It's a busy world for healthcare professionals today. Nurses have long comprised a significant part of healthcare teams, but today, more than ever, they have increased independence on the job. Nurse practitioners enjoy Full Practice Authority (FPA) in 46 percent of states enabling them to practice without the oversight of a physician.
With the median pay for an advanced practice registered nurse, such as a nurse practitioner, reaching $103,880 (BLS.gov; 2016), it may be time to consider a nursing career, particularly when nurses are expected to be in short supply up to 2030 in 33 states, according to the Health Resources and Services Administration.
What do nurses do?
The various tasks of a nurse can differ based on a nurse's level of skill and even the setting, ranging from doctor's offices to healthcare facilities, nursing homes and even hospitals. For example, a nurse working in an emergency room is likely to have different responsibilities than a nurse working in a long-term care facility. However, in general, nurses may be expected to be able to:
- Administer certain medications to patients
- Apply bandages, dressings and splints
- Assist a physician or doctor during a procedure
- Carry out diagnostic tests to assess patient health
- Document patients concerns
- Help patients and families to understand steps for follow-up care
- Take vital signs, such as blood pressure and temperature
Prospective students with an interest in healthy living and a desire to help others may be a good fit for nursing degree programs. Nurses spend much of the day on their feet and must have the physical stamina and dexterity to perform heavy lifting. Above all, nurses must exhibit an attitude of caring and compassion while attending to sick and injured patients.
Benefits of earning a nursing degree online
Online nursing degree programs generally allow students to take most of their classes through distance learning. Many online nursing degree programs collaborate with local hospitals or clinics allowing students to complete clinical-based components to gain hands-on experience in the area in which they live. Here's a quick look at the benefits:
- With round-the-clock access to online course materials and video lectures,nursing students can complete assignments any time.
- The flexibility of an online program allows students to continue working full-time or part-time as well as maintain family or other commitments.
Best Online Colleges for Nursing
We’ve used factors that students that are especially useful for students interested in online nursing programs. To present you with the best opportunities, our methodology has taken into consideration factors like number of online programs offered in nursing, tuition, ratio of students participating in distance education programs compared to the total enrollment, student-faculty ratio, services such as academic and placement, and more.
Nursing Occupations and Career Outlook
Below is a list of nursing occupations, along with important related data aspiring nurses should consider when making a career choice.
Projected Job Growth
(2016 - 26)
|Nursing Instructors and Teachers, Postsecondary||55,710||$81,350||24%|
|Medical and Health Services Managers||372,670||$113,730||19.8%|
|Licensed Practical and Licensed Vocational Nurses||701,690||$47,050||12.2%|
Choose a degree program to help you meet your career goals
Each type of nursing degree program comes with a different timeline and financial commitment. Nurses who have earned more advanced degrees are often able to perform more duties, which could lead to increased opportunities for career advancement and higher pay. Students would do well to consider their career goals prior to enrolling in a particular nursing program. For more information on how to choose nursing program refer to our guide for prospective online nursing students.
Here's what you can expect to learn under each nursing degree program, the length of time it may take to complete the program and the possible outcomes.
Online Associate Degree Programs in Nursing
What can I expect to learn in an online associate nursing degree program?
An associate program can help students acquire the education to earn their nursing license, including the clinical knowledge and problem-solving skills needed to treat patients on a daily basis.
Typical duration: Two years
Coursework: Students can expect to learn from both general knowledge classes and coursework specific to nursing. The core curriculum in these programs typically includes subjects such as the nursing process, therapeutic communication, ethical issues in nursing, and computer applications used in the profession.Examples of course topics may include:
- Anatomy and physiology
- Adult health
- Healthcare concepts
- Lifespan development
- Nursing concepts
- Patient care
Online students, like their on-campus peers, are required to take on-campus laboratory courses, as well as supervised hands-on clinical tests. These sessions are designed to give students practical experience in the different types of duties they may be performing throughout their careers.
Possible electives:Sociology classes, health informatics, ethics
What can I do after earning an associate degree?
Graduates with an associate degree in nursing (ADN) can pursue employment as a:
- School nurse
- Pediatric nurse
- Psychiatric nurses
- Traveling nurse
Depending on the scope of the program, an associate degree can help prepare graduates to sit for either the licensed vocation nurse (LVN) or registered nurse (RN) exam through the National Council of State Boards of Nursing. Online RN to BSN degree programs also are available, allowing students with prior nursing knowledge — like from an associate degree program — to complete a four-year bachelor's degree program.
An additional option for a recent associate degree graduate is to progress in education toward a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree.
Online Bachelor's Degree Programs in Nursing
What can I expect to learn in an online nursing bachelor's degree program?
