The variety of online nursing programs has grown dramatically in the past 10 or so years, as the complexity of medical care has exploded, creating a demand for nurses with more advanced training. To keep up with that demand, health schools have developed methods of teaching all sorts of nursing classes online, and found creative ways to allow nursing students to fulfill clinical practice requirements without actually visiting the campus of their nursing school.
Nursing programs – particularly at the bachelor’s level – are among the most popular categories of online degrees. They’ve gained wide acceptance by employers, who realize that many RNs would be unable to move up from an associates to a BS level degree were it not for an online study option that allowed them to keep working while they attend school. But master’s nursing degrees online have also seen strong growth in recent years, partly because they tend to have a more academic and less “hands on” nature that’s well suited to distance learning.
Here’s an overview of what’s available in online nursing programs at present:
Licensed Practical Nursing Programs
Becoming a licensed practical nurse (sometimes known as a licensed vocational nurse or LVN) is often the first step toward a nursing career. Generally speaking, LPN programs are about one year in length, and are offered by trade schools or community colleges. Because much of the study for an LPN certificate is in a clinical setting involving “hands on” work, this type of program is seldom offered online.
You must get a high school diploma or GED certificate before starting an LPN program, and some schools may also ask you to take some basic science courses and pass aptitude tests in math and English skills as a prerequisite to starting your nursing studies. LPN students study medical and health subjects including anatomy and patient care, as well as more strategic topics like psychology and problem solving or critical thinking.
The goal of an LPN diploma or certificate program is to qualify you to pass the National Council Licensure Exam for Practical Nurses or NCLEX-PN. This is administered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, and is a pass/fail test which, if you pass, will result in you being awarded with a license to practice as an LPN in your state. Each state has very specific parameters for which type of jobs an LPN can do. For a state by state breakdown, visit here.
This type of diploma or certificate offers a faster and less expensive track into a nursing career than an associate’s degree. It will generally qualify you to work in healthcare settings under the supervision of registered nurses. It will not, however, put you in a position to get a supervisory type job, and you should expect to earn only about 60% of what a registered nurse earns. (read more here about LPN, associate, diploma and associate degrees online that can help start your nursing career)
However, getting your foot in the door as an LPN can give you a way to get basic experience and knowlege you can use to move up in your nursing career, and a foundation you can use to move on to a higher level of study. Many of the more advanced degrees in nursing can be earned online, without your having to stop working.
Associates Degree Programs in Nursing
The nursing associate’s degree (ADN) is generally the first choice of those who want to get an RN license, gain real nursing experience as quickly as possible, and who have the time and the means to attend some college. ADN degrees qualify graduates to take the NCLEX-RN exam to become a registered nurse.
Being an RN makes you qualified to handle a good deal of direct patient care independently, and to consult with physicians about the condition and progress of a patient. You may also be asked to do some supervision of LPN’s in a hospital setting. The exact rules on what an RN can do in clinical practice vary a bit from one state to another. You can learn more about your own state’s rules by consulting its “Nurse Practice Act,” which can be obtained through the state board of nursing.
An associate’s in nursing is generally a two year program. Many programs are offered by local community colleges, which often have very low tuition rates. There are a few online options available, from schools which tend to have somewhat more national recognition than a community college – something worth considering if you wish to work in a different area after you graduate with your ADN.
If you have already taken a considerable number of college courses, you may be able to bypass an associate’s degree and simply go to an accelerated Bachelor of Science in nursing. Depending on how many prerequisites you have already fulfilled in subjects like chemistry, calculus, biology and in humanities courses (which are always required for a bachelor’s degree) like sociology and English, you may be a candidate for an accelerated BSN. This type of program can often be quicker than the process of getting the full ADN degree and then moving on to the BSN.
BSN in Nursing
A bachelor’s in nursing can open up career paths in supervisory positions or in more specialized – and often more highly compensated – specialties in nursing practice. Although no two hospitals are the same, nurses with a BSN are often the most likely candidates for jobs overseeing a particular ward of a hospital, coordinating the work of LPNs or handling the work in a specialty practice like critical care or emergency medicine. Some nurses also find that the BSN gives them more freedom to move from working in one facility to a hospital or medical clinic in another area, since it distinguishes them from a larger number of RNs and LPNs out there who don’t have the same academic credential.
BSN programs are not all created the same. Some tend to focus more on medical information or technology, while others included more courses on communications, decision making and other more strategic functions. Because the BSN tends to be a big more “academic” rather than “hands on” like an ADN program, nursing bachelor’s degrees are very often delivered online. There is a wide variety of major schools that provide such degrees via distance learning (some clinical work is often required with an online BSN, but this can often be done wherever you reside, under the supervision of a preceptor approved by your online school).
For RNs who already have an associate’s degree, an RN to BSN is one of the most popular online nursing programs. Many schools offer them on an accelerated basis, making it possible for a nurse to “trade up” to the BSN with less than 18 months of schoolwork.
Masters in Nursing Online
A masters in nursing or MSN is for nurses, usually RNs who already have a bachelor’s degree, who clearly want to move up into a supervisory position or a highly specialized type of clinical practice. The latter can include areas like Nurse Midwifery or Nurse Practitioner, which nurses can open independent practices in in some states. In a hospital setting, a very common position open to master’s degree holders is that of nurse educator, which can involve supervision of both RNs and LPNs, and generally pays better and requires less physical work than a basic RN job.
An MSN very popular option in nursing programs online. Many schools offer RN to MSN “bridge” programs, which help those who have a nursing bachelor’s degree finish their credits for an MSN as quickly as possible. These programs also make it possible, in many cases, for a nurse who has earned some college credits to bypass the step of getting a bachelor’s degree and move directly to the master’s level. Because nursing master’s degrees tend to be more focused on book learning than clinical work, there are many of these degrees offered online by major nursing schools.
Online Ph.D. in Nursing
Doctoral degrees in nursing are offered by a relatively small number of online schools. But it’s a credential that tends to impress people – including employers. These programs, which may be called Ph.D. or Doctor of Nursing, tend to be highly specialized. Some are delivered 100% online, while others require anything from a single visit to a school campus to a series of classroom meetings to complete.
Some of the available online nursing programs at the doctoral level include:
- Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP): Prepares students to be nurse practitioners, educators or clinical nurse specialists. A general type degree that can open up a variety of supervisory options in larger health care facilities.
- DNP Executive Leadership: A degree designed primarily to prepare students to very senior management positions, potentially not just in a health care environment but in a corporate office.
- BSN to DNP in Adult Acute Care: Bridge program that allows nurses with a bachelor’s degree to leapfrog over the masters level to get a doctoral degree in acute care. This type of program usually involves some campus-based learning in addition to the online component.
- Doctor of Nursing Education or Philosophy of Nursing: These are probably the most academic type nursing Ph.D.’s or DNP’s, and are mainly designed to prepare you to become a faculty member at a nursing school or a researcher.