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Are Online Nursing Programs Right for You?

We'll walk you through everything you need to know about online nursing programs so you can determine whether they're the right fit for you.

May 21, 2019

Online Nursing School Hero Image
Image via Unsplash.com/Randy Tarampi

You may be eager to further your education as a nurse or APN, but if your schedule’s overflowing with work and personal commitments, trekking to lectures on campus may seem like too much to handle.

Enter online programs. Great for organized people who plan to keep working while earning a degree or certification, most online programs allow you to take classes and exams on your own time. The trend’s been growing since 2002 - in fact, the Babson Survey Research Group reported that enrollment at online universities has grown, despite the fact that overall university enrollment is in a bit of a slump.

Online education has been gaining significant popularity across a range of professions and specialties lately -- not the least of which is nursing.

Hold On - Can You Really Get a Nursing Degree Online?

Absolutely you can! There are a whole host of online schooling options for nurses and APNs who are looking to further their careers. However, online nursing schools aren't right for everyone, and there are a number of things you should keep in mind before you dive straight into applying to programs.

To help you get started, we spoke with these two nursing experts:

  • Jon Haws, RN, BSN, and founder of NRSNG, which offers nursing students online study tools — including an NCLEX preparation course — for insights into online nursing programs
  • Maureen “Nurse Mo” Osuna, RN, BSN, working in the medical intensive care unit of a large metropolitan hospital in California, and owner of Straight A Nursing Student, an online resource for nursing students

We used their insights to provide you with a high-level overview of all the information you need to know about online nursing programs. Specifically, we'll walk you through the following topics:

  • What are online nursing programs?
  • How do they work?
  • What types of nursing degrees can you get online?
  • How much are online nursing programs?
  • What are the benefits of online nursing programs?
  • What should you consider before choosing one?
  • How do you choose an online nursing program?

Let's get started!

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What Are Online Nursing Programs?

Online nursing degree programs offer nurses and APNs a way to earn certifications or degrees remotely, rather than having to get to a campus. Typically, online students can “attend” classes on their own time, but they must still complete coursework on a weekly schedule. Despite popular belief, online colleges aren’t any easier or shorter than regular college settings. In fact, it can often take a great deal of planning and organizing, as you need to fit required courses, studying, and testing into your week.

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How Do Online Nursing Degree Programs Work?

Students who take nursing classes online typically log into a “Learning Management System” (LMS) to take courses, view syllabi, turn in assignments, connect with professors and classmates, and manage grades. They often participate in group discussions through online boards and sometimes through conference calls scheduled at set times. They also receive feedback and grades from instructors, just like in a traditional program — they just don’t have face-to-face contact.

Some online nursing schools do have live sessions in which you must take classes on certain days and times on your own computer or device. They might also require some in-person sessions to help students network or connect as a class. (Nursing will require clinicals in a live setting.) However, if you need your education to work around your schedule, you’ll want to make sure your online nursing program only requires the semester(s) of clinicals to be done in-person at a facility near you.

Online nursing schools offer clinical rotations as needed, so you won’t miss out on any requirements. If you’re seeking an undergraduate degree, the school typically has contracts with colleges and universities in your area to find clinical opportunities. You’d then attend labs at a local school, where your skills would be assessed by their clinical instructors. Once you pass, you’d be placed in a local hospital with a preceptor who will monitor your work.

When you’re seeking a graduate degree or certification, you may not need clinicals. If you do, it’s generally accepted for you to locate your own clinical locations and preceptors. Typically, this isn’t a problem for working nurses because they usually have connections to a hospital.

In terms of exams: If a test requires a “proctored exam,” you may need to find a local testing center, or the school could have a proctor watch you via webcam, or they may even have software that can detect cheating by doing scans of your screen.

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What Nursing Degrees Can You Get Online?

From undergraduate to graduate, you can get any nursing degree you’d like from an online program. Some very common online nursing courses are known as "bridge programs," which can help you advance from one level of nursing to another. For example, nurses with an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) often “bridge” to a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) to be eligible for higher-paying positions.

The following are the six different types of nursing degrees you can get online.

1) Online Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN)

If you’d like to become a nurse, this is one possible route to earning your RN credential. You’ll earn your degree more quickly than someone in a BSN program (i.e., in two years instead of four), so you’ll enter the workforce sooner. However, to hold more advanced positions over time, you’ll probably need to earn a BSN. In fact, Nurse Journal reports that a nurse with an ADN and one to four years' experience will earn $60,985, while a nurse with a BSN and one to four years' experience will earn $73,500.

2) Online Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)

Many online BSN programs are geared toward RNs who have their ADN and would like to advance their careers. That said, it’s also possible to earn a BSN online without having a nursing background. Not only do graduates with this degree often earn more than someone with an ADN, but studies also show that patient outcomes are better when they’re treated by nurses with BSN degrees.

3) Online Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)

If you want to be a nurse manager or educator, one step in that direction would be earning an advanced degree, such as an MSN. With a post-graduate degree, you can apply for leadership positions that wouldn’t be available to someone with only an ADN or BSN.

4) Online Graduate Certificates in Nursing

If you’re planning to become a family nurse practitioner or a nursing administrator, educator, or informaticist, a graduate certificate can put you on the right path to achieving that goal.