An online bachelor's degree or online RN nursing programs help students to obtain general education in areas like math, science and writing as well as to complete classes specific to nursing. Given that a bachelor's degree program is usually four years in length, general education and nursing courses typically reach a greater depth.
Typical duration: Four years
Typical coursework: Core curriculum typically focuses on topics such as case management, community nursing techniques, anatomy and physiology, data management, and the psychology of nursing. Courses may cover a wide range of subjects such as:
- The history of nursing care
- The administration of drugs
- Clinical care principles
- Therapeutic communication
- Nursing ethics
Fundamental courses could include any of the following:
- Advanced health assessment for the Registered Nurse
- Forensic nursing
- Introduction to nursing research
- Nursing care of the elderly
- Nursing informatics
Possible electives: Maternity nursing, mental healthnursing, nursing leadership, healthcare law and ethics, and epidemiology
Students must gain hands-on clinical experience in a supervised healthcare setting, according to the BLS. Like an associate degree program, clinical hours are required as part of online RN nursing programs, enabling students to build real-world experiences with patients in a health-care setting.
What can I do after earning a bachelor's degree?
Graduates of online bachelor nursing programs can work as a registered nurse (RN) in a traditional setting, such as a doctor's office or hospital, but also in areas as diverse as:
- Community and public health
- An area of specialization
Before students can begin their careers, they are required to pass the National Council Licensure Examination and meet other state requirements.
As nurses gain experience, they may seek more autonomy or want to take on more responsibility. Their bachelor's degree can become the starting point for a more advanced education at the graduate level and also help to prepare them to seek certification in some nursing fields.
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Online Master's Degree Programs in Nursing
What can I expect to learn in an online nursing master's degree program?
Typical duration: Two years
Students enrolled in master's degree programs in nursing are generally required to choose a specialization, which can help them hone their skills in a specific area of nursing, such as mental health, cardiovascular, critical care, women's health, or surgical nursing. Students could be required to complete a master's thesis or a comprehensive examination in order to obtain their degree. Some programs also include hands-on training sessions or labs.
Typical coursework: The curriculum in these programs aims to give students an advanced knowledge of nursing science, while applying theory to the real world of healthcare. Core offerings include subjects like public health, information technology, health economics, and healthcare management. Examples of course topics can include:
- Human resources management
- Advanced pathophysiology
- Advanced pharmacology
- Evidence-based practice
Note: Those who have no nursing experience or credentials may find an online nursing degree for non-nurses an option worth exploring. These programs allow those with a bachelor's degree in a non-nursing field to study directly towards a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN).
What can I do after earning a master's degree?
Online schools for nursing with master's degree programs may help prepare students to expand the scope of their practice by becoming an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN), or a nurse practitioner (NP). In some states, you may even be allowed to prescribe medication and to work more autonomously. Check the AANP website for more details on these states.
Other occupations that usually require a master's degree include:
- Nurse anesthetist
- Nurse educator
- Nurse manager
Many certifications become available to advanced practice registered nurses at this level through the National Certification Corporation or a specialty certifying board. Certification can be essential to validating skills and attractive to employers.
Online Doctoral Degree Programs in Nursing
What can I expect to learn in an online nursing doctoral degree program?
Online doctoral degree programs in nursing can help professionals learn how to affect positive change in the nursing field and ensure future nurses are ready for the challenges that await them. Nursing students can choose to pursue either of these two terminal degrees in nursing practice:
- A professional degree – Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) which can possibly lead to becoming advanced practitioners in a specific area of nursing
- A research degree – Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Nursing which can possibly lead to leadership roles in the healthcare industry
Typical duration: Three years to seven years
Typical coursework: Core curriculum in these programs may include healthcare research methods, healthcare policy, fundamentals of nursing education, the relationship between nursing theory and nursing practice, and ethical and legal considerations that influence the nursing profession. Examples of course topics include:
- Ethics and healthcare policy
- Organizational theory and systems leadership
- Preventative care for populations
Students enrolled in Ph.D. programs are required to write and defend a dissertation on a specific nursing theory topic while those in DNP programs may have to complete a comprehensive examination, clinical practicum and/or capstone project.
What can I do after earning a doctoral degree?
Completion of a doctoral degree program can set up nursing graduates to be the most well-educated and advanced in the nursing field. A nurse with a doctoral degree could pursue a career as a:
- College professor
- Chief nursing officer
- Director of nursing services
- Health policy analyst
They may be able to find employment in a vast number of fields, as varied as advocacy, consulting, medical offices (maybe their own!), education, government, hospitals, management, research and private-sector healthcare organizations. A career in academia could be another choice with a Ph.D. in nursing.
As a nurse, you can choose from a wide variety of specializations. A specialization may be of interest to you if you like working with a certain type of patient population, in a specific care setting or in a specific area of care. Here are a few examples:
- Cardiac and vascular: In this field, nurses might work with doctors and other specialists who provide care for the heart and the vascular system. Nurses might be employed in an office setting or outpatient care.
