With over 2,000 nursing schools in the United States, it can be challenging to determine which nursing program will meet your specific needs. In addition to traditional nursing programs that meet on campus, there has been a significant increase in the number of accelerated and online nursing programs being offered across the country.

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) says accelerated programs for non-nursing graduates have gained momentum as colleges work to meet the Institute of Medicine’s call to increase the proportion of nurses with baccalaureate degrees to 80% by 2020. According to AACN statistics, research has shown that lower mortality rates, fewer medication errors, and positive outcomes are all linked to nurses prepared at the baccalaureate and graduate degree levels.

“I believe the BSN should be the minimum requirement for entry to practice for all nurses,” says Monica McLemore, PhD, MPH, RN, an assistant professor of family health care nursing at the University of California, San Francisco. “Science moves too quickly for nurses not to have a broad set of skills that are included in the four-year degree. I also believe nurses need to advance their education and to plan for this advancement in the context of the rest of their lives.”

Choosing an Accelerated or Online Nursing Program

The Saint Louis University School of Nursing introduced the first accelerated BSN program in the country, says Teri A. Murray, PhD, APHN-BC, RN, FAAN, dean of the school of nursing. The 12-month program was launched in 1971 for students with a non-nursing bachelor’s degree who were interested in pursuing an RN license and a BSN degree. The university also offers a 21-month accelerated MSN program.

For those with a prior degree, accelerated nursing programs offer the fastest path to becoming a registered nurse with programs generally running 12 to 18 months long. The Saint Louis University RN-to-BSN program can be completed in three full semesters and also offers clinical experiences at top hospitals and a simulation laboratory.

“We need more baccalaureate-prepared nurses from diverse backgrounds,” says Murray. “The United States Department of Health and Human Services says there are approximately three million RNs living in the U.S. Of those, 16.8% identified as belonging to a racial and/or ethnic minority, which remains far removed from the 28% diversity of the general population.”

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For registered nurses who are looking to earn their bachelor’s degrees, many colleges have begun offering RN-to-BSN programs. Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) in Portland, Oregon, is one such college that offers an online RN-to-BSN program.

“Our online BS-RN program focuses on leadership, population-based community care, and evidence-based practice,” says Glenise McKenzie, PhD, RN, an associate professor and the RN-to-BSN program director at the OHSU School of Nursing. “In our Leadership courses, students learn how to analyze systems-level data and improve health care delivery through the development of a quality and/or process change project. In Population-Based Health, students focus on community and public health nursing, incorporating social, environmental, and cultural assessments into the care of a selected population in a non-acute care setting.”

McKenzie says the OHSU online program utilizes a variety of teaching and learning strategies throughout courses, including: voice-to-voice webinars; voice-over lectures; small online asynchronous and synchronous group discussions; online group projects and presentations; one in-person conference (two days with public health and community assessment focus, including a simulated cultural diversity experience); individual written assignments; online quizzes; and guided learning activities focused on application of health and wellness concepts.
Kamala Basak, RN, who works as nurse manager at the Tri-City Health Clinic in Fremont, California, is currently enrolled in an online RN-to-BSN program through Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, Arizona.

“In the RN-to-BSN program, I’ve learned how to lead a team instead of just managing my staff,” says Basak. “In addition, being able to study and research on my own helps me learn the material in a better way—and that is why I prefer learning online. In this program, even though we do not see our classmates, we still communicate and work together to complete our group projects.”

Going Beyond the Bachelor’s Degree

Elizabeth Florez, PhD, RN, assistant professor at the DePaul University School of Nursing in Chicago, Illinois, strongly encourages aspiring nurses not only to obtain their BSN, but also to continue on to get an advanced degree. Nurses with a graduate education provide direct patient care at an advanced level, conduct research, teach, impact public policy, lead health systems, and more.

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“Many hospitals will now only hire BSN-prepared nurses or require diploma nurses already working in the hospital setting to go back to school to obtain a BSN,” Florez says.

Florez notes that aspiring nurses who already have a non-nursing bachelor’s degree can also apply to a generalist in nursing master’s program where they will obtain a master’s degree and they will be able to sit for the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) board exam.

“Obtaining a master’s degree in nursing offers many additional benefits for advancement once the nurse has sufficient nursing experience,” Florez says.

And it’s never too late to go back to school to obtain an advanced nursing degree. McLemore went to nursing school right out of high school at the age of 17, but completed her PhD program at the age of 40.

“I wish I had entered graduate school sooner than I did [six years after completing my BSN],” she says. “I plan a long research, teaching, and clinical career.”

Murray also completed her doctorate program just as she was approaching her 40th birthday.

“Had I known the benefits of doctoral education, I would have started immediately after completing my BSN,” Murray says. “This would have given me a longer time to make strong contributions to advancing the field of nursing. Nursing is a wonderful field, and there are many expanded opportunities that come with graduate education at the MSN, DNP, or PhD level.”

Florez says there is a great need for more nursing professors overall, but especially nursing professors from minority backgrounds.

