On the Fast Track

Are you one of the growing number of minority students who are entering nursing school later in life, or returning to school mid-career to continue your education by earning a baccalaureate or post-graduate degree? If so, you may be wishing there was a way to make up for lost time, a way to somehow earn your advanced degree just a little more quickly than usual so that you can put it to work for you as soon as possible.

Happily, fulfilling this desire is not impossible at all. Enrolling in a so-called “fast-track” nursing program—i.e., a program that allows students to earn two degrees concurrently or even bypass one degree level altogether—could be the perfect solution for your needs.

The fast-track approach to advancing your education means that you don’t have to follow the traditional route of first gaining basic registered nurse (RN) preparation in hospital-based (diploma), associate (AA/AD/AS) or baccalaureate (BSN) programs and then sequentially attaining master’s and doctoral degrees. Fast-track programs are a more customized alternative in which, to cite just two examples, a student with an AD degree can go directly to a master’s degree without having to separately earn a baccalaureate, or a nurse with a BSN can go directly to a PhD, bypassing the MSN.

If this approach sounds appealing to you, one of the first and most important decisions you will need to make is choosing the nursing program that will best facilitate your career goals within a fast-track context. With at least 600 nursing programs available throughout the United States, you will find many that offer contemporary options that are far more flexible and non-linear than traditional nursing programs.

When perusing a program’s literature, look for phrases like “individualize your program,” “may be required” and “flexible options.” These phrases signal that the traditional degree sequence may be circumvented or combined, depending upon the student’s needs.

Which Lane is Right for You?

For a closer look at how fast-track degree programs work, and to give you an introduction to the many different possibilities available, here are just a few examples of successful programs from around the country.

Non-Nurse with BS or BA to RN with Master’s Degree. Even if you are not a registered nurse, it is possible to graduate as an RN with a master’s degree in nursing. For example, the University of California, San Francisco, School of Nursing offers the Masters Entry Program in Nursing (MEPN), a three-year program leading to an MS degree for persons without previous nursing preparation but with a baccalaureate degree (BS/BA) in another field. For more information, see the university’s Web site (http://nurseweb.ucsf.edu/www/ucsfson.htm).

About 60 students are admitted to the MEPN program each year. The first year of study, which spans four quarters, provides a general foundation in nursing and qualifies the student to take the California Board of Registered Nursing licensure examination. The final two years of the program are more individually paced.


RN with Diploma or Associate Degree to RN with Master’s Degree. Several universities offer accelerated coursework for RNs with two-year degrees who wish to earn a master’s degree in nursing, bypassing the BSN. The Department of Nursing at California State University, Los Angeles (www.calstatela.edu/dept/nursing/), currently offers two different fast-track MS degree options. The first program is for RNs with non-nursing baccalaureate degrees; the other is for RNs without a baccalaureate degree. The admission requirements, program length and coursework vary depending on the educational track entered. Both programs offer basic and advanced nursing study.

The University of Michigan School of Nursing (www.umich.edu/~nursing/) is another school that offers an RN-to-MS degree program; however, this option is available at the Ann Arbor campus only. You can complete the RN-to-MS pathway as a part-time student in three to four years, depending on your master’s specialty. The program integrates your prior education and experience into the curriculum by using your transfer credits and by allowing you to earn credit through examinations.

RN with BSN to RN with PhD. If you are an RN with a baccalaureate degree, you can earn a PhD in Nursing Science without having a master’s degree. For instance, at the University of Washington School of Nursing, Seattle (www.son.washington.edu), an RN with an bachelor’s degree can either earn a master’s degree while also pursuing a PhD degree, or graduate with a PhD without going for the master’s.


Other schools, such as Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing in Baltimore (www.son.jhmi.edu) have programs where an RN with a BSN can earn a combined MSN/PhD concurrently. Both the Seattle and Johns Hopkins programs are highly selective, have an integrated course of study and allow students to develop their own research programs with faculty guidance.

Can You Handle the Speed?

