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How to Choose a Nursing Program

by NurseJournal Staff
Reviewed by Brandy Gleason, MSN, MHA, BC-NC

Choosing a nursing program is one of the first steps toward becoming a registered nurse (RN). Because the program you select can significantly influence your future career, consider investing time into researching different programs.

To choose the best program, it may be useful to consider a series of questions. For example, do you prefer online or on-campus learning? How much can you afford to spend? Do you qualify for many scholarship opportunities? With questions like these in mind, you can turn hundreds of possible nursing programs into a handful that best fit your academic and career goals.

In this guide, you can learn more about online education, accreditation, different degree levels, and licensure as they relate to nursing. If you still have questions after reading this article, consider contacting the admissions departments at the colleges and universities on your application shortlist.

Program Delivery: Online versus On-Campus

Nursing programs fall into one of two categories: online or on-campus delivery. On-campus delivery represents the standard college experience where students either live on campus or commute from home to attend classes.

Alternatively, more and more learners have turned to online programs for its relative affordability. Online programs typically feature lower tuition and do not charge many of the student fees applicable to on-campus students. Online students also save money by avoiding on-campus housing and commuting costs.

In addition to cost savings, many online programs let students view lectures and complete coursework at their convenience. These programs can be ideal for students working full time or those committed to raising a family. Due to advances in online learning software, the rigor of most online programs matches that of their on-campus counterparts.

However, keep in mind that online learning presents its own set of challenges. Online learners often juggle academics with other responsibilities. Students must maintain good organizational skills and stay motivated to make sure they complete assignments and keep up with the material.

Factors to Consider in an Online Nursing Program

There are several factors to consider when finding an online nursing program, including learning style, course schedules, class size, personal learning style, and clinical rotation requirements.

Hybrid/Blended Learning

In a hybrid/blended learning environment, students typically travel to campus, or a satellite location, at least once a week to complete labs or other activities that require hands-on attention. These programs work best for students living within a short driving distance of campus.

Learners in hybrid programs benefit from one-on-one interaction with their peers and professors, engaging in learning experiences not available to online students. However, pay special attention to what types of classroom activities make up the hybrid/blended component.

For example, it may not be worth your time to enroll in a hybrid program if the in-person component consists mostly of classroom lectures. Also, if you cannot travel and attend some classes in person, make sure to avoid this type of program format.

Synchronous or Asynchronous

Synchronous and asynchronous course schedules affect how and when you take courses. In a synchronous format, all students in an online course meet with their professor at the same time through an online portal. This learning style mirrors the one experienced by on-campus students.

In an asynchronous format, students can view prerecorded lectures at their convenience. Students in an asynchronous program still interact with their professors and peers but do so through email and online message boards.

Both learning styles require students to complete assignments by set deadlines. When deciding between synchronous and asynchronous, compare a program's requirements against your other obligations. Synchronous learning programs may not appeal to students whose work schedules conflict with set lecture times.

Class Size

Class size can significantly impact the quality of an education, for both online and on-campus students. As an example, the potential for meaningful feedback from your professor can drop if a class grows larger than 30 or 40 students. Also, you may encounter fewer opportunities to form professional bonds with your peers during discussion in large classes.

Alternatively, in a smaller class, you can receive more individualized attention from your professor. To determine typical class sizes, visit a college or university's website to see if a nursing program caps the number of students in each class.

However, keep in mind that even if a program does not cap the number of students in a class, it may still provide enrollees with an excellent education. Professors may use teaching assistants to help students with questions and grade assignments.

Personal Learning Style

Some students prefer to learn visually by reading or viewing material, while others learn best by listening to lectures. Other learners benefit the most by incorporating movement or touch into their studies. Before selecting an online learning program, consider which learning style best describes you.

Online nursing programs that feature prerecorded lectures tend to appeal to auditory learners, while programs that emphasize self-study may appeal more to visual learners. Programs that use labs and hands-on activities benefit kinesthetic learners.

To find out how a program uses different learning styles, contact a professor or admissions coordinator. The best programs often balance each learning style, so that all learners feel engaged with course material. Programs that favor one learning style over another may not be the best fit for certain learners.

Clinical Rotations or Nursing Internships

Hospitals and other health organizations that hire recent graduates select applicants with the best training, including those who completed clinical rotations or internships. When you start a nursing program, your school should begin the process of finding local hospitals where you can carry out your clinical rotation or internship.

