses Advanced Pharmacology, Advanced Practice Roles, Common Diagnosis and Management, Epidemiology and Statistical Principles, and Nursing Informatics

Explore our list of the Best Online MSN Degrees.

DNP
Skills Applying high-level nursing and leadership skills to influence healthcare outcomes, implementing healthcare policy, managing programs, and providing healthcare administration
Concentrations Healthcare Systems Leadership, Educational Leadership, and Advanced Practice Leadership
Program Length Approximately two to four years to complete about 40 credit hours for full-time students or more for those attending part-time; varies for bridge and accelerated programs
Additional Enrollment Requirements Active RN license, MSN or BSN, minimum 3.0 GPA, prerequisites that may vary by school, such as healthcare policy, evidence-based practice, and nursing informatics
Common Courses Fiscal Analysis, Concepts in Population Health Outcomes and Health Policy, The Role of the Educator in Facilitating Learning, and Topics in Advanced Practice Leadership

Are Online Nursing Programs Worth It?

Nursing programs are popular, and in fact, enrollment has increased across all degree levels since 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic. However, determining whether an online nursing school is worth it for you will be based on your interests, professional and financial goals, and your learning style. Some may enjoy a classroom environment's energy and collaborative nature, while others prefer to work autonomously as their schedule allows.

The following are pros and cons to consider:

Potential Benefits

Earning a degree online provides flexibility. It can be challenging to commute to school and attend classes while managing other responsibilities, such as a job or family. Classes in an online program are typically asynchronous and can be completed on your own time wherever you have broadband access.

Several nursing careers are in high demand. The need for professionals such as licensed practical nurses (LPNs) and registered nurses (RNs) is high. In fact, there were 395,483 job postings for LPNs and over 1.5 million for RNs throughout 2021, according to Burning Glass Technologies, a data analytics company.

Nursing is a respected and valued profession. According to a 2020 Gallup poll, nursing is at the top of occupations for ethical standards and honesty. Nurses have held this top spot for over 20 years.

Potential Drawabcks

Practicum opportunities for clinical experience may be limited. For example, if you don't live close to campus or don't live near healthcare facilities, completing clinical hours for practical experience may be challenging.

Nurse burnout is real. A 2021 study reports that 34% of nurses surveyed experienced emotional exhaustion and 15% felt a lack of personal accomplishment due to working extended hours in high-risk environments.

Nurses have a greater risk for injury and illness. A survey by the BLS found that nurses have an illness and injury rate significantly higher than all other occupations, primarily due to overexertion and bodily reaction.

How to Choose an Online Nursing Program

Career goals, specialization, and relevant experience will dictate which online nursing programs may suit you best. You'll need to decide how far you want to go with your career and what your plans are for the future. Once determined, you can start looking at specific schools and programs and what they have to offer that will help you meet your goals.

Following are some other factors to consider when choosing an online nursing program.

Accreditation

Accreditation ensures program curriculum, faculty, and learning outcomes meet state and national standards and is necessary for licensure. The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) programmatically accredits many traditional bachelor's and master's programs, and the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) accredits those online. Either is accepted for licensure. The US Department of Education can help identify accredited nursing programs.

Cost

It's important to choose an affordable program that meets educational and career goals while mitigating any student debt that you may incur. Earning transfer credits at a community college can help save money. Along with federal financial aid, students often choose to apply for private scholarships to help offset costs. You might also consider costs associated with obtaining and maintaining a nursing license.

Degree Level

Students should pick the level appropriate to their background and career goals. It may help to look at several careers to note the degree requirements and research employers of interest to find out what they specifically want in a nursing staff.

NCLEX Pass Rates

The NCLEX was developed by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) as a way for nursing graduates to prove competency and earn state licenses. Most schools post NCLEX pass rates on their websites, allowing students to gauge the quality of their nursing programs by how many students pass on the first try.

Support for Online Learners

It can be challenging to complete a nursing program online without staff and faculty nearby. Therefore, it's essential to consider what kind of support for online students is available. For example, schools may offer writing and tutorial services online, library services and access to librarians, tech support, and opportunities to engage with other students through online clubs and associations. It's also important to ask about the best way to contact faculty and how quickly they typically respond.

Learn more about the factors that matter most to online students pursuing a college degree.

What Can You Do With an Online Nursing Degree?

Holding a nursing certificate or degree can open the door to numerous healthcare opportunities. While some graduates may choose to use their clinical training to practice nursing, others may use their leadership skills to lead large healthcare organizations towards efficiency. According to the BLS, healthcare occupations are expected to grow by 16% through 2030 as the population ages and creates a greater need for services.

Occupations with solid growth rates that only require certificates are:

Licensed Practical or Vocational Nurses
Median Annual Salary: $48,820
Job Outlook: 9%

Licensed practical or vocational nurses perform basic medical procedures, monitor vital signs, discuss patient care with a medical team, maintain health records, and report concerns to senior staff. LPNs must pass the NCLEX-PN exam for licensure.

