Online Nursing Programs Overview
Earning a nursing degree online is a flexible, affordable way to become a nurse. Explore entry-level to graduate-level online programs in this guide.
The numerous choices of online nursing programs can make selecting one a daunting process. This guide can help narrow down the options and enable applicants to identify the best schools for their learning styles and career goals.
Online nursing programs span the spectrum of available credentials, including licensed practical and licensed vocational nursing (LPN/LPN) diplomas, associate degrees in nursing (ADNs), bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degrees, master of science in nursing (MSN) degrees, and doctor of nursing practice (DNP) degrees. Accelerated and bridge programs can speed the time to graduation, while dual degrees can lead to more career opportunities. Programs are even available for degrees requiring clinical components.
Regardless of your current educational background or future career goals, you are likely to find an online nursing option that is right for you.
Online LPN/LVN Diploma
LPNs, referred to as LVNs in California and Texas, perform entry-level nursing duties in nursing care facilities, hospitals, physicians' offices, and home healthcare services. Online LPN/LVN diploma programs offer one of the quickest routes into nursing, They can also serve as a stepping stone to more advanced degrees and roles. Students learn skills like checking patients' vital signs, inserting intravenous lines, administering first aid, and managing patient data.
Typical coursework includes fundamentals of nursing, human anatomy, medications, and disease processes. LPN/LVN learners complete an average of 500-750 hours of in-person clinical and lab hours. Once they complete their training, graduates take the National Council Licensure Examination for LPNs/LVNS (NCLEX-PN) to qualify for their licenses.
Alternatively, certified nursing assistant programs offer a chance to experience basic entry-level nursing also within a short timeframe.
Online ADN Degree Program
Online ADN programs provide the fastest path to becoming a registered nurse (RN). ADN-holders obtain entry-level RN positions with more responsibility and higher pay than LPN/LVNs. While a BSN may be required for further career advancement in the nursing field, an ADN can provide RNs with a leg up in admission to accelerated RN or ADN-to-BSN bridge programs. Students can earn their ADNs in two years and graduates can take the NCLEX-RN exam for their licenses.
Core ADN coursework includes introduction to nursing, health assessment, microbiology, and immunology. Students may also complete introductory specialty classes in surgical, pediatric, or neonatal nursing. RNs collaborate on teams of medical professionals to provide patient care, and the ADN curriculum emphasizes safety, ethical and legal practice, and care management. Distance learners complete about 500 hours of onsite clinical rotations.
Online BSN Degree Program
Four-year online BSN programs prepare graduates to take the NCLEX-RN exam and can lead to increased opportunities, responsibilities, and wages as compared to ADN programs. BSN-holders may also find themselves on better footing in terms of pursuing advanced nursing specializations and leadership positions.
Online BSN students train to become RNs who manage and implement patient treatment plans, supervise nursing teams, and educate patients and families regarding care. BSN courses cover anatomy, community nursing, informatics, leadership, pharmacology, and research and statistics. Clinical and lab hours take place onsite even for distance learners. Graduates emerge prepared for RN positions in hospitals and clinical specialties like geriatrics, obstetrics, and neonatal care. A BSN also prepares graduates for further graduate study.
Online Accelerated BSN Program
Nursing students who want to earn their bachelor's in less than four years can enroll in an accelerated program. While completion times differ by program, bachelor's students in accelerated programs can anticipate taking 2-3 years to earn their degree.
Several colleges and universities feature online opportunities, allowing learners to take advantage of a more flexible format. Online programs feature the same course credits, number of semesters, and clinical requirements as on-campus counterparts.
Featured Online MSN Programs
Online MSN Degree Programs
Earning an MSN prepares graduates to explore more specialized, advanced levels of nursing. These programs equip degree-seekers with the knowledge and skills they need to pursue national certification in a specialty area, such as geriatrics, pediatrics, or obstetrics.