Fast-track educational options have both benefits and limitations. Because these positives and negatives are interrelated, it’s important to consider them carefully within the context of your career goals. The benefit of completing the required coursework for two degrees in an accelerated format, for instance, is coupled with the fact that the coursework is more intense and time-consuming. The shorter length of fast-track programs requires you to learn more information in less time than a student enrolled in a traditional program in which each degree is earned sequentially.

There are also financial considerations. If you are enrolled in a fast-track option, you may find it impossible to work part-time because of your heavier academic schedule. Therefore, your need for ongoing financial aid is more critical and substantial.

In a fast-track program, you may have fewer opportunities to benefit from educational diversity. For instance, a student earning two separate degrees at two different universities may experience different curricula and teaching styles, while a student earning a fast-track or combination degree will more than likely learn in similar environments with a select group of faculty. On the other hand, students in a fast-track program may be able to form more substantial relationships with their professors over time, building stronger collegial networks which may be beneficial in the future.

One major limitation of earning a PhD without a master’s degree in nursing is that many state boards of nursing, as well as schools of nursing, recognize the master’s degree as qualification for undergraduate- and graduate-level clinical teaching, while the PhD is seen as a research-focused degree. Thus, without the master’s degree, you may not be technically prepared to teach clinical-level coursework—a significant drawback if your desired career plan involves becoming a faculty member.

Getting On the Road


If you are interested in entering nursing with an advanced degree, or are an RN seeking to increase your career potential by continuing your professional education, now is an excellent time to learn more about fast-track degree programs. Use the Internet as a resource to explore the flexible educational options available to you. Many of these programs are tailored to recognize your abilities and talents while capitalizing on your prior educational and clinical experience.

Earning advanced degrees helps you hone your critical thinking and decision-making skills while introducing you to emerging, innovative areas of nursing. Your career options as an RN will multiply as you discover exciting new areas for professional growth and advanced competency.

E-Learning from Experience

My journey into the world of online education as a student was a completely new experience for me. I had attended traditional universities to obtain my associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing. While serving in the Army Nurse Corps as an ICU nurse, I completed an adult nurse practitioner certification program offered through the military. But years later, having established a successful career working in every area of nursing, I suddenly found myself contemplating the idea of returning to school to obtain my PhD. This bug was put in my ear by one of my best friends, who is also a nurse—because she was thinking of doing the same thing herself. (It is true that misery loves company!)

At this point in my life, this was a big decision. I made a list of all the reasons why I shouldn’t return to school and all the reasons why I should. Initially, the list of “shouldn’ts” outweighed the “shoulds.” I held an established faculty position in a university and had two children who at that time were under the age of 13. And because I lived in an area where there were no nursing schools nearby, the idea of driving at least one to four hours one way to sit in a class did not appeal to me, because it would mean too much time away from my children.
But the more I thought about returning to school, the more it became appealing.  Obtaining my PhD would be a wise career move, a personal achievement and something that no one else in my family had ever accomplished. Then my good friend told me, “You don’t have to leave home, you can do it all online.”

I did some research for myself. The university that I was interested in, Hampton University School of Nursing, had just obtained a grant for the PhD program. So I applied. The admission process was not as difficult as I imagined. The thought of taking graduate admissions exams like the GRE or MAT (Miller Analogies Test) at my age was not fun, but I was accepted into the online PhD program at Hampton—and so was my good friend.

The Age of E-Learning

Today, online degrees are offered in many areas of interest. Many students opt for online education—also known as distance learning or e-learning—because of its flexibility and low cost. It is a simple way to learn new languages and obtain professional certificates. The World Wide Web has opened the door to a whole new age of e-learning that has provided many of us with a new incentive to learn. And the technology continues to advance, with streaming media, online videos and fast Web servers making it easier than ever to pursue a nursing degree online.  

Compared to the traditional way of earning a degree, students are finding e-learning to be a more enjoyable and lifestyle-friendly option. No longer are you tied to the classroom, rushing to the campus after a long day at work, trying to figure out who can pick up the children and worrying about making dinner. Today you can take courses at your own pace, in your home, even in your pajamas, whenever you are ready. You can work on your courses early in the morning before the family gets up or late at night when all is quiet.

