How to Choose a Program

Choosing a nursing program can be incredibly difficult, especially if students have several schools in their local area. Students should consider a number of factors, including accreditation, pass rate on the NCLEX examination, delivery format, and location. Students interested in a particular area of nursing may consider a school with concentrations such as nurse leadership, pediatrics, administration, or gerontology. Nurses also need to decide what level of degree to pursue. Many nurses can earn a license with just an associate degree, but most earn at least a bachelor's, and many go on to earn a master's or doctorate. You can review the nursing paths guide to determine which option is right for you. This guide describes how to choose a nursing program that best aligns with your academic interests, needs, and career goals.

Program Delivery: Online vs. On-Campus

When choosing the right nursing program, students should decide whether they want to attend courses on campus, online, or both. Traditional programs require students to visit a brick-and-mortar campus multiple times per week for lectures, labs, and student groups. With the rise of the internet, many schools now allow learners to complete some or all of their courses online. Because many nurses maintain employment while working towards their degrees, online programs have recently increased in popularity. Online courses offer greater flexibility and convenience than on-campus courses. Students can listen to lectures and complete coursework on their own schedules. Online programs also typically cost less than on-campus programs. Distance learners avoid expenses associated with student housing, meal plans, transportation, and other campus fees.

Before committing to an online program, however, students need to consider whether they possess the motivation, self-discipline, and organizational skills necessary to succeed. Online programs provide the same level of rigor as campus-based programs, and some may even require more work due to limited face-to-face instruction. Unless students fully commit to managing their schedules and prioritizing school in the absence of set class times, online programs can prove too intense.

Factors to Consider in an Online Nursing Program3>

Hybrid/Blended Learning: Hybrid programs -- also called blended learning -- incorporate both campus and distance instruction. Students visit campus occasionally to engage in face-to-face learning, spend time with their professors and peers, and take advantage of campus services. However, these programs do not require learners to travel to school multiple times per week. These programs particularly benefit students who want hands-on supervision in lab-based courses, but who feel comfortable taking lecture-based classes on their own. Because in-person courses require students to visit campus at specific times, learners with strict schedules may find it difficult to attend an on-campus or hybrid program. When considering this option, students should speak with their current employer and academic advisor.

Synchronous or Asynchronous: When choosing the right nursing program, prospective learners should also decide whether they want to take synchronous or asynchronous courses. Synchronous programs allow students to complete assignments on their own time, as long as they turn everything in by the deadline. However, synchronous classes require students to log in at specific times to participate in live discussions and lectures. Synchronous learning appeals to students who prefer to converse with teachers and students in real-time rather than through email and message boards. By contrast, asynchronous courses do not require any set meeting times at all. Students complete all assignments, lectures, and discussions at their own leisure. Students must still meet deadlines. Asynchronous classes offer greater flexibility to working students, but feature less interaction. Some programs exclusively use a synchronous or asynchronous format, while others include both styles.

Class Size: Students enrolling in an online nursing program may not initially consider class size as an important factor. Regardless of whether learning takes place behind a computer screen or in a traditional classroom, student-to-faculty ratios can make all the difference in terms of individualized learning and access to professors. Programs with large class sizes tend to have more impersonal learning environments since professors do not have time to personally interact with each student in a meaningful way. Learners may also find it difficult to receive answers to questions in a timely matter or get clarification about a specific topic within the curriculum. Nursing programs with low student-to-faculty ratios provide opportunities for students to receive academic support and build meaningful professional relationships with professors and staff.

Personal Learning Style: Research shows that students embrace a variety of different learning styles. While some students are social learners who thrive in a group, others may desire a more independent and solitary learning experience. Some students learn best through verbal communication and asking lots of questions, while others prefer visual or auditory learning. Online nursing programs tend to offer a variety of learning styles since course material itself varies. Some classes ask students to work together on group projects, while others call on degree seekers to create individualized projects or presentations. Students who lean heavily toward one or two styles of learning should consider speaking to an admissions specialist to ascertain whether the program provides a suitable learning environment.

Clinical Rotations or Internships: The majority of nursing programs – especially those with programmatic accreditation – require degree seekers to complete an internship or clinical rotations. These experiences provide learners with the opportunity to apply their newly gained knowledge in real-world settings. The majority of online programs allow students to complete field experiences in a hospital, clinic, or other healthcare facility near their home. Other schools require learners to complete the internship in a particular state or at a site near the school's campus. Some programs allow students to intern at their current place of work, making it easier for nurses to balance academic and professional responsibilities. Students should always check the internship requirements before they enroll in a program.