Nursing Assistants
Median Annual Salary: $30,830
Job Outlook: 8%

Nursing assistants provide care to patients by assisting with daily tasks such as eating, bathing, and getting dressed. It's a physically demanding job as these assistants often move patients and prepare rooms. Many states require their nursing assistants to become CNAs and earn a state-issued license or certification.

Occupations with strong growth rates that require undergraduate degrees as the minimum requirement are:

Public Health Nurses
Median Annual Salary: $75,330
Job Outlook: 9%

Public health nurses work within communities to help vulnerable populations understand the warning signs of disease and manage chronic illness. They help increase access to healthcare through health fairs, screenings, immunization clinics, and blood drives. Licensure and certification requirements are similar to that of RNs.

Registered Nurses
Median Annual Salary: $75,330
Job Outlook: 9%

Registered nurses provide and coordinate patient care, operate medical equipment, perform diagnostic tests, and administer medication and treatment. The recent COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated more travel nurses who are often RNs filling in during staffing shortages where help is needed. RNs must pass the NCELX-RN exam and apply for state licensure to practice.

The following are occupations with significantly high growth rates that require graduate degrees:

Medical and Health Service Managers
Median Annual Salary: $112,870
Job Outlook: 32%

Medical and health service managers — also called healthcare executives and administrators — primarily work in hospitals to improve the efficiency and quality of healthcare service delivery. Many employers seek professionals with a DNP to fill advanced roles in larger organizations.

Nurse Anesthetists
Median Annual Salary: $183,580
Job Outlook: 45%

Nurse anesthetists are considered APRNs who administer anesthesia to patients undergoing medical procedures. They monitor a patient's response to anesthesia and record vital signs to ensure the patient's safety. In general, nurse anesthetists must hold an active RN license, a master's degree, earn certification through the Continued Professional Certification (CPC) Program, and obtain state licensure.

Nurse Practitioners
Median Annual Salary: $111,680
Job Outlook: 45%

Nurse practitioners diagnose and treat acute, chronic, and episodic conditions, and prescribe medications. NPs may focus on health promotion and disease prevention. NPs must hold active RN licenses and a graduate degree to practice. Most states also require certification through the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners Certification Board or the American Nurses Credentialing Center.

A career in nursing can take many pathways. For more information about potential careers in this field, visit our guides on becoming a nurse anesthetist, pediatric nurse, or neonatal nurse.

Nursing Licensure and Certification

Nursing graduates must pass an NCLEX exam to earn a license to practice in their state. As nurses progress professionally from one level to another, new licensure may also be required. Each state sets its own education standards for licensure that may also require the completion of specialized coursework or training in select topics.

Many states belong to the Nurse Licensure Compact (NLC). The NLC allows nurses from one compact state to practice in another without needing an additional license. There are currently 39 jurisdictions across the U.S. that are either currently part of the compact or are awaiting implementation or legislation.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can You Get a Nursing Degree Online?

Yes, you can earn a nursing degree online, though some programs require on-campus coursework and on-site clinical experience at a nearby healthcare facility. Schools offer traditional, bridge, and accelerated programs depending on your interest and level of experience.

Are Online Nursing Degrees Legitimate?

Yes, online nursing degrees are legitimate if earned through programs accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) or the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE), which states require for licensure.

How Long Does It Take To Get an Online Nursing Degree?

Traditional online BSN programs can take full-time students up to four years to complete, programs that bridge RN programs to BSNs or MSNs may take up to three years, and accelerated online BSN programs may take as little as a year.

Is Nursing a Good Career?

If you are interested in medicine and helping others achieve optimal health and overall wellbeing, a career in nursing may be worth considering. It can pay well, and there is high demand for trained professionals.

Resources for Nursing Students

There are several online nursing resources that students can access through nursing associations. These organizations often offer financial aid assistance, networking opportunities, webinars, and career centers. Many offer discounted student membership.

These organizations include:

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN)

The AACN advocates for academic nursing by establishing education standards, working to improve healthcare, and supporting research and practice. Members can apply for scholarships, develop leadership skills, join a career network, attend student webinars, and access AACN publications that can help with research.

The American Nursing Association (ANA)

The ANA supports the nursing profession through activities such as career development and lobbying Congress in support of healthcare issues. They offer help for undergraduate students through their online student community, a kit of digital student resources, and a career center. The ANA also publishes newsletters, briefs, policy papers, and blog posts.

The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA)

As a government entity, the HRSA has over 90 programs that help Americans access quality and affordable healthcare. The HRSA Health Workforce supports healthcare professionals by providing scholarships, loan-repayment programs, grants, virtual job fairs, links to job listings, and access to the latest data and research.

The National Student Nurses Association (NSNA)

Along with advocating for affordable and accessible healthcare, the NSNA promotes future nurses' education to represent the profession ethically and responsibly. Nursing students can apply for scholarships, access career guidance, participate in leadership training, and prepare for the NCLEX.

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