Admission requirements can differ depending on the institution, but candidates should earn both a bachelor's degree in nursing and an unencumbered RN license. At the master's level, students can enroll in online direct-entry programs, online master of public health (MPH) programs, and MSN-to-DNP bridge programs.
Direct-entry MSN programs allow ADN-holders or those with an RN diploma to enroll directly into an MSN program, without first earning their bachelor's degree elsewhere. Full-time students typically complete their program within two years.
Specific coursework depends on the program. Typical offerings include theoretical foundations, nursing research, healthcare policy and ethics, and global health. Some programs allow learners to pursue a specialization in areas like nurse management, nursing education, and clinical nurse leadership.
Graduates of MPH programs pursue careers as health researchers, educators, and advocates. Earning an MPH degree can also prepare learners to be biostatisticians, epidemiologists, and nurses. Some institutions offer learners the opportunity to earn a dual MPH and MSN degree.
While specific course topics vary by school, many MPH programs offer courses in population dynamics and public health, environmental health, and methods in biostatistics. During their rigorous curriculum, MPH students prepare for certification opportunities, including the certified health education specialist credential or a certification in infection prevention and control.
Online MSN Specialization Programs
The nursing field encompasses a variety of career opportunities focused on different patient populations. While nursing roles at the associate and bachelor's levels tend to focus on more entry-level, broad opportunities, master's level careers allow graduates to explore advanced practice options.
Advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) can work with specific patient populations to provide care. APRNs choose from these four tracks: nurse practitioner (NP), certified nurse midwife, certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA), and clinical nurse specialist. Other MSN-holders may choose fields such as nurse informaticist or nurse leader. Some institutions offer MSN specialization programs to prepare learners, particularly APRNs, for subspecialties such as gerontology, family practice, diabetes, neonatal, and acute care.
Online NP programs may offer concentrations that focus on a specific patient population. Common concentrations include family nurse practitioner, psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner, and women's health nurse practitioner.
The rigorous curriculum explores information technology and data management, advanced pharmacology, and health politics and policy. Degree-seekers who hold a bachelor's degree in nursing and an RN license typically satisfy their program requirements within 1-2 years, while associate degree-holders with their RN license take around three years to graduate.
Designed for nurses who want to provide care for expectant mothers, online nurse midwife programs prepare students for advanced practice nursing care, offering courses in postpartum care, advanced health assessment, and fetal evaluation.
In addition to the required courses, nurse midwife students must complete clinical hour requirements to prepare them with hands-on experience. Graduates can pursue American Midwifery Board Certification, Neonatal Resuscitation Program Certification, and Electronic Fetal Monitoring Certification.
Nurses who wish to care for elderly patients and study the process of aging can enroll in online MSN in gerontology programs. The curriculum explores common adult health problems, transitional care for chronically ill adult patients, and adult-gerontology comprehensive assessment.
Gerontology programs allow RNs to build upon their existing skills and develop an understanding of common health problems, chronic conditions, and acute and episodic issues. While program length can vary, most learners complete their degree within two years.
During online MSN in family nursing programs, degree-seekers develop the skills and knowledge needed to pursue leadership roles, manage other RNs, and prescribe medicine. Family practice nursing students learn to build meaningful, lasting relationships with their patients.
Enrollees who hold a BSN typically complete their program in about 20-25 months, while ADN degree-holders take around 30-36 months to graduate. Degree-seekers learn about advanced pathophysiology, leadership and health policy, and advanced pharmacotherapeutics.
An online MSN in diabetes nursing program equips students to work with patients living with diabetes. Most programs require applicants to hold a 3.0 GPA or higher, a BSN, and an unencumbered RN license. Similar to other graduate programs, schools might require candidates to provide a goals statement, resume, and letters of recommendation to apply.
Degree-seekers learn about advanced management of pediatric diabetes, clinical practice in diabetes care and management, and advanced clinical management of adult diabetes.
Online neonatal NP programs feature the nursing skills and knowledge necessary to work with newborn babies. Students learn about neonatal disease practice, pediatric care, and health informatics.
