What to Look for in a Nursing Program icon

What to Look for in a Nursing Program

| NurseJournal Staff

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If you're looking for a career that offers job growth opportunities, a good salary, and stability, the nursing industry checks all the boxes. Nursing professionals can become licensed practical/vocational nurses (LPN/LVNs), registered nurses (RNs), and nurse practitioners (NPs). According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, RNs earned a median annual income of $73,300 in 2019, with industry growth projected at 12% from 2018-28.

To become a nurse, you need a quality education. To find the right program, you must consider several factors. This resource explores those factors, focusing on associate degrees in nursing (ADNs) and bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degrees. You can learn how to determine the top nursing colleges and which nursing program best fits your goals.

How to Choose the Right Nursing Program

First, consider your priorities. Do you want to become an LVN/LPN or RN? Would you prefer an on-campus program or an online program? Do you need to work while studying, or can you enroll full time?

After clarifying those answers for yourself, explore colleges with nursing programs that help you achieve your goals. Pay attention to factors like NCLEX pass rates, accreditation, and student satisfaction. For more detailed information on how to choose the right nursing school, keep reading.

How Long Programs Take to Complete The length of nursing programs depends on two main factors: the type of program and the student's schedule. LPN/LVN training programs take about one year to complete. Associate degrees last two years for full-time students, and BSN programs take four years of full-time study. Some learners enroll part time, which can lengthen the completion time by several semesters. Schools also offer accelerated programs, which allow students to graduate faster.
Curriculum and Specialties Offered Nursing programs focus on human anatomy and physiology, pharmacology, and nursing skills. Students practice those skills, like taking vital signs, during supervised clinical hours. In LPN/LVN educational programs, the curriculum focuses solely on those topics at a foundational level. Associate and bachelor's degrees often require general education courses in addition to nursing courses. BSN courses delve into more advanced material than associate programs.
Clinical Rotation Requirements All nursing students must complete a certain number of clinical rotations as determined by their state before they qualify for licensure. These allow students to practice their skills in a safe and supervised setting at a real healthcare facility. To find a school with quality clinical rotations, ask the right questions. Susan Sanders, vice president of Kaplan Nursing, offers some examples. "Ask where the school has clinical contracts. Another important question is to ask 'what is the faculty-to-student ratio in the clinical setting?' Most states set the acceptable ratio, but the school can determine a lesser ratio, which could provide the students with a more robust experience and individual attention."
Online Versus In-Person Formats Online programs generally follow the same curriculum as on-campus programs at the same school. That said, students should make sure the programs include theoretical, lab, and clinical requirements. They should also double check to see how the online learning format at their particular school integrates all of these components. "The student should think about how the application of the knowledge they gain in class is going to be put into practice," Sanders says. "Does the school provide lab skills live or online, is there some way to practice what they've learned on 'real' patients or some type of simulation on patients? Has the faculty ever taught online courses?"
Verifying Accreditation Accreditation is the process by which educational programs are evaluated to maintain standards of educational quality. In other words, if a nursing program holds accreditation, it has been approved by an external review to prepare you academically and professionally. If a program lacks accreditation, this should register as a red flag. Look for programs accredited by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN), or the National League of Nursing (NLN). Most nursing programs post their accreditation online. If you cannot easily find it, though, do not hesitate to call the school and ask about the nursing program's accreditation status.
Program Cost Like any higher education program, nursing programs generally do not come with a cheap price tag. Of course, cost is an important factor when choosing nursing programs. However, just because one program demands higher tuition, that doesn't mean it offers a higher-quality education. It may just be offered at a private college instead of a public institution. Before you give up on your dreams because of cost, consider the good news: There are many financial aid options to help you pay for your degree. Look into scholarships from your college or professional associations, grants from your state government, and federal student loans.