5) Online Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)

For those with aspirations to teach, this course of study can help you take your career to the next level. It’s important to note, though, that this degree usually focuses much more heavily on the research side of nursing than on practice.

6) Online Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing (Ph.D.)

Despite popular misconception, it’s entirely possible to achieve this academic credential through online coursework. However, it’s important to note that this degree typically focuses on research more than practice, as a DNP does.

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How Much Are Online Nursing Programs?

The price of an online nursing program will vary by school, but overall, online education tends to be less expensive than an on-site experience because you aren’t paying for things like campus fees or room and board. Typically, the fees for an online nursing program range from $100 to $300 per credit. (And for background, a BSN requires 90 to 120 credit hours, meaning the tuition price range would be between $9,000 and $36,000, depending on the school.)

The type of school you attend will dictate the tuition rates you’ll pay. A state school will be more affordable than a private school, but the majority of online nursing programs are private schools. And don’t forget that you’ll also need to pay for books, tech fees, lab fees, and other costs that may arise to be successful.

Fortunately, many online nursing schools offer financial aid, which can help make it more affordable. Find out what options are available at the school you’re considering before you move forward. Also, look into nursing scholarships and grants.

If you’re seeking an advanced degree, consider tuition reimbursement opportunities to avoid going into debt. This may be available at the hospital where you work. Going undergrad? Tuition reimbursement may still be an option. Some hospitals may hire you as a hospital tech or certified nursing assistant and reimburse your tuition. This may help to significantly reduce your costs and, upon graduation, your connections to the hospital may make it more likely that they’ll hire you as an RN.

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What Are the Benefits of Online Nursing Programs?

The flexibility of online nursing school is appealing to many working nurses because it gives them the ability to build their own schedules around their work shifts. If your work hours fluctuate — for example, you sometimes work during the day and sometimes take the night shift — online nursing school can be ideal because there’s no set time for classes. You can watch lectures or do homework at any time, day or night.

If you live in a rural location or have limited transportation options, being able to complete your coursework from home can also be a real benefit. You may still need to attend clinicals in person, but this will only be a portion of your overall education.

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What Should You Consider Before Choosing an Online Nursing Program?

Here are some things you’ll want to consider before you jump right into looking at online nursing programs.

Consideration #1: What kind of student are you?

Online learning typically requires students to be highly motivated, self-directed, and well-organized. There won’t be set class times, and it’ll be up to you to make sure you’re keeping up with the workload. Honestly assess your ability to focus on work with little direction. If you doubt your ability to succeed, an online program may not be right for you.

Consideration #2: Do you need face-to-face connection?

Depending on the program, your only interaction with classmates may be through discussion boards. Students who go through nursing school together provide each other with valuable support, so ask yourself if you’d miss those relationships and opportunities if you attend an online program.

Consideration #3: Will you be able to do rotations?

Online courses are ideal for nurses who want to advance their careers and are already familiar with the nuances of nursing. They already have a support network of other nurses, and they’re able to get through their coursework while still earning an income. If you’re just starting your nursing education, you’ll want to do extra research to ensure you can be placed for clinicals.

Consideration #4: Is it an accredited online nursing program?

Check to see if the program you’re considering is accredited by either the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses or the American Commission for Education in Nursing. This will help make your resume more competitive. Also, make sure to do some research on the school’s NCLEX pass rates — this can be a good indicator of how well the program prepares its students. (For context, 2018 data shows that 85 percent of students earning associate degrees passed, while 91.6 percent earning bachelor's degrees passed. Most schools aim to be within 10 percent of these scores.)

Consideration #5: Have you read the reviews?

Like anything you buy online, find reviews for the online nursing program you’re considering. Read them thoroughly to see if it sounds like something your personality is suited for and that it’s worth your investment.

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How To Choose an Online Nursing Program: 5 Criteria To Keep In Mind

Below, we’ve provided five criteria to help you identify the programs that would work best for you, your learning style, and your needs.

1) Grading Format

Some online nursing programs operate on a pass/fail format, rather than giving students GPAs. These programs may limit your career options if prospective employers feel that “Pass/Fail” doesn’t adequately assess your knowledge or skills. (If you know people who work in healthcare, ask them what their organization looks for before you apply to a P/F school.)

2) Accreditation Status

You want to ensure that your resume will be competitive. Having a degree from an accredited online school will help make you a more desirable candidate to potential employers. Plus, it can also make you feel more confident in the knowledge and skills you acquired during your time in the program.

3) Location, Location, Location

If the program requires you to visit the campus often, it may make sense to choose a local school. If you only need to visit once (or not at all), living several time zones away shouldn’t be an issue.

4) Graduate Success Rates

On average, 74 percent of BSN grads have jobs at the time of graduation, and 76 percent of MSNs can say the same. So compare this rate with your online university to see how it measures up.

5) Community

How collaborative are the classes and class work? And how’s that arranged considering various locations? Once you get these answers, consider how much of a community you’re actually looking to have in your program.

Above all, be sure you’re comfortable with the online nursing program format and that you won’t slide behind on your work without having set classes to attend.

And don’t forget: You’ve got this!


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Berxi™ or Berkshire Hathaway Specialty Insurance Company. This article (subject to change without notice) is for informational purposes only, and does not constitute professional advice.

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