Choosing an Accredited Program

All students, regardless or major or educational level, should only attend accredited colleges and universities. Accreditation ensures that schools fully comply with academic and professional standards. Accredited schools undergo regular reviews, agree to site visits, and implement plans for continued student success. Accreditation allows students to transfer credits, find employment, and receive licensure upon graduation. Accrediting agencies hold online programs to the same rigorous standards as their campus-based counterparts, meaning students can rest assured about the quality of any accredited program, regardless of delivery style. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) hosts a database of institutions and programs accredited by U.S. accrediting agencies.

National vs. Regional Accreditation

Institutions may receive regional accreditation, national accreditation, or both. Many nationally accredited institutions offer less expensive tuition, fewer liberal arts requirements, and more career-oriented studies. However, these institutions do not go through the same level of rigor during the review process. Students may struggle to transfer credits, apply for nursing licensure, or find employment. National accreditation organizations recognized by CHEA include the Distance Education and Training Council and the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges.

Regionally accredited institutions go through a multi-year process and follow higher standards to receive their certification. Other academic institutions, licensing boards, and prospective employers prefer regional accreditation, and may only accept graduates from regionally accredited schools. Students can ask an admissions counselor about their school's accreditation status.

Programmatic Accreditation

While national and regional accreditation apply to an entire institution, programmatic accreditation only applies to certain programs or departments. Programmatic accreditation assures students that their degree provides the skills and tools necessary to succeed in a particular field. Two bodies provide programmatic accreditation for nursing programs: the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) and the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN). Students seeking more information can use ACEN's search tool to find accredited programs based on location and program type. Learners can also review CCNE's list of accredited degrees.

Career Goals

When choosing a nursing program, students often consider how each program can help them meet their career goals. Some students have a clear sense of the type of nursing they want to pursue, while others may need a program that provides exposure to various opportunities. Learners interested in a particular field, such as gerontology or administration, should attend a school that offers concentrations in those areas. Students should also make sure their program meets licensure requirements for the state where they wish to work. This section describes potential career paths for nurses and how students can pursue jobs in each field.

Degree Level

Nursing programs exist at every academic level, from associate degrees to doctorates. As with other disciplines, individuals tend to make more money, take on additional responsibility, and obtain managerial positions once they earn an advanced degree. Each degree leads to different career prospects and salary outcomes.

Associate Degree: Graduates from ADN programs possess basic knowledge of nursing. Candidates qualify for entry-level support roles in a variety of healthcare settings.

Bachelor's Degree: BSN degrees address both practical and professional nursing topics for a well-rounded program of study. Graduates work in a variety of support and independent roles.

Master's Degree: MSN candidates hold advanced skills and knowledge in nursing and contemporary healthcare. Students usually specialize in a particular subfield. Graduates may work as directors of nursing, nurse managers, and professional practice directors.

Doctorate Degree: The highest degree attainable for nurses, DSN programs cover nuanced topics and feature significant research. Graduates can obtain senior-level roles in hospitals and teaching positions at colleges.

Bridge Programs for RNs

Many individuals start their nursing careers as RNs and later pursue additional education to enhance their job prospects. Because of this, many colleges and universities offer bridge programs to help nurses earn a degree without spending several years in school. Depending on their overarching goals, students can choose from two different paths: an RN to BSN program or an RN to MSN program.

RN to BSN: RN to BSN degrees typically require two years of full-time study. They allow students to quickly earn a bachelor's degree and take on mid-level nursing roles.

RN to MSN: RN to MSN programs usually take three years of full-time study. These programs introduce specialized topics of study. Graduates can take on advanced managerial roles.

Nursing Specialities

In addition to general practice, the field of nursing offers several opportunities for students to specialize their knowledge in specific areas of medical care. While the majority of baccalaureate-level programs focus on general nursing skills and knowledge, many graduate-level programs allow students to concentrate their coursework in a particular area of study. Before committing to a degree, learners should review available specializations and ensure their school offers a suitable option. Common specialties include:

Nursing Licensure

Licensure is an essential part of being a nurse. Students need to pick a program that adequately prepares them for both the license examination and future jobs. Reviewing a particular school's exam pass rate offers a great opportunity to ascertain whether a program adequately prepares graduates for their career. Most websites list pass rates, but students can check with the program administrator if information isn't readily available. Because some graduate nursing programs require applicants to hold a license in order to receive an acceptance letter, students should research each school to understand individual requirements. The following table summarizes licensure requirements and common careers for various degree levels.