These NP programs prepare learners for certification in areas such as women's healthcare, neonatal care, or family nursing. Most programs require learners to complete around 40 credits of coursework along with clinical hours.
An online MSN in nursing education prepares degree-seekers to pursue roles at hospitals, postsecondary schools, and medical centers. Nurse educators teach and train nurses and help develop curriculums for nursing programs.
This degree typically requires between 36-39 credits. Some institutions offer accelerated online options, allowing learners to complete their degree between 16-18 months. Students learn about curriculum development, evaluation strategies and methods, and approaches to instruction.
To become a nurse leader, students can pursue an online nursing leadership degree. Most full-time learners can complete their degree in two years. Students who enroll part time take closer to four years.
Nursing leadership master's programs prepare degree-seekers for careers as nurse managers, nurse executives, directors of health education programs, and directors of community health centers. The curriculum explores nursing leadership theory and practice, healthcare policy, evidence-based practice, population-based public health nursing interventions, and health disparities.
Combining concepts of technology and healthcare, online MSN in health informatics programs focus on clinical nursing skills and emerging technology. Learners explore data management in healthcare, nursing informatics leadership, and nursing research methodologies during their coursework.
Students participate in internships, providing them with the chance to gain hands-on experience. Graduates can pursue informatics nursing certification or the certified professional in healthcare information and management systems credential.
Online MSN in acute care programs typically require between 35-50 credits of coursework, taking learners between 1-3 years to complete. Students learn about advanced practice care of adults across the lifespan, advanced health assessment and diagnostic reasoning, and advanced pharmacology.
Graduates can pursue certifications as clinical nurse specialists, adult-gerontology acute care NPs, and acute care NPs.
Online Dual Degree Programs
Nursing students can consider online dual degree programs to increase their earning potential and expand their career opportunities. Dual degrees require learners to complete more coursework than a typical program. They also include blended coursework that focuses on nursing and another field.
Courses often require degree-seekers to complete additional credit hours, exams, and assignments. They often take learners longer to complete. Popular dual degree options in the nursing field include an MSN/master of business administration (MBA), MSN/master of healthcare administration (MHA), MSN/master of public administration, and MSN/MPH.
Pursuing an MSN/MHA dual degree prepares learners for careers as healthcare administrators and managers. Online learners benefit from a flexible pathway. They complete the same clinical hour and internship requirements as on-campus students.
Learners who enroll in MSN/MHA programs follow a faster path to leadership roles in nursing. While students in either MSN or MHA programs complete courses focused on leadership, students in dual degree programs can apply credits from the same required course to satisfy the requirements for each degree.
Online MSN/MBA dual degree programs provide nurses with the opportunity to earn their nursing and business administration degrees at the same time. Students focus on advanced nursing and business topics, preparing them for careers as healthcare executives.
MSN/MBA online programs enable students to graduate with both degrees in under 60 credits. Earning each degree separately typically requires more than 70 credits. Courses focus on topics like health informatics, advanced health assessment, health economics, and healthcare management.
Earning an MSN/MPH dual degree prepares learners for careers in both the nursing and public health fields. Students interested in supplementing their clinical education can focus on foundational public health knowledge and advanced patient care techniques.
Full-time students usually complete their degree in 2-3 years. Credit requirements vary depending on the program, lingering between 60-90 credits. Most programs require a clinical practicum component. Some institutions allow MSN/MPH students to pursue specializations in epidemiology, health services leadership and management, global health, among others.
Featured Online DNP Programs
Online DNP Degree Programs
Online DNP programs culminate in the highest level of clinical and nonclinical education for nursing by awarding the terminal doctoral degree. Like the MSN, DNP-holders can be APRNs or other nursing specialties. Master's level APRNs might go on to earn a doctorate, and CRNAs are expected to hold a doctorate by 2025.
The average DNP program spans 3-6 years and teaches advanced nursing practice, evidence-based practice, informatics, interprofessional collaboration, and organizational leadership. Hands-on experiences may include clinical rotations, internships, lab simulations, and residencies.
