Online nursing program guide

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How to earn a nursing degree online

Due to recent changes in U.S. healthcare policies and a shift toward long-term care, well-educated nurses are in high demand. From diploma to doctorate, there are a variety of online educational pathways available. Earning a nursing degree has never been more accessible.

Online degree pathways at accredited institutions

In today’s climate, and for those juggling work and family obligations, the option to earn a degree online could be appealing. While nursing students need to complete exams and clinical hours in person, they can fulfill many core courses online. With an associate’s degree, an active registered nurse’s license, and clinical hours in hand, you may be eligible to earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing completely online.

Online programs generally follow the same rigorous curriculum as on-campus learning options and typically lead to similar advancement opportunities for graduates.

Studying at an accredited institution can keep the door open for future studies and help you qualify for federal financial aid. If you need to transfer schools or decide to advance your degree, there’s less chance that you’ll have to start over.

Certified Nurse Assistants (CNA)

To gain admission to a CNA educational program, you need a high school diploma or GED. This certificate is an entry-level option for those who have no previous healthcare training and want to start work as soon as possible. Instruction can include online courses and supervised clinical training at a local medical facility. This can be completed in as few as 4 to 16 weeks. Accredited online programs are available through community and technical colleges, high schools, medical facilities, and non-profits like the Red Cross.

Online CNA certificate programs generally cost between $1,500 and $5,000. With the successful completion of the final competency exam, CNA’s are qualified to work under the supervision of Licensed Practical Nurses (LPNs) and Registered Nurses (RNs). A CNA’s duties include taking vitals, personal hygiene, helping exercise patients, and housekeeping.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows that as of 2019, 37% of CNA’s worked in nursing care facilities, with 27% employed in hospitals. The average annual salary of a CNA is close to $29,000, but in states like Alaska, New York, and Hawaii, the earnings are higher.

Licensed Practical/Vocational Nurse (LPN/LVN)

To gain admission to an LPN or LVN educational program, you need a high school diploma or GED. Depending on the post-secondary institution you apply to, you may also need a minimum GPA or GED score and some college-level introductory classes in science and math. Online instruction will teach theoretical knowledge for the provision of primary medical assistance to patients. In-person practical training will support the accumulation of the necessary clinical hours.

Tuition for this program is usually between $10,000 to $15,000. To be licensed, students need also prepare for the successful completion of the National Council Licensure Exam for Practical Nurses (NCLEX-PN).

LPNs/LVNs routinely give support to the central health care team, working under the supervision of doctors or registered nurses (RNs). Additionally, LPNs may provide care that includes feeding, bathing, monitoring vitals, dressing wounds, and applying bandages. In some states, LPNs and LVNs are permitted to administer medications.

As of 2019, 38% of LPNs worked in nursing and residential care facilities and 15% in doctor’s offices, receiving an average annual salary of $47,480. Many states report higher salaries for this designation, including California, Alaska, and Massachusetts. The BLS projects a 9% job growth rate for LPNs/LVNs between 2019 and 2029.

Registered Nurse (RN)

There are 2 main educational pathways to earning a bachelor’s degree online that can help lead to an RN designation. Both options are available as hybrid learning models, with many core courses accessible online. These will need to be combined with in-person practical training to gain the requisite clinical hours.

  1. An Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or Associate of Science in Nursing (ASN) degree program can be obtained through an approved community college or university. This degree typically takes 2 to 3 years to complete, although many colleges and universities offer self-paced ADN online programs. Tuition can cost anywhere from $12,000 to $35,000.
  2. An online Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree program typically takes 3 to 4 years of full-time study. This degree can cost between $40,000 to over $100,000 in private institutions and larger universities. At community colleges, it could be between $3,000 to $14,000.

The ADN and ASN coursework and clinical training will prepare students for entry-level direct patient care. They will also work on teams with other healthcare providers. The BSN curriculum includes leadership coursework that prepares students for the management and supervision of nursing teams. It can also lead to advanced careers in research, consulting, and teaching.

All nursing degree graduates must be licensed by their state board, by passing the National Council Licensure Exam for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN). Only once this is completed will a student have earned the RN designation.

Working as crucial members of a healthcare team, predominantly in hospitals (60%), RNs provide support to physicians and promote health at various levels. They are typically responsible for providing a wide range of patient services. These can include primary and preventative care, patient education, medication administration, and medical equipment operation.