Education and Training Requirements for Common Nursing Careers
Occupation Minimum Degree Required License/Certification Median Salary
Registered Nurses Associate Licensure required. $70,000
Licensed Practical Nurses and Licensed Vocational Nurses Postsecondary nondegree Licensure required. $45,030
Nurse Anesthetists Master's RN license required. $165,120
Nurse Midwives Master's RN license required. $100,590
Nurse Practitioners Master's RN license required. $103,880
Nursing Instructors or Teachers Master's Nursing license may be required. $71,260

Cost and Financial Aid

Cost is a major factor in choosing the right nursing program. Students often find themselves weighing all the pros of a particular program against their budgets. The price of a program depends on lots of different factors, including the level of degree, length of program, tuition rate, and enrollment status. Students must also pay fees associated with lab work, insurance, immunizations, textbooks, and miscellaneous materials. The following three sections take a look at some of the most common factors affecting the overall cost of a nursing degree. Financial aid can help offset these costs through grants, scholarships, and work-study.

Public vs. Private Schools

As a general rule, private schools cost significantly more than public schools. While both private and public schools can receive federal funding, only public colleges and universities receive state-level subsidies to offset the cost of in-state students. Private colleges, on the other hand, receive the majority of their funding through tuition and donations from private members of society. Both types of institution traditionally offer scholarships, grants, and assistantships to students with academic merit or financial need. Both also offer work-study programs that allow students to find part-time employment on campus or in the local community.

Both private and public schools come with different advantages. Private institutions tend to offer smaller, more intimate campuses with fewer students. Because of this, student-to-faculty ratios remain lower and learners often have the opportunity to engage with their teachers and fellow students in meaningful ways. Due to their larger size, public institutions offer a wider variety of degree paths at various academic levels. Despite the higher cost, private schools do not automatically provide better education. Some private schools do not have regional accreditation, and for-private colleges may not hold any accreditation at all.

In-State vs. Out-of-State Schools

In general, out-of-state students pay thousands of dollars more than in-state students. While state governments provide subsidies for resident students, the same type of funding does not exist for those enrolling from other areas. As of the 2017-2018 academic year, nonresident students pay nearly $16,000 more annually than their resident counterparts. While all degree seekers can apply for institutional and federal financial aid, only in-state students can receive state-level funding opportunities. Additionally, some of the scholarships provided by public schools may only cater to local learners. Because public colleges and universities tend to be more selective when accepting out-of-state students, nonresidents face greater competition.

However, these rules do not always apply. Private schools do not usually charge different rates for in-state and out-of-state learners. Many public schools offer in-state tuition to online students, regardless of where they live. Certain agreements, such as the Midwest Student Exchange Program, allow out-of-state students from certain areas to pay in-state tuition rates.

In-State vs. Out-of-State College Tuition Prices

  2016-2017 2017-2018
Public 4-year In-State College $9,670 $9,970
Public 4-Year Out-of-State College $24,820 $25,620
Private 4-Year Nonprofit College $33,520 $34,740

Online vs. On-Campus Programs

Another factor affecting overall cost is whether students enroll in online courses or on-campus courses. Individual schools follow different rules when setting their prices. Some schools offer discounts for online classes, while others charge higher technology fees. Many schools charge all distance learners the same rate regardless of state residency. All students at accredited schools qualify for federal financial aid, but online students may encounter restrictions when applying for institutional or state-specific awards. Regardless of tuition, online students avoid expenses such as parking, transportation, campus fees, and student housing.

Room and Board Fees

  2016-2017 2017-2018
Public 4-Year In-State/Out-of-State College $10,480 $10,800
Private Nonprofit 4-year College $11,850 $12,210

Program Reputation

Finally, when choosing a nursing program, students should consider the school's reputation within the nursing community. If a large number of nurses in your area graduated from a particular program, you might consider researching that school. Students can also review the rankings for online RN-to-BSN, MSN, and RN-to-MSN programs. These rankings take into account factors such as exam pass rates, teaching credentials, and accreditation status.

NCLEX Exam Pass Rates: Every nurse in the U.S. must pass the National Council Licensure Examination in order to obtain a nursing license. A school's pass rate indicates how well it prepares students for the workforce. Many maintain a 100% pass rate, so don't settle for a rate below 85%.

Teacher Credentials: While most schools allow nurses with a master's degree to teach, the best schools primarily hire faculty members with doctoral degrees.

Accreditation Status: Schools with both regional and programmatic accreditation meet the highest standards in nursing. Look for colleges with CCNE or ACEN approval.