Qualities of a Good Nursing Program

Kathryn Patterson, undergraduate program director for Missouri State University's pre-licensure and RN-to-BSN completion programs, suggests looking at several factors when researching nursing programs: NCLEX pass rates, accreditation, quality faculty, excellent clinical sites, student employment following graduation, positive student experiences, and engaged, approachable faculty.

All of these factors give insight into the quality of education students receive and whether students have fulfilling experiences while enrolled. You can usually find several data points listed above at the school's institutional research office. In addition, reach out to faculty and alumni to get a sense of what you can expect on a day-to-day basis.

  • Accreditation

    Accreditation can affect your job prospects and your ability to obtain licensure, among other consequences. "Without accreditation, the student will be limited in receiving financial aid funds," explains Patterson. "Accreditation also impacts a student's ability to transfer to another school. If the school is not accredited, there is no option for you to transfer to a different school."
  • Student Support Services

    Nursing school can seem tough when you go it alone. Many good nursing schools offer students services to help them succeed through difficult periods. Check with your potential nursing programs to make sure you can access "well-qualified and experienced academic advisors and supportive nursing faculty members," Patterson suggests. Patterson also recommends looking for programs with "technology [support], library and writing resources, student liaisons, as well as stress/time management resources."
  • NCLEX Outcomes and Requirements

    "One of the most important aspects is the school's NCLEX outcomes - what percentage of graduates pass on the first testing," Patterson says. Aspiring nurses must take the NCLEX exam to qualify for nursing licensure. Therefore, NCLEX pass rates can work as a bellwether to indicate the effectiveness of a nursing program in training its students. Many schools publish NCLEX pass rates on their websites. If you cannot find the pass rate online, you can find that information by inquiring directly through an email or phone call. Check for NCLEX pass rates over the past five years so you can get a full picture over a longer period of time.
  • Past Student Satisfaction

    Another great way to check the quality of a nursing program involves exploring past student satisfaction. Sometimes schools collect information about graduate satisfaction through alumni surveys. If that data is not available, then reach out to current and former students. If you send a friendly email asking to chat about their experiences, chances are that many students will be willing to honestly respond to your questions.

Finding a Good Online Nursing Program

Distance learning programs have become increasingly popular over the past two decades, and many schools offer online nursing programs as alternatives to traditional, on-campus degrees.

If an online degree works better for your goals, make sure that the program successfully integrates labs and clinical experiences into the curriculum. They may not be identical to on-campus versions of these requirements, but they are still required, so try to learn as much as possible about how a potential school will accommodate these experiences for their online students before you apply.

"Technology to objectively monitor clinical performance should be integrated within the program to enhance learning," Patterson says. "Education and experience level of faculty, cost, student retention rate, graduation rate and NCLEX pass rates are also very important. If available, alumni survey responses regarding the educational experience of the program would be good to review."

Meet Our Experts

Dr. Kathryn Patterson
Expert Reviewer: Dr. Kathryn PattersonDr. Kathryn Patterson is the undergraduate program director for Missouri State University's pre- licensure and RN-to-BSN completion program. Her nursing career began in 1984, when she graduated with a nursing diploma from a hospital-based educational program. Her education journey continued while working many different clinical and administrative nursing roles. She completed her BSN in 1994, her MSN/FNP in 2007 and her doctorate of nursing practice in 2017. In addition to her academic duties, she continues to work one day a week as an advanced practice nurse (FNP) providing primary care to those uninsured in the community.
Susan Sanders, DNP, RN, NEA-BC
Expert Reviewer: Susan Sanders, DNP, RN, NEA-BCSusan Sanders, DNP, RN, NEA-BC, is vice president of Kaplan Nursing. With over 30 years of experience in healthcare, Dr. Sanders has managed at the executive level in academia, hospital operation, and consulting. She has gained additional leadership expertise as president of the state nurses association, through professional memberships, and through board certification as an advanced nurse executive. She is a frequent poster and podium presenter at local, national and international conferences and a former member of the ANCC Commission on Accreditation.

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