Online Registered Nurse (RN) Degree Programs Guide

From responding to global health emergencies to supporting and advocating for family caregivers, registered nurses have a growing impact on the U.S. healthcare system. Today, there are over 3 million registered nurses (RNs), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). While registered nurses are typically found in clinics, hospitals, physicians’ offices, or other medical settings providing care to patients, they can also operate within a wide variety of roles outside these areas. Schools and government agencies are just two examples of where a registered nurse could work.

An approved nursing education program may help to prepare registered nurses to perform a range of duties. But an RN’s area of specialization and practice setting, as well as the needs of their patient, often determine their daily responsibilities.

Is an RN program right for me?

An RN program may be a good fit for individuals who are interested in the healthcare field, but also have strong communication skills, excel at helping others, enjoy educating others about healthy living, consistently demonstrate empathy, and have the flexibility to adapt to new techniques, technologies, and medical procedures when they are introduced.

Some kick off their healthcare career as a licensed practical nurse (LPN) and desire more opportunities for advancement, while others may enter nursing practice later in life by way of an accelerated bachelor of science in nursing program for non-nursing majors. Whatever path you choose, there is no wrong way.

For those who want to become RNs, note that this career path is in demand and still growing. Employment of registered nurses is projected to grow 12% by 2028, according to the BLS as of March 2020. In addition to job growth and fulfilling work, some prospective RNs look forward to competitive wages and long-term stability. As of May 2018, the BLS reports a median annual wage for registered nurses is $71,730. The highest 10% of RNs earned more than $106,530, while the lowest 10% earned less than $50,800 in 2018.

What can I do with an RN degree?

Registered nurse programs may offer specializations that allow you to develop in-depth expertise in an area that you’re passionate about, diversify your caseload, and provide care to a variety of patients.

The career opportunities listed below all require completion of a nursing degree program, state licensure, and a passing score on the NCLEX-RN, which is the national exam for RNs. Some positions may require a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree, but this varies per job and state.

Critical Care Nurse

Critical care nurses are people who work with extremely ill patients and are considered important patient advocates when the health of patients is life-threatening. These nurses must be able to educate both patients and family members about different healthcare options during challenging health situations. Typically, the critical care nurse, sometimes called an ICU nurse, attends to a small number of patients so they are able to provide individual focus and dedication.

To become a critical care nurse, you will need to have an associate degree in nursing or a bachelor's degree in nursing — and you must pass the NCLEX-RN. Note that your state may require additional licensing requirements. Apart from education, you can gain specialized skills required for this field on the job.

The American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN) offers a number of specialized credentials for critical care nurses. Here are a few of them:

CCRN-K (Pediatric) – You may want to consider pursuing this certification if you are currently providing acute care to critically ill pediatric patients. This certification may also be useful to clinical educators, nursing administrators, and managers. Eligibility requirements include a set number of practice hours, and fees vary based on AACN membership.

CCRN-E (Adult) – Are you an RN or advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) who works in a remote tele-ICU setting? If so, this specialty certification may be one to consider earning. With it, you can provide care to critically ill adult patients via audiovisual and computer systems. Eligibility requirements include a set number of practice hours over the course of two years or five years, and fees vary based on AACN membership.

CMC (Adult) – This credential may be a fit for you if you have experience providing care to critically ill adult cardiac patients. If you’re interested in earning a CMC (Adult) credential, visit the AACN website and make use of their exam prep resources. Eligibility requirements include a set number of practice hours, and fees vary based on AACN membership.

Holistic Nurse

Holistic nurses don't only focus on the physical health of their patients, but see addressing both the emotional and spiritual needs of their patients as part of the healing process. The holistic nurse incorporates both complementary and alternative therapies into their practice using a variety of healing modalities such as self-care, massage, and spirituality training.

To become a holistic nurse, you need either an associate degree or a bachelor's degree in nursing. After you have a degree, you must have a minimum of a year of nursing experience and at least 48 hours of continuing education that is related to holistic nursing care. Certification for this holistic nursing is offered through the American Holistic Nurses Credentialing Corporation (AHNCC). The AHNCC recommends credentialing for nurses looking to advance their careers as well as those who want to create awareness about the practice.

Medical-Surgical Nurse

Medical-surgical nursing is the largest nursing specialty in the U.S. healthcare system, according to the Academy of Medical-Surgical Nurses (AMSN). The medical-surgical nurse position calls for vast amounts of comprehensive medical knowledge and the competency to be able to execute said knowledge in a practical way. The medical-surgical nurse is often adaptable and steadfast, with the ability to take care of a high load of patients throughout the day. Skills in both patient management and administration are crucial to the job. Medical-surgical nurses can work in intensive care, plastic surgery and emergency surgery departments.