Most programs require applicants to hold master's degrees and national board certification in their specialties, but some may accept RNs or BSN-holders. An alternative terminal degree is the doctor of philosophy in nursing which focuses more on academia.
Online Nursing Bridge Programs
Nursing students with transfer credits from a variety of educational backgrounds may qualify for admission to online nursing bridge programs. Bridge programs leverage applicants' previous experiences and knowledge to reduce completion time. Most bridge programs award a BSN or an MSN, but some offer professionals like paramedics a fast-track to an RN license. Nurses and nurse aides benefit from bridge programs' goals to advance their careers and enhance their earning potential.
Online bridge programs offer flexibility and can save students money and time. Distance learners can avoid commutes, continue working while they study, and even complete their clinical hours at their workplaces. Course delivery may consist of pre-recorded, asynchronous lectures or synchronous (live) online classes scheduled around working hours.
Paramedics interested in becoming a nurse can enroll in online paramedic-to-RN bridge programs. Each bridge program is different, featuring unique admission requirements, curriculum components, accreditation, course topics, and program length.
While admission criteria varies depending on the institution, eligible applicants must be licensed paramedics. Some programs require applicants to hold a license, while others require a specific amount of professional experience. Full-time students typically complete their bridge program within 1.5-2 years. The curriculum explores pharmacology, anatomy and physiology, and lifespan and human development.
LPN-to-BSN bridge programs and LPN-to-RN programs prepare licensed practical nurses to practice as registered nurses after graduation. Completing these programs equips graduates with the necessary knowledge and skills to advance their career opportunities and increase their earning potential.
During their challenging curriculum, LPN-to-BSN students target different patient populations and develop diagnostic skills and competencies. Graduates can complete their NCLEX-RN exam to begin practicing professionally across a variety of healthcare settings, including long-term care facilities, government agencies, and health clinics.
Graduates with their associate degree in nursing who hold an unencumbered RN license can explore ADN-to-MSN bridge programs. Learners can earn their master's degree sooner than they would if they pursued their bachelor's and master's degrees individually.
During their unique curriculum, learners focus on advanced topics in health information and patient care technologies, health promotion and risk reduction, and healthcare environments and care coordination. ADN-to-MSN programs may offer flexible online delivery, highlighting asynchronous coursework for an added layer of convenience. Online programs enable learners to complete their course requirements at their own pace.
One of the most popular bridge programs for nursing students, the RN-to-BSN option allows applicants who hold an unencumbered RN license to earn their bachelor's degree in nursing at an accelerated pace. Enrollees can build upon the education they gained in their associate program and entry-level job experience.
Upon earning their BSN, graduates can explore careers as clinical specialists, nurse administrators, and nurse educators. Some of the most common employers for BSN degree-holders include hospitals, schools, and long-term care facilities. RN-to-BSN programs typically require learners to satisfy 30 credits of coursework. Full-time students can complete their requirements in as little as 12 months.
Registered nurses who do not hold a BSN and plan on earning an MSN to explore advanced nursing roles can consider online RN-to-MSN bridge programs that comprise bachelor's- and master's-level coursework in one program. Prospective APRNS build their advanced practice nursing skills, understanding how to diagnose health problems, order diagnostic tests, and prescribe the appropriate medications. Other MSN programs may focus on administration/leadership, research, health policy, and healthcare disparities.
For those who earn an MSN with an advanced practice speciality, graduates can pursue national certification and begin practicing as an APRN, providing care for various patient populations. Nurses focused on advanced practice care typically work in a specific area of medicine, such as obstetrics or gerontology.
RNs who plan on pursuing academic, leadership, and research positions can enroll in an online RN-to-DNP bridge program to build upon their knowledge in theory and research. Enrollees take courses in evidence-based practice, informatics for leadership in health and healthcare, and nursing policy.
In addition to their advanced coursework, learners must complete clinical practice hours, a culminating final project, and comprehensive exams. These programs can take students between 3-6 years to complete, depending on their educational background and program requirements.