Now that you know the benefits of online degree programs, what else is there to consider?  Let’s look at the economy. It seems that when the economy begins to decline, admissions to colleges and universities increase. This inverse relationship is very understandable. When people’s job security is uncertain, they begin looking toward a new career that will offer more stability and better compensation. Nursing is one such career. For those of us who are already in the nursing profession, staying competitive in a job market where employers are looking for candidates with highly specialized skills means that many of us may need to return to school.

What to Expect

Congratulations! You’ve just been admitted into an online nursing program. Now what? Based on my own experience as a first-time e-learning student, here is some advice on how to make the most of your online learning experience, what you can realistically expect and what pitfalls to avoid.

Let’s begin. First of all, you will need to have a fast-working computer. It doesn’t have to be the fastest model available, but having a high-speed computer that can do faster uploads and downloads definitely helps.

The next thing you need to know is that many online degree programs will not allow you too much freedom. There is a set time frame for each course and you must complete the course within that allotted time limit. Yes, it is true that you are supposed to be able to work at your own pace, but it will not benefit you or the program if it takes you a whole year to complete one course. Many programs will tell you that you must put X amount of hours a day into the courses to avoid falling behind. But because it is an online program, people tend to procrastinate and then try to hurry up and complete the work within the last month. This is not a good approach. 

When I was admitted to my online PhD program, I thought it would be a breeze. Not so! Online learning is convenient but not always easy. Most of the instructors who teach online have a PhD in their area. So don’t make the mistake of thinking that it’s an easy grade. I had a rude awakening in that regard. Luckily, I realized that I had to knuckle down and do the work before I got too far behind.

You will have to write papers that must be completed in a timely fashion and mailed to the instructor’s drop box or emailed. Keep in mind that you have to allow the instructor a one- to two-week turnaround time (depending on his/her policy). These waiting periods may keep you from moving ahead in your course as quickly as you had planned. So this is another reason why waiting until the last minute is not productive. 
There are also online chats and/or teleconference calls that you have to attend. For the teleconferences, the instructor will give you a call-in number and you will be in a pool with five to ten other students (depending on how many are in your class), all wanting to speak at the same time. This is where e-learning etiquette comes into play. Be nice, play nice and don’t interrupt. You will get a chance to speak.

For the online chats, you will be given a day and time to sign into your chat. The instructor will ask questions and the class will respond. On your computer screen you will have a blank section where you can type your response. Some chats are “live” and some are not. In some cases, the instructor will pose a question or discussion and the students must respond by a certain date or time. But in a live chat, you must respond immediately. If you tend to be a slow typist, another student may beat you to it and answer the question first. So what do you do? Sometimes I would just erase what I was going to say, but many times I would hit “enter” and send my response anyway. (Brilliant minds think alike!)

Tech Support

The last thing to remember is that computers are manmade and they will not always work when you want them to. Many times I picked my desktop computer up with the intent of throwing it out the window. Many times I cried, begged, pleaded with the mighty computer to please work. The mighty computer does not care. So if your computer freezes or just stops working, take it to the computer doctor. Having a tech support person(s) who is capable, knowledgeable, reliable, fast and affordable is very important. Word of mouth is one of the best ways to find out who will do a good job of getting your computer back in working condition. Students in your university’s computer sciences department may also offer good, free advice on how to fix your computer problems.

And finally, always back up your work, either on a disk, a floppy (old school) or on the hard drive. Computers do crash, lightning does happen and laptops do get stolen. I remember working on the last chapter of my dissertation during a terrific thunderstorm. I usually turn everything electric off and sit in the dark when there is lightning, but I kept thinking, “just one more sentence.” My computer went blank and never came on again, either that day or the next. Worried that my entire dissertation was gone and my life was doomed, I took my machine to the computer doctors and prayed that they could retrieve my lost document that I had worked on for three years. I had to leave my computer with these strangers for two long days, but when I was called to come pick it up and learned that they were able to recover my document, I could have kissed their hands. Instead I just paid them and took my computer home. Lesson learned.