To become a medical-surgical nurse, you need an accredited nursing degree. You do not need to become certified to be a medical-surgical nurse, but the Medical-Surgical Nursing Certification Board offers a Certified Medical-Surgical Registered Nurse (CMSRN) certification to nurses in this field, while the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) offers a Medical-Surgical Nursing Certification.

Public Health Nurse

Typically, a nurse cares for one single patient at a time. However, the work of the public health nurse involves large populations. These nurses use their health background to educate and reach large communities. Public health nurses also believe that the overall health of a person can be affected by many factors such as lifestyle and the environment. Instead of treating patients that show up at hospitals or clinics, the public health nurse meets with people in their communities to understand how they can work to improve overall health and wellness, through education and awareness.

To become a public health nurse, you need either an associate degree or a bachelor's degree in nursing. After this requirement is met and you’ve passed the national exam for RNs, there are no additional qualifications required. However, nurses in this field may consider the Certification in Public Health (CPH) which is administered by the National Board of Public Health Examiners (NBPHE).

Public Health Nurses also have the option of pursuing graduate degrees like the Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), or an advanced degree in public health, to help them compete for jobs that include more leadership and research roles.

School Nurse

The school nurse is vital to the health and well-being of adults and children within a school setting. This nurse must abide by the health and educational requirements set for the entire school population. Aside from managing the daily tasks of being a nurse to sick children and staff, they are also responsible for setting up flu shot clinics and CPR classes for staff. Beyond the educational expertise needed to become a school nurse, experience in mental health and emergency medicine is key.

To become a school nurse, you need an accredited nursing degree. Once you begin working as a school nurse, you can become a member of the National Association of School Nurses (NASN). The National Board for Certification of School Nurses and the National League for Nursing offer voluntary certification for school nurses and nurse educators.

Travel Nurse

Traveling nurses are valuable healthcare resources, as they provide temporary medical assistance to communities in need. These nurses can choose what location they would like to live in and what field they would like to work in. Travel assignments can last up to 26 weeks.

You will need licensure as a registered nurse and at least one year of hands-on experience in a chosen specialty of nursing, to pursue this profession.

Some travel nurse agencies may place an emphasis on hiring multilingual nurses, those who have a BSN, or those with basic certifications such as the American Heart Association’s Basic Life Support Training. If you wish to specialize in a specific area of nursing medicine, then you’ll want to get a certification for that too.

Military Nurse

Military nurses work within the military and provide medical care specifically to patients in military clinics and hospitals. Much like their counterparts outside of the military, these nurses perform similar functions. Typical duties include monitoring wounds for infection, preparing patients for surgical procedures, and administering standard wellness care for service members. Military nurses can remain unspecialized within their field or opt to specialize in areas like critical care.

Depending on your career goals, you can choose to apply for a nursing commission to obtain a job in the Army, Air Force, Navy, or Coast Guard. For many military nurse positions, RNs are required to have a BSN. If a civilian wants to enter the military as an RN, they should have obtained their RN licensure and are required to go through officer training within the branch of the armed forces they wish to serve.

Advantages of an RN Program

The freedom to take classes in a traditional classroom can be dictated by physical location, work schedules, or family life. Earning an RN degree online, however, is one way for you to work around these restrictions and finish your degree at your own pace within the comfort of your own home.

Today, with technological advancements such as video conferencing available, earning your nursing degree online is almost identical to earning your degree on campus. Whether you are an online Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) candidate or an online Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) candidate, you’ll likely cover the same rigorous course load as on-campus students.

Accredited online RN programs are available in a variety of specializations and timelines, and vary in cost, making them a practical option for those seeking to advance their careers by earning a license as a registered nurse.

Every state board has different eligibility requirements for licensing, so you must fulfill the requirements of the state in which you would like to practice nursing. You have the chance to change states after you take your NCLEX-RN exam, and you may not need to repeat the test.

RN Bridge Programs

It’s not uncommon to kickstart your career in one discipline and want to switch your trajectory to nursing later in life, or transition to the role of an RN after entering the nursing world as an LPN. Whatever the reason for the desire to transition into a nursing career, there are bridge programs that have been created to accommodate the transition.

The bridge program differs from a regular program because it uses the skills and experience a person already has and offers a curriculum at an accelerated pace. Bridge programs typically take less time than their traditional counterparts.

LPN/LVN to RN

Usually, the LPN to RN bridge program can help you earn your registered nursing degree in as little as 12 to 18 months. Earning your licensure as an RN may provide you with more opportunities and responsibilities. Learn more about LPN to RN programs.