Most programs require student nurses to complete a clinical rotation or internship during their final year of study. During these experiences, you work full time at a job site, gaining important exposure to the healthcare field. Excellent performance during your rotation can lead to a strong recommendation letter or an employment offer after you graduate.

Choosing an Accredited Nursing Program

A school that holds accreditation has met certain academic standards set by an accrediting body. Some accrediting agencies specialize in program accreditation, while others assess a school's overall academic quality.

For aspiring nurses, accreditation is very important when selecting a nursing program. Most states will only allow nursing licensure for candidates who graduate from an accredited program. A college or university that fails to hold accreditation may not adequately prepare graduates for their chosen careers.

If a college or university holds regional accreditation, that accreditation also applies to the school's online programs. Other forms of accreditation, such as national or program accreditation, may also apply to online programs. To find out if the programs that interest you hold accreditation, visit the database hosted by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) of institutions and programs accredited by U.S. accrediting agencies.

In the sections below, you can learn more about the differences among national, regional, and program accreditation.

National versus Regional Accreditation

Regional accreditation refers to accreditation by one of seven regional accreditation agencies. The Department of Education oversees these agencies and tasks them with reviewing academic programs in different regions of the U.S. The most reputable institutions of higher education hold regional accreditation. You should avoid considering nursing schools that do not hold this type of accreditation.

Alternatively, national accreditation may be awarded by private accreditation agencies that oversee specialized programs, such as distance learning and online programs. Accreditation from the Distance Education Accrediting Commission represents the gold standard for online education programming.

If you decide to switch schools partway through your nursing program, your credits should transfer if you attended a regionally accredited college or university. However, if you attended a school with only national accreditation, your credits might not transfer. Before you begin your college education, consider contacting different schools to learn about their accreditation and credit transfer policies.

Nursing Program Accreditation

Programmatic accreditation refers to accreditation given by private agencies that focus on a particular academic subject. Colleges and universities ask these agencies to review their academic programs, and programmatic accreditation can raise a school's reputation, enrollment, and funding.

Two programmatic accreditation agencies oversee the nursing field: the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) and the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN). CCNE and ACEN accreditation indicate that a nursing program follows a rigorous academic schedule that includes up-to-date information and best nursing practices, helping prepare graduates to succeed in the rapidly evolving healthcare field.

CCNE and ACEN create accreditation guidelines by performing extensive research, ensuring the validity of curricula. As you make your shortlist of programs, consider including only those with regional, national, and programmatic accreditation.

Career Goals in Nursing

Where do you see yourself in 10 years? This common question, which is often asked during employment interviews, can also help you figure out how to choose a nursing program.

Experienced registered nurses who further their education beyond the bachelor's level can become nurse practitioners or enter the field of academia and work as professors. Having one or more specific nursing career goals can help focus your program search.

However, don't worry if your career path remains a little vague; many undergraduates, even those pursuing specialized tracks such as nursing, have yet to establish concrete career goals. To keep your options open, consider applying to programs that offer a well-rounded curriculum.

Degree Levels of Nursing

There are many types of nursing degrees. Nursing students can earn a degree at the associate, bachelor's, master's, and doctoral levels. Advanced degrees can lead to new career opportunities, more responsibility, and higher salary potential.

Associate Degree in Nursing

Depending on the state, an associate degree in nursing may or may not qualify graduates for a nursing license. However, graduates of two-year programs may apply their credits toward a bachelor's in nursing. Associate degree holders can also enter the workforce directly and gain experience as medical techs.

Bachelor's Degree in Nursing

A nurse with a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degree can apply for licensure in every state. These four-year programs teach a broad liberal arts curriculum and more advanced nursing classes compared to associate programs.

Master's Degree in Nursing

A master of science in nursing (MSN) degree can qualify graduates to become nurse practitioners, who can work independently and prescribe medication. Other types of master's degrees in nursing include education, administration, and healthcare informatics. Master's programs emphasize research methodologies and typically require 1-2 additional years of study.

Doctoral Degree in Nursing

Individuals who hope to become nursing professors, policy advisers, and executive leaders should earn a doctoral degree. Doctoral programs come in two forms: doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.) programs and doctor of nursing practice (DNP) programs. Ph.D. programs are focused on heavy research and include writing a lengthy dissertation, while DNP programs are more practice oriented. DNP programs require hands-on experience, depending on the concentration.

