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.
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 you’re 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 school’s 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.
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.”
Going to school while working full-time as a nurse and raising a four-year-old with her husband isn’t easy, so Ashley Willie knew she wanted an online nursing program with supportive instructors and a flexible schedule.
“I wanted instructors who were interested in their students’ personal and career goals as well as their educational goals,” she said.
In addition, she said, “I was looking for a program that didn’t require me to be online at a certain time. I wanted more freedom and autonomy.”
Willie said prospective nursing students should look at what kind of financial support and resources are available for minority students, as well as what past and current students and instructors have to say about the program. And of course, they should check the matriculation rate and accreditation of a school, she said.
Financial support: putting your money where your mouth is
Sheldon Fields, the inaugural associate dean for equity and inclusion at the Penn State Ross and Carol Nese College of Nursing, agreed that prospective students should look at what kind of financial resources an institution commits to multicultural students.
Sheldon Fields, PhD, RN, CRNP, FNP-BC, AACRN, FNAP, FAANP, FAAN. Associate Dean for Equity and Inclusion, Ross and Carol Nese College of Nursing.
“To put their money where their mouths are, schools need to be committing resources — sponsoring lecture series, offering scholarships, resources specifically focused on supporting multicultural students,” he said.
Fields, who has been a nurse for 30 years, said schools should have a clear stance on diversity, equity and inclusion that is reflected in their mission statement and their strategic plan, which should be available online, and should also teach diversity, equity and inclusion issues as part of their undergraduate and graduate curricula.
If there are no multicultural nursing student groups and the topic appears to be ignored, “It’s a big red flag,” Fields said. “A multicultural student is not going to find support for who they are, for the unique perspectives and talents that they bring, and the needs they have.”
Fields urged prospective students to look carefully at a school’s nursing faculty.
“It’s one thing to say you want a diverse faculty; it’s another to actually make it happen,” he said.
Denita Wright Watson, associate director of equity, inclusion, and advocacy for the Penn State World Campus Student Affairs office, urged students to seek out institutions that focus on addressing health care disparities, inequities, and bias in health care and that are focused not only on attracting diverse talent, but also retaining it. Schools should go beyond lip service to invest in students’ academic and professional success, she said, by providing professional development opportunities and other career services, as well as supporting students’ personal well-being through mental health support, student identity groups and DEI–related programs.
Denita Wright Watson, MLD, Assoc. Director of Equity, Inclusion, & Advocacy for Student Affairs. Penn State World Campus.
Students should ask, “What support is out there for me, beyond academic support?” Wright Watson said. “What support is there to aid in my growth as a person?”
Prospective students should “scour and scour” a school’s website not only for their mission and values statements, but also to see what service projects the institution is involved in and what kind of speakers and events are offered, Wright Watson said.
“Google should be their best friends,” she said. “Just ask questions: Why should I pick this university? Why should I pick this program? What are they doing to meet the needs of underserved students and communities?”
Fields added: “Ask them, ‘What did you learn in a program about diversity, equity and inclusion?’ If they tell you nothing — run the other way.”
Willie agreed that it’s important to look for an institution that recognizes health care inequities and equips students with tools to help reduce health care disparities, seeking to improve health care outcomes at both the individual and the population levels. An example of that is teaching students methods of recognizing vulnerable populations and using evidence-based tactics to improve health care literacy and health and wellness, she said.
All her professors at Penn State have valued both her cultural and professional background and make time to meet with individual students to discuss their goals and aspirations, Willie said.
“For me this is very important because not only do I feel valued individually, I feel like the instructors are invested in my success as a woman of color.”
In many people’s minds, the “typical” nursing student is an 18- to 22-year-old enrolled in a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degree program at a college or university. However, there are many degree options available for aspiring nurses at all stages of life—even if you’re a nontraditional student—and you’ll be graduated and putting on your scrubs before you know it.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, a nontraditional student meets one of seven criteria: delayed enrollment into postsecondary education, attending college part-time, working full time, financially independent for financial aid purposes, dependents other than a spouse, single parents, or those without a high school diploma. If any of these describe you and you’d like to go back to school to get your nursing degree, here are seven online programs that anyone from around the country can take.