The BLS notes that in 2019, an RN’s median annual salary was $73,000, and projects that RN positions will grow by 7% between 2019 and 2029.

Online further education

RNs with an ADN, ASN, or diploma, wishing to advance their careers or specialize in a certain area, may pursue further education to earn a BSN degree. This can be completed through an online RN-to-BSN program. Among other focuses, some bridge programs may explore health assessment courses such as wellness evaluation, health promotion, and illness prevention. Tuition can cost between $30,000 and $95,000.

LPNs who wish to earn an ADN or BSN can enroll in a hybrid LPN-to-BSN bridge program. Due to the fewer clinical and lab hours an LPN will generally have logged in their career, they will likely need to spend time training in medical facilities. An LPN may achieve an ADN in less than one year of full-time study, depending on credits already earned. Earning a BSN as an LPN can take up to 3 years.

Appropriately licensed RNs may enroll in a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) program to become nurse practitioners, nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, and nurse educators. While there are a few online ADN-to-MSN bridge programs, most MSN programs require a BSN for admission.

MSN programs focused on administration and education are usually available 100% online and are often less than 2 years in duration. Specialties that do not require direct patient care are traditionally much shorter than those that do, as they don’t require clinical work. If clinical work is needed, it can often be arranged locally. The BLS reported a 2019 annual salary median for MSNs of $115,800.

Becoming a certified registered nurse anesthetist (CNRA) requires at least an MSN degree, while many CNRAs hold a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree (DNP). Although the number of required clinical hours will affect the length, an MSN-to-CRNA program should take about 2 years to complete full-time and can be taken predominantly online. A DNP-to-CRNA may only take 1 year to complete.

To become a Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS), you must achieve an MSN and have 1 or more years of work experience as an RN or in a related field. To conduct research, CNSs often need a DNP degree, which can take anywhere from 3 to 6 years of study.

There are also opportunities to take a combined bachelor’s and master’s program in as few as 5 years.

Academic requirements for nursing programs

Students who have obtained a GED or high school diploma can begin their nursing education. Common prerequisites for the ADN, ASN, and bachelor degrees may include college-level introductory courses in sociology or psychology, math, English, anatomy, biology, or chemistry. CPR and First Aid certificates may also be required for some programs.

The minimum GPA for the ADN or ASN degree is in the range of 2.0 to 2.75, but applicants may need much higher scores due to potentially tough competition. The minimum GPA for BSN programs is typically set at 3.0. Acceptable scores on the SAT or ACT are common requirements for obtaining a place on a bachelor’s degree program.

Entrance applications often require a personal essay or statement of interest. It should include your motivation for pursuing this profession and what unique contributions you can make to the field.

Financial aid for nurses

There are various federal and state grants, loans, and scholarships available through public and private organizations for those who qualify. From the Department of Education, a free application for federal student aid form, or FAFSA®, is available at the Federal Student Aid website. This site helps students prepare for post-secondary education by providing information such as how financial aid works, the types of aid available, aid eligibility, and loan repayment options.

Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN)

As one of two main accrediting associations, the ACEN provides accreditation for all levels of nursing education and transition-to-practice programs in the United States, its territories, and internationally. When a nursing program holds ACEN accreditation, it means that ACEN recognizes that a nursing program meets a set of standards and can be trusted to deliver quality education. The ACEN is recognized by the US Department of Education.

American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN)

The AACN is an umbrella association that works to establish quality standards for academic nursing education. It assists schools in implementing these standards, acts to influence the nursing profession to improve health care, and promotes public support for professional nursing education, research, and practice.

American Nurses Association (ANA)

The ANA is a non-union, membership based organization that provides professional development opportunities, nursing news, and support for nurses across the US.

The ANA is involved in establishing national standards for nursing practice and advocating for the rights of nurses in the workplace.

Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)

As an autonomous branch of the AACN, the CCNE is the other main accreditation association for nurses in the US. Recognized by the US Department of Education, the CCNE is limited to ensuring the quality and integrity of baccalaureate, graduate, and residency programs in nursing.

National Student Nurses Association (NSNA)

The NSNA is a nonprofit, membership based organization for students enrolled in associate, baccalaureate, diploma, and generic graduate nursing programs. It is dedicated to nurturing the professional development of nursing students by preparing them for initial licensure as registered nurses.