Ph.D. programs may take up to 4-6 additional years to complete, but most doctoral programs can be completed in an average of 2-4 years. During a doctoral program, students spend most of their time researching a nursing topic and writing a dissertation or completing a capstone project.

Bridge Programs for RNs

Registered nurses with experience often want to further their education while still working full or part time. To help these professionals, many colleges and universities offer RN-to-BSN and RN-to-MSN programs.

You can read more about these programs below. Each section includes a link to in-depth information about a program's typical curriculum, length, and tuition.

RN-to-BSN

This bridge program helps registered nurses with an associate degree earn their bachelor's in nursing. Students typically take 1-2 years to graduate. During the program, students can select a nursing specialty.

RN-to-MSN

RN-to-MSN programs offer the fastest route to advanced practice nursing, allowing nurses with an RN license to earn a master's degree. This program emphasizes the skills and knowledge needed to become a nurse practitioner or other advanced specialty.

Nursing Specialities

Like doctors, nurses can choose a specialty to match their career goals. As you research different program specialities, reflect on how you want to help patients. If a program does not match your career goals, strike it from your shortlist.

This technique is especially helpful for graduate students because individuals in MSN programs must choose a speciality. If you remain unsure about which specialty best matches your interests, select programs that offer multiple speciality options. Below are a few popular nursing specializations:

  • Pediatrics: Pediatric nurses ensure that infants and children grow up to become healthy adults. Working alongside pediatricians, pediatric nurses often consult with parents about methods to raise physically and mentally healthy children.
  • Geriatrics: Geriatric nurses help older patients maintain their independence. These professionals teach patients about strength training exercises and how to manage symptoms of chronic illness.
  • Developmental Disabilities: Developmental disability or special needs nurses provide care to patients with a range of developmental disabilities and challenges. These RNs assist with mobility, communication, bodily function, and the hygienic and nutritional needs of patients.
  • Dermatology: Dermatology nurses work with dermatologists to treat skin conditions, such as infections and cancer. They often take specimens and answer their patient's questions.
  • Nutrition: Nutrition nurses are experts in dietary support as it relates to specific medical conditions. They use nutritional therapies like supplements, tube feedings, or intravenous feedings to treat patients.
  • School: School nurses work in one or more schools to treat minor injuries and administer prescribed medication. These nurses also report statistics about a school's overall health, such as the percentage of students absent due to the flu.

Nursing Licensure

Because each state sets its own specific rules for nursing licensure, you should look into your state's licensure requirements before beginning an undergraduate nursing program. Also, pay attention to a program's NCLEX-RN pass rate; each state requires registered nurses to pass this exam. A high pass rate indicates that a program adequately trains student nurses for success in the field.

Licensure also plays a vital role in graduate admissions. Many MSN programs only accept applicants who hold an active nursing license.

Education and Training Requirements for Common Nursing Careers
Occupation Minimum Degree Required License/Certification Median Salary
Registered Nurses Associate Licensure required; specialty certification may be required or prefered by employers. $75,330
Licensed Practical Nurses (LPNs) and Licensed Vocational Nurses (LVNs) Postsecondary nondegree Licensure required; certification may be required or prefered by employers. $48,820
Nurse Anesthetists Master’s RN license required; CRNA and additional certification may be required or preferred by employers. $183,580
Nurse Midwives Master’s RN license required; CNM and additional certification may be required or preferred by employers. $111,130
Nurse Practitioners Master’s RN license required; additional certification may be required or preferred by employers. $111,680
Nursing Instructors or Teachers, Postsecondary A master’s degree may be the minimum requirement at some community colleges; however, postsecondary teachers at four-year universities usually require a doctoral degree. A nursing license may be required. $84,060
Source: BLS.gov

Nursing School Cost and Financial Aid

The cost of your nursing education depends on several factors:

  • The program's length
  • The number of credits you take each semester
  • Other various fees that contribute to the final price

The most significant variable may be the type of degree you need to earn to pursue your target career. Keep in mind that more advanced degrees typically cost more.

Fortunately, because nursing represents a rapidly growing field, many public and private organizations offer financial aid opportunities to help nurses pay for school. The sections below detail different ways to save money on tuition. Additionally, you can review multiple scholarship opportunities for nursing students.