1. St. Xavier University
St. Xavier has numerous online options for those looking to earn nursing degrees. It offers an RN-to-BSN program for currently licensed registered nurses who have completed an associate degree in nursing (ADN) from an accredited school of nursing and are looking to take the next step in their education. St. Xavier was also named the best online master’s nursing program by U.S. News and World Report, and it offers three master of science in nursing (MSN) tracks online: clinical leadership, executive leadership, and nurse educator. If you’re not looking for the full degree, St. Xavier also offers certificates in clinical leadership and nurse educators.
2. Medical University of South Carolina
The Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) offers an online RN-to-BSN program, which is a 12-month program that covers three consecutive semesters, allowing registered nurses to earn their bachelor’s degrees in just a year. The online program is designed specifically for working adults. MUSC also offers several online advanced degrees in nursing, including a doctor of nursing practice (DNP) and a PhD in nursing science, though some of the courses may require a visit to campus.
3. Johns Hopkins
Johns Hopkins is an incredibly well-respected name in the medical community—and you can earn a graduate nursing degree from the university online. Johns Hopkins provides an MSN in health systems management both by itself and in combination with an MBA. It also offers a DNP in three specialties: adult-gerontological health clinical nurse specialist, adult-gerontological critical care clinical nurse specialist, and pediatric critical care clinical nurse specialist. You can also earn a DNP Executive Track, either on its own or in combination with an MBA. Finally, Johns Hopkins offers a couple post-master’s certificates for nurses looking for even more education.
4. George Washington University
George Washington offers a wide range of online programs for nurses of all experience levels. It has both RN-to-BSN and RN-to-MSN programs, as well as four other master’s programs for adult-gerontology primary care nurse practitioners, family nurse practitioners, nurse-midwifery, and nursing leadership and management. Other options include three post-MSN certificate opportunities, two post-BSN doctoral degrees, and two post-MSN doctoral degrees, including a DNP degree.
5. The University of Texas at Tyler
The great state of Texas has equally great online programs for nursing students through the University of Texas at Tyler. Its RN-to-BSN track has a flexible schedule and graduation date, so you can proceed through the coursework at your own pace as your current job allows. Their graduate options include four MSN programs (administration, dual MSN administration/MBA, education, and family nurse practitioner), four certificate programs (post-master’s administration, post-master’s education, post-master’s family nurse practitioner, and post-baccalaureate health care informatics), two PhD programs (MS-to-PhD and BSN-to-PhD) and one doctor of nursing practice (DNP). As an added bonus, the University of Texas at Tyler was named the #1 most affordable online master’s in nursing program.
6. Duke University
Duke’s School of Nursing has been using distance-learning education strategies for more than two decades, and the school has honed its creative approach to distance teaching and learning over the years. Some programs do include a few short on-campus intensive sessions, usually two to three days in length, but the commitments are minimal. Duke offers a doctor of nursing practice as well as eight different nurse practitioner tracks for their master of science in nursing: adult-gerontology (primary and acute), family, neonatal, pediatric (primary and acute), psychiatric mental health, and women’s health. It also offers three systems MSN degrees in nursing and health care leadership, nursing education, and nursing informatics.
7. University of Cincinnati
Cincinnati’s reputation as a great online nursing school has spread: The school’s number of distance learners has been increasing, and the website boasts that more than 62% of the student body is now enrolled in online classes. Most of its graduate nursing degrees are offered completely online, though a few courses do have minimal on-campus requirements for clinical or lab work hours, so don’t forget to pack your nursing bag. The school offers four MSN specialty programs (adult-gerontological primary care nurse practitioner, family nurse practitioner, nurse midwifery, and women’s health nurse practitioner) as well as two post-master’s certificates (psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner and family nurse practitioner).
If online classes don’t appeal to you, see if any schools in your area offer a nursing degree for working adults who usually rely on night and weekend classes in order to accommodate work schedules. And no matter how your get your degree, you’ll have to study for and pass the National Council Licensure Examination for RNs (NCLEX-RN) exam if you haven’t already and perhaps pass additional licensure requirements depending on your state.
Whether you’re a working nurse looking to take the next step or a young professional looking to switch careers, there’s a nontraditional degree program out there for you. Thanks to the recent breakthroughs in education technology, students can now attend nursing degree programs online anywhere, anytime, and these seven well-respected programs are a great place to start.
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