- Critical care: Nurses in this field work with a patient population in need of immediate care. This could lead to work in an intensive care unit at a hospital.
- Gerontological: Generally, nurses who specialize in gerontology work with the older population and are knowledgeable about issues related to aging. Their setting of employment could be a doctor's office or a site like a long-term care facility.
- Pediatric: If you like working with kids and providing basic care, a pediatric specialty could be for you. These nurses usually work in a pediatric office, where care is provided to patients under the age of 18.
- Psychiatric-mental health: In this field, nurses work with patients who struggle with mental health and psychological conditions. Nurses could be employed in a treatment facility or a more general type of office setting.
- Surgical: Nurses who like assisting with surgery or aiding patients about to undergo a procedure may like the surgical field. Often, nurses of this type can find employment in an outpatient-care facility or hospital.
Of course, there are many other specializations available, too. Some of these include addiction, genetics, hospice care, informatics, midwifery, neonatology, nephrology, obstetric and gynecology, oncology and rehabilitation.
Individuals interested in enrolling in online nursing degree programs should check to make sure their school is accredited through either the Accrediting Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) or the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN). These organizations assess nursing schools on the quality of programs, academic rigor and other factors.
Accreditation also can be important for a nursing graduate who seeks licensing, certification and advanced education. Graduation from an accredited program is needed for many follow-up career steps. Additionally, the ACEN reports that accreditation can be valuable for:
- Admission of a nursing student to a graduate-level program
- Transferring nursing credits to another nursing program
- Some state nursing boards
- Employers who are seeking qualified graduates
Licensures and Certifications
The type of license needed is usually determined by the level of degree with which the student graduates.
- State licensure. Licensing is required to be employed as a nurse in any state. Licensing is generally overseen by a state's board of nursing and requires candidates to pass a nursing exam through the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, or NCSBN. A nursing degree is a step toward preparation for the exam.
- Certification. Certifications are typically available to nurses who have education in a specific field of nursing. Certification can be found through organizations such as the National Certification Corporation, the American Board of Nursing Specialties and many others.
Nursing Instructors and Teachers, Postsecondary
Licensed Practical and Licensed Vocational Nurses
Source: 2016 Occupational Employment Statistics, Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS.gov.
Scholarships and Financial Aid Programs
- American Association of Occupational Health Nurses Scholarships
- The Red Cross Jane Delano Student Nurse Scholarship
- Joe H. and Rosanne S. Gardner Memorial Scholarship
- March of Dimes Graduate Nursing Scholarships
- Geraldine "Polly" Bednash Scholarship
- Career Mobility Scholarships
- Daughters of the American Revolution Nursing Scholarships
Other resources for aspiring nurses
- The American Association of Colleges of Nursing
- National Council of State Boards of Nursing
- American Association of Nurse Practitioners
- American Academy of Nurse Practitioners Certification Board
To be included in our rankings for the top colleges for online degrees in nursing by degree level all colleges had to meet the following 4 requirements:
- Offer a degree or certificate program in that subject, either in an online or hybrid format
- Have at least 1% of students attending some form of distance education
- Have awarded at least one degree or certificate in that subject in 2015-16
- Have reported data for all 19 ranking variables for associate/bachelor’s and 11 ranking variables for master’s (listed below)
We then ranked colleges and universities in the United States that fit our criteria, using 2016-17 data from the National Center for Education Statistics and the weights specified. The final totals were:
- 38 colleges for online associate degree in nursing
- 334 colleges for online bachelor’s degree in nursing
- 212 colleges for online master’s degree in nursing
We then scored the final list of colleges by degree level on a 100-point scale using these specific data points:
- Associate’s/Bachelor’s Program prominence, based on how many of the degrees and certificates awarded via distance education in 2016-2017 were in this particular subject
- Ratio of undergraduate students participating fully or partially in Distance Education to Total Enrollment
- Average in-state tuition for undergraduates
- Retention rate
- Percent of undergraduate students awarded federal, state, local, institutional or other sources of grant aid
- Average amount of federal, state, local, institutional, or other sources of grant aid awarded to undergraduate students
- Student-to-faculty ratio
- Variety of Programs, based on the number of similar topics for programs in relevant CIP codes that are offered via distance education at any level
- Total electronic library collections, including digital books, databases, and media