So would I go through this whole e-learning experience again? Absolutely. I obtained my PhD entirely online. I only had to go down to the university once, to defend my dissertation. I was able to see my children; even though all they usually saw of me was the back of my head, I was there with them.

Is online education for everybody? No. It does take discipline, which I think is one of the hardest traits to have. It would be so easy to blow off doing that paper and go to the beach instead. One thing that I really missed was having face-to-face interaction with my instructors and classmates, not being able to see who I was chatting with, trying to put names with voices. But overall, my journey through the world of e-learning was a truly wonderful experience.

Online Higher Education: The Key to Training, Recruiting, and Retaining More Hispanic Nurses

The numbers tell the story. 

Hispanics are the fastest-growing segment of the United States’ population—they currently comprise 16% and are expected to grow to 30% by the year 2050, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. However, Hispanic nurses make up only 3.6% of all registered nurses in this country, as reported by the 2008 National Sample Survey of Registered Nurses (NSSRN).

While other minority populations experience problematic underrepresentation in nursing, it is especially apparent in the Hispanic community, and the gap widens every day. In 2008, only 5.1% of all RNs spoke Spanish, according to the NSSRN. There are not enough Hispanic nurses to deal with the health care issues facing this growing population, and the language barriers and lack of cultural understanding created by the void lead to substandard health care for the entire community. In fact, a July 2006 article published by USA Today pointed out that the lack of English language proficiency in patients directly contributed to diminished health care for those individuals.

A 2008 workforce survey showed that Hispanics were 28 years old on average when obtaining their initial licensure compared to an average age of 25 for whites. The most common type of initial R.N. education among Hispanics was the associate degree in nursing (55.1%) followed by the bachelor’s (39.4%), and then a hospital diploma (5.5%). Why does the associate degree come out ahead? The reason may be financial. The A.S.N. provides earning power earlier than a four-year bachelor’s program in nursing. Hispanics were also more likely to pursue a bachelor’s degree after obtaining the initial R.N. (41%), but were less likely to pursue graduate degrees (11%) than white, non-Hispanic RNs (39% and 14.5%, respectively). Hispanic nurses comprise only 3.5% of all nurses in advanced practice fields.

The vast majority of Hispanic nurses (68.8%) work in hospitals and then in ambulatory care (6.9%). Hispanic nurses also hold only 10.9% of all nursing management jobs, possibly due to the low number of Hispanic nurses with graduate degrees. Finally, there are fewer Hispanic mentors in higher education and nursing leadership positions who can guide other Hispanics. Attracting and retaining nursing students from racial and ethnic minority groups can’t be accomplished without strong faculty role models. According to 2009 data from American Association of Colleges of Nursing member schools, only 11.6% of full-time nursing school faculties come from minority backgrounds, and only 5.1% are male.

As the U.S. population becomes more diverse, leaders in multicultural segments, including Hispanic communities, must encourage minorities—and minority nurses—to become leaders themselves, so when they continue to build upon their skills and advance their careers, they will help themselves and their communities. Health care for this underserved population should ultimately improve if it helps members of the Hispanic nursing community become leaders in health care, experts in the growing field of nursing informatics, and trained nurse educators.

Taking advantage of the online learning environment

Many factors promote successful career development and mobility among Hispanic nurses, and one of the most important is the opportunity for educational advancement. Online higher education programs in the field of nursing help students develop critical leadership skills that, in turn, lead to improvements in their overall community. The online format provides flexibility, providing students the opportunity to take courses while meeting their professional and personal obligations, contributing to multiple other benefits of studying nursing online.

Minority students at all educational levels can see graduates from these programs as role models and examples of how they, too, can achieve success. In cases where students may be struggling, it’s especially important when they can point to a nurse in a leadership position—someone who looks and sounds like they do—as an inspiration to keep going, whether it’s toward getting a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (B.S.N.), a Master of Science in Nursing (M.S.N.), getting a promotion, or taking on an important social change initiative to help a group in need.