Students who hold a BSN and plan to pursue a DNP can consider enrolling in an online BSN-to-DNP program to quicken program completion. Doctoral programs typically require between 65-90 credits of coursework, taking learners between 3-6 years to finish.
BSN-to-DNP students can often choose an emphasis area including women's health, psychiatric mental health, and neonatal nurse practitioner. In addition to their required coursework, doctoral students may need to complete a research project, dissertation, or thesis. Curriculum requirements are often built around state licensing criteria.
Students who already hold an MSN along with an active RN license can apply to MSN-to-DNP programs, allowing them to earn their doctoral degree sooner than they would in a traditional format. Admission requirements typically include GRE scores, a minimum GPA, and letters of recommendation.
Completing an MSN-to-DNP takes significantly less time than earning each degree separately. Many students can satisfy their program requirements online in as little as one year. Common concentrations include health systems executive leadership, nurse anesthesia, and family practice (across the lifespan). At this level, learners explore topics in genetics and molecular therapeutics, organizational and management theory, and healthcare public policy.
Helpful Nursing Program & School FAQs
Earning a nursing degree online provides individuals with the same degree as on-campus graduates, as long as the online program holds proper accreditation. To become an RN, candidates must earn either a nursing diploma, an ADN, or a BSN.
When looking for the right online nursing program, degree-seekers should pay close attention to accreditation. Credible nursing programs should feature both regional accreditation and specialized accreditation. Most online programs follow the same rigorous curriculum as their on-campus counterparts.
The shortest online nursing programs typically average about one year. They include LPN/LVN diploma and bridge programs, full-time ADN programs, accelerated BSN programs for students with non-nursing degrees, and, in some cases, bridge programs for students with enough transfer credits or work experience.
Most nursing degree programs require in-person attendance for clinical rotations and other experiential learning. But some may be offered fully online, including some diploma programs, RN-to-BSN bridge programs, and tracks leading to degrees in nursing administration or nurse education. Additionally, bridge programs may allow nurses to complete their clinical hours at their current places of employment.
While online degrees afford students with more flexibility, they are not necessarily easier than on-campus programs. Online learners should be disciplined and self-sufficient. Earning a degree online also requires degree-seekers to possess excellent time management skills.
A degree earned from an online program is the same diploma students earn when they graduate from an on-campus program. Both options follow the same course topics and requirements, preparing enrollees to pursue a variety of job opportunities after graduation.
Online nursing schools that hold accreditation from organizations like the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing and the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education meet the same standards for high educational quality as traditional, on-campus programs. Accrediting bodies conduct rigorous assessment of the curriculums to ensure they prepare students for credentialing exams, licensure, and nursing practice.
The University of Texas at Austin ranks as the top online nursing school, boasting an 83% graduation rate and offering MSN degrees in five specialization areas. Students can complete their programs in as soon as 18 months and concentrate on adult-gerontology, family practice, pediatric primary care, psychiatric/mental health, and nursing leadership.
Universities may offer a few free virtual courses to attract students to their degree programs, but completing the degree program is not free. Prospective nurses can access free online courses in such diverse topics as nursing theory and advanced practice, diet therapy, understanding dementia, and learning how to take vital signs. Logging onto free courses can help with the decision of whether to apply to nursing school.
Online degrees provide learners with the flexibility and convenience they need to satisfy their program requirements while balancing other commitments, including career and family. Online programs also allow students to access advanced technologies and resources.
Resources for Online Nursing Students
Brandy Gleason, MSN, MHA, BC-NC, is a nursing professional with nearly 20 years of varied nursing experience. Gleason currently teaches as an assistant professor of nursing within a prelicensure nursing program and coaches graduate students. Her passion and area of research centers around coaching nurses and nursing students to build resilience and avoid burnout.
Gleason is a paid member of our Healthcare Review Partner Network. Learn more about our review partners here.
NurseJournal.org is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.
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