- The availability of any tuition plans (Payment, Guaranteed, Prepaid, Other)
- Services (Academic/Career Counseling, Placement for Completers)
- Credit offerings (Dual, Life, AP, Military)
- Master’s Program prominence, based on how many of the degrees and certificates awarded via distance education in 2016-2017 were in this particular subject
- Ratio of graduate students participating fully or partially in Distance Education to Total Enrollment
- Average in-state tuition for graduates
- Credit offerings (Life, Military)
- Services (Academic/Career Counseling, Placement for Completers)
- The availability of any tuition plans (Payment, Prepaid, Other)
- Total electronic library collections, including digital books, databases, and media
- Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) 2016-17, National Center for Education Statistics, http://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/
- ADN, Associate Degree in Nursing, Chamberlain University, http://www.chamberlain.edu/academics/nursing-school/associate-degree-in-nursing, Accessed April 2018
- Benefits of Accreditation, Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing,http://www.acenursing.org/benefits-of-accreditation/, http://www.acenursing.org/benefits-of-accreditation/, Accessed April 2018
- CCNE Accreditation, American Association of College of Nursing,http://www.aacnnursing.org/CCNE">http://www.aacnnursing.org/CCNE, Accessed April 2018
- Certification Exams, National Certification Corporation, https://www.nccwebsite.org/Certification/HowdoIapply.aspx#available-certification-exams , Accessed April 2018
- Courses, Bachelor of Science in Nursing, Penn State World Campus,https://www.worldcampus.psu.edu/degrees-and-certificates/nursing-rn-to-bs-bachelors/courses",https://www.worldcampus.psu.edu/degrees-and-certificates/nursing-rn-to-bs-bachelors/courses, Accessed April 2018
- DNP Careers for Advanced Nurse Practitioners, Maryville University, https://online.maryville.edu/online-doctorate-degrees/doctor-nursing-practice/careers/,https://online.maryville.edu/online-doctorate-degrees/doctor-nursing-practice/careers/, Accessed April 2018
- DNP Fact Sheet, American Association of Colleges of Nursing, http://www.aacnnursing.org/News-Information/Fact-Sheets/DNP-Fact-Sheet, http://www.aacnnursing.org/News-Information/Fact-Sheets/DNP-Fact-Sheet, Accessed April 2018
- Doctor of Nursing Practice, University of Louisiana at Lafayette,https://online.louisiana.edu/degree-programs/nursing/doctor-nursing-practice-dnp, https://online.louisiana.edu/degree-programs/nursing/doctor-nursing-practice-dnp, Accessed April 2018
- Get Certified, American Association of Critical-Care Nurses,https://www.aacn.org/certification/get-certified">https://www.aacn.org/certification/get-certified, Accessed April 2018
- Improving access to healthcare one state at a time, 30th Annual APRN Legislative Update, Wolters Kluwer Health, Inc., January 2018,https://ruralprep.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/30th-APRN-Legislative-Update.pdf, https://ruralprep.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/30th-APRN-Legislative-Update.pdf
- Master of Science in Nursing, John Hopkins University,https://nursing.jhu.edu/academics/programs/masters/index.html"https://nursing.jhu.edu/academics/programs/masters/index.html, Accessed April 2018
- Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/nurse-anesthetists-nurse-midwives-and-nurse-practitioners.htm#tab-6, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/nurse-anesthetists-nurse-midwives-and-nurse-practitioners.htm#tab-6, Accessed April 2018
- Nurse Practitioners, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Wages and Employment,https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes291171.htm, https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes291171.htm, Accessed April 2018
- Nursing Degree ADN, ECPI Institute,https://www.ecpi.edu/programs/nursing-degree-adn-associate-degree, https://www.ecpi.edu/programs/nursing-degree-adn-associate-degree, Accessed April 2018
- Nursing: Supply and Demand through 2020, Center on Education and the Workforce, Georgetown University, 2015, https://cew.georgetown.edu/wp-content/uploads/Nursing-Supply-Final.pdf, accessed August 2018
- Online Master's Degree, Southern New Hampshire University,https://www.snhu.edu/online-degrees/masters/ms-in-nursing"https://www.snhu.edu/online-degrees/masters/ms-in-nursing, Accessed April 2018
- Our Certifications, American Nurses Credentialing Center,https://www.nursingworld.org/our-certifications/", https://www.nursingworld.org/our-certifications/, Accessed April 2018
- Registered Nurses, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook,https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/registered-nurses.htm#tab-2, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/registered-nurses.htm#tab-2, Accessed April 2018
- State Practice Environment, American Association of Nurse Practitioners https://www.aanp.org/advocacy/state/state-practice-environment https://www.aanp.org/advocacy/state/state-practice-environment, Accessed April 2018
- Summary Report for Licensed Practical and Licensed Vocational Nurses, O*NET Online,https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/29-2061.00, https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/29-2061.00, Accessed April 2018
- Supply and Demand Projections of the Nursing Workforce: 2014-2030, Resources and Services Administration, July 2017, https://bhw.hrsa.gov/sites/default/files/bhw/nchwa/projections/NCHWA_HRSA_Nursing_Report.pdf,">