Public versus Private Nursing Schools

Choosing a nursing program often begins by deciding on whether to attend a public or private school. Public schools receive funding from state governments and award degrees at all levels; the student bodies at these institutions tend to be much larger than those at private schools.

Public schools generally cost significantly less than private schools, especially for students paying in-state tuition. Also, at a public school, students can usually select from a larger number of degree options, which can be attractive for incoming first-year students who have not decided on a specific career path.

Private schools do not receive large amounts of state funding. They rely on endowments, donations, and higher tuition rates to cover expenses. However, despite the higher price tag, many private schools offer generous aid packages to students with academic merit or to those who demonstrate significant financial need. Private schools may be more competitive than public schools, but they often feature smaller class sizes and increased individual attention from professors.

In-State versus Out-of-State Schools

Although public schools typically charge lower tuition rates than private schools, some students attending public schools pay much more than their peers. Because public schools aim to serve residents living in the states where they operate, learners with in-state residency pay less.

In-state students may also benefit from specific scholarship programs for residents of that state. In contrast, out-of-state students typically pay 2-3 times the in-state tuition rate. Also, most public schools limit the number of out-of-state applicants they accept each year.

The best public colleges and universities use these tactics to discourage out-of-state applicants. However, once out-of-state students attend a public school for a year or more, they become eligible for in-state tuition rates if they can establish residency.

In-State versus Out-of-State College Tuition Prices
School Type 2019-2020 2020-2021
Public Four-year In-State College $10,440 $10,560
Public Four-Year Out-of-State College $26,770 $27,020
Private Four-Year Nonprofit College $36,880 $37,650
Source: The College Board

Two-Year versus Four-Year Schools

Part of choosing the right nursing program involves deciding whether to attend a two-year school or a four-year school. Associate programs, which are typically offered by local community colleges, take two years to complete. Many of these programs charge by the credit hour.

Students looking to save money on a bachelor's degree often earn an associate degree at a community college before transferring their credits to a four-year college or university. Students who continue to live at home while attending community college may also save money on room and board.

Four-year programs provide more of a traditional college experience, where students can live on campus with their peers. These schools charge full-time students by the term and part-time learners on a per credit basis; full-time students pay less per credit than their part-time peers.

Two-Year versus Four-Year College Tuition Prices
School Type 2019-2020 2020-2021
Public Two-Year In-District College $4,040 $3,570
Public Four-Year In-State College $4,080 $9,870
Source: The College Board

Online versus On-Campus Programs

At many colleges and universities, online students pay less for tuition compared to on-campus students. Additionally, some public schools charge all distance learners in-state tuition rates, regardless of their state of residency.

Many online students also benefit from not having to pay certain fees. When comparing online and on-campus programs, you should consider both tuition and housing costs. Public and private four-year colleges often charge hefty room and board fees, and some schools also make it mandatory for undergraduates to live on campus.

Online students can also avoid costs related to commuting or childcare. The table below has recent information about the median room and board fees for public and private colleges. Keep in mind that the room and board at your school may vary from these figures significantly.

Room and Board Fees
School Type 2019-2020 2020-2021
Public Four-Year In-State/Out-of-State College $10,690 $10,800
Private Nonprofit Four-year College $11,630 $11,740
Source: The College Board

Nursing Program Reputation

The final factor to consider when selecting a nursing program is its reputation. Although a program's reputation may not directly affect your classroom experience, it can play an important role in helping your job search after graduation.

Employers tend to prefer applicants who graduated from schools with excellent reputations. To find a school with a good reputation look for accredited programs that have a high NCLEX-RN exam pass rate and award-winning, credentialed faculty.

  • Accreditation Status: Schools and nursing programs with multiple forms of accreditation typically hold good reputations among employers. To find a complete list of a school's accreditation status, search through CHEA's databases and directories.
  • NCLEX Exam Pass Rates: All registered nurses must pass the NCLEX-RN exam before receiving state licensure. Programs where more than 75% of graduates pass the NCLEX-RN on their first try represent some of the best in the nation. Programs with high success rates typically publish this information online.
  • Teacher Credentials: Experienced nurses with advanced degrees make for the best professors. When researching a program, go to the program's faculty page to learn more about each professor's educational background and experiences.

Reviewed by:

Brandy Gleason 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.

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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