Paramedic to RN

While paramedics have their own set of health education requirements, transitioning into an RN position may provide additional stability and job advancements within their field. The length of the bridge program for paramedics who want to transition into the field depends on the classes taken. These programs often hinge upon the preexisting knowledge that paramedics have, and many paramedics can gain credits by taking standardized testings for related courses.

What to Expect in an RN Program

RN program requirements vary depending on the school you choose to attend. However, many schools offer similar program timelines and curricula that may help prepare you to take the NCLEX-RN and begin your career in nursing.

Education Requirements

A BSN is a common way of earning your licensure as a registered nurse. However, you can also obtain licensure through an associate degree (ADN) as well. Education requirements for ADN and BSN degree programs vary by school. Typically, for undergraduate degrees, you might be asked for a high school diploma or GED, along with an application fee, personal statement, and specific subject prerequisites.

Curriculum

Generally, a BSN program comprises two years of core education classes and general studies before the nursing practicum begins. Conversely, the ADN is quicker and less in-depth than the 4-year BSN. However, for both degrees, you may be required to take classes in anatomy, nursing, chemistry, nutrition, and microbiology, among others. You will also be required to undertake other general liberal arts classes and perform a required number of clinical hours as well.

Length of Program

The ADN program may be finished within two years. The BSN program takes an average of four years and is more in-depth. While both programs will offer you the education and requirements you may need to pursue licensure as a registered nurse, remember that a BSN degree may be more desirable for job placements and, in some cases, absolutely required for earning a master's or doctorate within the field.

RN Program Accreditation and Organizations

Before you apply to a particular nursing program, it is wise to confirm that it is properly accredited. Many employers require their employees to have a degree from an accredited school. The Commission on the Collegiate Nursing Education and the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing are two main nursing program accrediting bodies. Also, some states only accept graduates of accredited universities to sit for the NCLEX-RN, which is developed and updated by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN).

Once you begin practicing as an RN, you have the opportunity to become a member of a professional organization. That’s one way to build a strong network of like-minded practitioners. There are organizations available by specialty, but if you are looking for a more general, consider the American Nurses Association (ANA) which offers membership benefits ranging from discounts on certifications and nursing publications to free professional development resources.

Certain roles in the nursing field may require advanced degrees to be considered for hire. So, if you’re an RN with a BSN, you may have your eye on an MSN degree. Before you embark on the journey to apply to an MSN program and gain in-depth knowledge within a specific specialty, here is some useful information to think about:

Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) Programs

You can obtain a Masters in Nursing by continuing your studies after completing a BSN degree program or also earn it through an RN-to-MSN bridge program. No matter how you choose to earn this degree, an MSN may help you to advance your career, increase your pay, and specialize in a field of your choice.

Online MSN Programs

Enrolling in an online MSN program is a convenient way to further your education and learn new skills in the field of nursing, while you continue work. If you are seeking to take nursing classes online, confirm that the school you plan to attend is accredited. Accreditation proves that the school meets all the standards required to provide nursing training.

Online Nurse Practitioner Program

A nurse practitioner (NP) is an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) who has expanded responsibilities and duties when it comes to administering patient care and treatment. In fact, some states, NPs are not required to be supervised by a doctor. When you become an NP, you can open an independent practice or work alongside a healthcare team.

To become an NP, you must hold both a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) and an advanced degree like a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN). Some online nurse practitioner programs offer specialization in the following areas:

FAQs

Because there is more than one educational path that leads to licensure, you may be wondering which is the best fit for you. To determine that, take your career goals into account. The following questions and answers might also help you to narrow down your choice:

What is the fastest path to becoming an RN?

To find a position as an RN, you must acquire the necessary education, complete clinical training, and apply for and gain the proper licenses and certification. While the Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) is the standard 4-year college degree program to become a nurse, there may be ways to fast track your preparation towards earning your license as a registered nurse.

Receive your Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN): While you are technically not an RN right away, you may be able to launch your nursing career after the program, which typically lasts 18 months. After graduation, students may be qualified to take the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN).

Receive your Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing (A-BSN): If you already hold a bachelor's degree of some sort, you can earn this degree to fast track your new career. This degree can help you transition into becoming an RN in around the same amount of time as the ADN. After graduation, students may be qualified to take the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN).

When is the best time to apply for an RN program?

When to apply varies from school, so confirm a school’s deadline for application times and submit earlier than they request, if possible. Applying early may show the school you are ready and eager, and this will also provide you with additional time to gather any supplemental documents that you may have forgotten before the official deadline.

How much does an RN program cost?

The cost of your program varies per school and may cost anywhere from $20,000 or more to complete. While a nursing education can be quite costly, there are a number of ways to pay for it through federal loans, grants, or nursing scholarships and financial aid.