Online Nursing Programs: How to Choose the Best Program for You

Online Nursing Programs: How to Choose the Best Program for You

For decades, online nursing education options offered nurses a different path to a nursing degree, but the choices were limited. Today’s nurses enjoy nursing degree program choices that provide variations in everything from how and when they take a course to the length of a program.online-nursing-programs-how-to-choose-the-best-program-for-you

For many nurses, particularly those seeking advanced degrees, this expansion in online programs allows flexibility to balance work, school, and personal obligations. Despite the proliferation of programs, online coursework isn’t for everyone; some nurses work better in a more traditional classroom-based curriculum. The key is

assessing each program youre interested in, your learning style, and finding a match that sets you up for success.

For nurses considering this path, taking the time to find out essential details is time well invested. “There’s a growing number of online programs, so you have to know what you’re looking for,” says Patricia Bruckenthal, PhD, APRN-BC, FAAN, dean and professor at Stony Brook University School of Nursing, Stony Brook, New York. “You’re making one of the more important decisions in your life, and you have to place a high level of importance on how you’re going to fit that into your life and schedule.”

Assess the Program

Finding a program won’t be difficult, and they should be assessed carefully as any other program. “Students considering an online program should use the same criteria for selecting a program that they would use for assessing a traditional program, including choosing an accredited program, locating programs that will help you reach your professional goals, and finding schools that specialize in your primary area of interest,” says the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) president and chief executive officer Deborah Trautman, PhD, RN, FAAN.

In addition to considering the schools reputation and accreditation, students are encouraged to use all the available information about the school and faculty members, says Bruckenthal. “Look at the level of experience the school has with online learning,” she says. “Are there any faculty who are published in online learning? Faculty who are that engaged will know students have different learning styles.”

Evaluate Your Lifestyle

Undoubtedly, online programs give a level of flexibility that makes a degree possible for nurses to juggle many obligations. “Due to the work and family responsibilities, working RNs often benefit from being able to attend class and complete coursework during non-traditional times,” says Mashawna Hamilton, DNP, RN, associate professor and associate director, RN to BSN Nursing at Ohio University, Athens, Ohio.


If students believe online learning offers flexibility, they still have to plan how to fit the class time and all the required work into their day. “It’s important to know what you’re looking for,” says Bruckenthal.

Online learning takes as much discipline as in-class courses. Look at your habits, motivations, and realities to decide if an online program will provide you with more opportunities for success or with unanticipated roadblocks.

Students working remotely must be highly motivated to complete the work when they have other obligations. There are other potential obstacles to be aware of, says Bruckenthal. Do you have quiet and sufficient study space? Do you have childcare if you need it? Is your family willing to take on additional duties such as cleaning or grocery shopping so you can carve out time for school?

Be Ready for a Challenge

Flexibility also doesn’t mean anything is simplified. “The biggest mistake a student can make is assuming that online courses are less rigorous than traditional programs,” says Trautman. “These programs take discipline, strong writing skills, and keen organizational abilities. Students in online courses are expected to answer all questions, provide regular feedback through discussion forums, and complete just as many assignments.” 

If you’re looking for a program that fits your criteria, digging a little deeper into the school, the program, admission, and curriculum requirements will give the complete picture you need to make an accurate decision.

Here are some options to consider:

  • What is the program cost, and how will you pay for it?
  • What is the average program completion time?
  • Are online students ever required to be on campus? 
  • What is the curriculum delivery (is it asynchronous or synchronous)?
  • What do postgraduate career outcomes look like? 
  • What are the technology requirements?
  • What happens if you need more time to complete the program?

Knowing what happens for students postgraduation—from employment to alum networking—is critical to the whole program. “Students should consider the reputation of the online programs,” says Hamilton. “In doing so, consider comments from employers of previous graduates. What is the graduate employment rate? What accolades has the program received from national agencies?”

When you find a program that fits your learning expectations, schedule, and budget, some final details need clarification before committing to a program. 

Trautman recommends contacting each school to assess how the learning format, clinical experience, and academic and professional development supports offered will help you. “School advisors will know what options and assistance is available to offset costs, including scholarships and loan repayment programs,” she says. “The only way to fully know what institution-specific programs are available is to contact the nursing school.”

And when planning when you’ll have that degree in hand, remember the course schedule of each school can vary. An average program completion time can indicate the pace of courses and flexibility, but sometimes required courses are offered only once or twice a year. If you aren’t aware of the schedule, it can derail your expected graduation date. “Students should also inquire about the frequency courses are delivered, the expected time dedication for courses, and requirements for part-time and or full-time enrollment,” says Hamilton.

Evaluating Supports

During your research, find out what assistance is offered to online students. Because a program is online, it may seem more difficult to access help when you can’t just go to a physical office. “The strength of student support programs can significantly impact the student’s success during their academic journey,” says Hamilton.

Good online nursing programs will have support, including online office hours for faculty members, remote technology support, online study, social groups, and even one-on-one student support from the college. Students may want to ask about online libraries, learning labs, online writing help, skill-building webinars, wellness services, and opportunities for online student engagement as well, says Trautman.

And students also have options that are outside the campus to help them succeed in an online program, including professional nursing organizations. For example, master’s and doctoral program students can access a free membership to AACN’s Graduate Nursing Student Academy, which provides focused support opportunities for students in online and traditional programs.

For many nurses, remote degree programs open possibilities and help bring more nurses into the workforce. “Since these programs are generally directed toward individuals who are already licensed registered nurses, most students are working and trying to juggle life’s many demands,” says Trautman. “Online programs make that possible.”

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Which Nursing Program Is Right for You?

Which Nursing Program Is Right for You?

If you’re choosing a nursing program, you know that one size doesn’t fit all. Depending on time constraints, travel limitations, or financial resources, each program will offer something different.

How do you know if a program is going to offer the best match for you? Here are a few considerations to help make your decision more obvious.

What’s the cost?

Some nursing programs cost more than others, but that doesn’t mean they are out of the question. Some programs and schools have more financial resources available in the form of scholarships, grants, loans, and other aid. If cost is a big factor, check out the statistics for each school to identify the total cost, the percentage of students receiving aid, and the average aid award amount. You can also contact the school to see if there are other ways to reduce costs—if you live close, commuting can save thousands of dollars, for instance.

Does the program offer flexibility?

Depending on your schedule, you might find programs that combine on-campus and online courses can give you the flexibility you need to attend class and complete the required work. Find out if you have to be present at specifically timed online classes or if you can attend as your schedule allows as long as you meet all required deadlines. Will you be required to attend any in-person seminars or events and, if so, will your schedule allow it? Many institutions are using these hybrid programs to help attract great, dedicated nursing students who might otherwise be unable to complete a strict, scheduled program.

Where’s the community?

Whether you attend classes online or on campus, a supportive community is going to increase your positive feelings about a program. Find out from other students if they feel a connection with others or ask the admissions office how the program helps develop a community. Nursing school is hard—having a supportive cohort is important.

How involved are faculty?

A close relationship with faculty members will help you be more successful in your program. Involved faculty help guide you on career choices and introduce you to essential research, educational or clinical opportunities, and others in the profession. Even online classes should allow access to the professor so you can ask questions. Is the faculty-to-student ratio in a program something you are comfortable with and that will afford you opportunities beyond graduation? If you have a specific focus area, find out if the school has expertise in that area.

Nursing school is so much more than the courses you take. Finding the right match will get your degree program off to a solid start.

 

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