“Master’s degree students are encouraged to seek clinical instructor positions once they obtain sufficient nursing experience, and they are also encouraged to continue their advanced education to the doctorate in nursing practice or PhD level to obtain a faculty position,” says Florez. “Currently, DePaul University has a Bridges to PhD program, which is a National Institutes of Health funded grant program affiliated with the University of Illinois at Chicago. That program is meant to increase the number of minority faculty with a PhD.”

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Eligible DePaul nursing students enrolled in the master’s entry to nursing practice program are able to apply to the Bridges to PhD program, and qualified students will then be provided many resources and support to ensure they are adequately prepared for the PhD program.

Making Nursing School Affordable

While the cost of an education can be a barrier for many nurses, experts say there are many scholarships and financial incentives available that can help to make nursing school more affordable.

Students should never assume they can’t afford a specific nursing school, says Aara Amidi-Nouri, PhD, RN, associate professor, chair of the BSN program, and director of diversity at Samuel Merritt University School of Nursing in Oakland, California.

“I see far too many high school students who incorrectly assume they can’t attend private nursing schools, when they could easily qualify for financial aid,” says Amidi-Nouri. “My recommendation is for students to widen the net and examine their options before committing to a particular program.”

And although the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is available January 1, many students don’t apply until the last minute. This doesn’t give them enough time to complete the process, and can also prevent them from obtaining certain grants and scholarships offered on a first-come, first-served basis. Other students don’t know financial aid is an option, or believe they won’t qualify because of their income.

“Students should always apply for FAFSA to receive financial aid but also look into scholarship opportunities,” says Florez. “Some colleges or universities may offer internal scholarships; however, students should also be encouraged to seek outside scholarships, such as through minority nursing associations, professional nursing organizations, and state/national scholarship programs.”

In addition, Florez notes that many nursing organizations will allow students to become student members, thus offering them additional mentorship and financial support.

“There is even more financial assistance available for minority students seeking a PhD in nursing through grants, fellowships, and teaching/research assistant positions,” says Florez. “Once students complete their nursing program and begin working in the field, they may qualify for loan repayment programs such as the one offered through the Health Resources and Services Administration that pay back a portion of nursing loan debt for registered nurses working in hospitals and clinics that care for underserved, underinsured, and uninsured populations.”

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Many nursing schools, including the St. Louis University School of Nursing, are making a concentrated effort to attract more minority and male nursing students.

“For the past six years, we’ve been the proud recipient of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation New Careers in Nursing Scholarship,” Murray says. “This scholarship program is directed toward underrepresented students, which include males and minorities, for entry into the accelerated program in an effort to diversify the nursing profession.”

What to Look For in a Nursing School

Amidi-Nouri says choosing a nursing school depends a lot on a student’s goals and where they are in the process. A high school student may choose a different program than a paraprofessional (CNA, LVN) who is already working in the field.

“If you’re looking at an RN program, such as an ADN, check to see if the school has a joint program with a BSN program, or whether you will have to reapply to an RN-BSN program to obtain your BSN,” suggests Amidi-Nouri.

Amidi-Nouri encourages prospective students to consider the following when choosing a nursing program:

•    What is the nursing school’s graduation rate?

•    What is the NCLEX pass rate?

•    What is the local reputation of the school?

•    What commitment does the school make to diversity (e.g., mission statement, vision statement, course offerings, diversity office)?

•    What are the values of the school of nursing and of the university?

•    What kind of academic support is available? Tutoring? Mentoring?

•    How long is the program and what are the different pathways to get there?

•    Are the faculty bios on the website? Do you see that faculty are diverse and/or have interest in diversity and health disparities?

•    Is there a part-time option? If so, how long will that take?

•    Are there information sessions, either live or virtual, that can tell you more about the program?

“Technology is important and students should seek programs that have vast resources in terms of a skills lab,” says Mona Clayton, RN, BSN, an author and nurse from Lakewood, California, who completed nursing school as a single mother, and now encourages other single mothers to enter the nursing profession in her “Surviving the Journey” seminars. “Finding schools that are associated with “magnet” hospitals, accredited by the American Nurses Credentialing Center, is a plus.”

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Magnet hospitals are recognized for having better nursing environments, promoting excellence in nursing practice, and providing high quality patient care.

“Use the Board of Registered Nursing website as a resource for finding schools with top-notch passage rates for the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) exams,” Clayton says. “I also encourage single parents and working students to seek out programs that are flexible and offer weekend and evening classes.”

Murray advises minority students to also seek institutions with a welcoming campus atmosphere and a mix of diverse individuals (e.g., faculty, students, and staff).

“Often when there are only a handful of diverse individuals, students voice concerns related to feelings of isolation, alienation, and loneliness,” Murray says. “The student should determine if the institution’s leadership supports a diverse and inclusive climate evidenced by proactive actions, policies, and services that support this belief.”

Students should also ensure the nursing school they choose to attend is accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education or the National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission.

“Accreditation is important for making sure the nursing school has met the state requirements to be able to take the national board exam,” Murray says. “Minority students should select a nursing program that has additional support for students to be successful. The additional support might be in the form of a nursing student organization, mentor/mentee program, tutoring, open lab hours, success coaches, et cetera.”

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