Many of these minority students seek out mentors in school, possibly other minority nurses, and often go on to become mentors for the next generation of nurse leaders. For example, many of Walden University’s graduates work and teach in associate degree nursing programs, which have a large representation of Hispanic nursing students, and they help in retain these students through mentoring.

In some ways, online education “levels the playing field” for minority students, fostering increased participation and confidence that may lead to their greater success in the classroom and workplace. Many Hispanic students speak English as a second language and may write better than they speak. Since writing is integral to online learning, it adds a level of confidence that Hispanic students may not feel when sitting in a traditional, bricks-and-mortar classroom. There is no sitting in the back of the room or far from the action and dialogue up front. Consequently, minority students who may struggle in a traditional setting often thrive in online classes, which provide a unique venue for students to have a new voice, speak up, and become leaders in the classroom and beyond.

Increased participation in the online classroom has additional benefits for Hispanic and other minority nursing students. These students not only have the opportunity to hone their personal and professional skills and talents, but they can also develop relationships and network with other nurses across the country. A nurse working in the Cuban American community in South Florida may share best practices with a nurse working with the Mexican American population in Southern California. Or perhaps non-Hispanic nurses working with Hispanic patients may consult with their Latino classmates online for advice regarding how to provide the best care for these patients. Online higher education gives students a special way to connect so they can enhance their education and make a difference in the lives of many.

Making strides toward improving access

As a minority fellow of the American Nurses Association and a current board member of Ethnic Minority Programs for the organization, I work with my colleagues to develop proactive strategies to train, recruit, and retain more minority nurses, especially Hispanics. As Associate Dean of Walden University’s School of Nursing, I lead an experienced, dedicated, and talented team of faculty and staff focused on creating the next generation of leaders in the minority nursing community. Through programs like our Master of Science in Nursing and Bachelor of Science in Nursing Completion Programs, we can make great strides toward increasing the number of Hispanic nurses who serve as role models for the larger minority community.

For many M.S.N. and B.S.N. students, the training they receive in their online courses is put to work directly in their own communities. During their practicum or capstone course, M.S.N. students can choose projects that are inclusive of the needs of their workplace or neighborhoods. Often, these projects involve working with underserved populations to solve problems in community health care. B.S.N. students undertake similar projects in their community health practicum. They can all tap into their nationwide network of fellow students to come up with the best solutions for problems they encounter.

I especially recognize the importance of recruiting faculty members at the doctorate level from minority groups. Since there already is a shortage in the number of Hispanic nurses, you can only imagine how few in this population have earned their doctorates. Yet, they do exist, and when they teach, they make a difference.

One example is Patti Urso, Ph.D., A.P.R.N., C.N.E., Specialization Coordinator of Nursing Education, who currently teaches nursing education courses at Walden. Dr. Urso, a Cuban American originally from Miami, is a nurse practitioner who now lives in Hawaii and works with other underserved populations from Polynesian and Micronesian communities. In Hawaii, she engages with Hispanic patients through community churches and is involved in forming a new chapter for the National Hispanic Nurses Association. She hopes to inspire her students to reach out to underserved communities, and she mentors Hispanic students in the capstone course of the nursing education program.

One of the ways Dr. Urso works to connect with Hispanic nurses is through contact with alumni such as Lydia Lopez, one of the first graduates from Walden’s M.S.N. program in 2007. As a nurse and mentor, Ms. Lopez is committed to being a role model who recruits and retains minority nurses, keeping them interested in their course work and giving them the necessary tools and strategies to facilitate academic success. “True role models are those who possess the qualities that we would like to have and those who have affected us in a way that makes us want to be better people,” she says.

The nursing profession needs both men and women from all ethnicities to meet the needs of society. Minority nurses—especially Hispanics—with bachelor’s degrees and, eventually, master’s and doctoral degrees—who are prepared to educate and lead a new generation of minority nurses—will help improve this critical situation and provide essential health care for all.