Online Registered Nurse (RN) Programs

Explore program options, vet the best schools, and see what it takes to earn and pay for an online nursing degree today.

As nursing student needs diversify, schools are expanding how they deliver their higher education programs. While face-to-face remains the norm, more and more schools have incorporated online learning into their nursing curricula. It’s convenient, more affordable, and many students can use online RN programs to help balance school, work, and family responsibilities. This holds true for all nursing programs, including the ADN, RN bridge programs, and other higher education opportunities for current and future RNs. Want to learn more? Explore nursing programs online and find the educational path that’s right for you.

Online nursing programs for aspiring or current RNs:

How Does an Online Nursing Program Work?

Online nursing programs combine the flexibility of distance learning with classroom work and hands-on clinicals. Many of the more academically-oriented courses take place online, while group and/or patient-centered activities occur at medical facilities. This combination makes online RN programs “hybrid” or “blended” in nature. While some post-licensure programs can be taken fully online, nearly all pre-licensure nursing programs with an online component are partially online. Let’s see how these hybrid programs work, and if online learning could make sense for your registered nursing education.

Taking Nursing Classes Online

The online portion of nursing programs consists of classroom style instruction. Each program has its own way of delivering the course material, but most use a type of course management software or learning management system, such as Blackboard. Whatever a particular school uses will be compatible with most computer operating systems, such as Mac OS and Windows. Students also need to have specific computer applications to help view the course material, such as a PDF reader or a program to watch videos and play audio files.

The course management software also helps facilitate group learning by allowing students to interact with each other in real time or in a time delayed format. Depending on the class and program, communication might be through online chats, message board discussions, or video conferencing using software like Skype or Facetime.

Classes with hands-on learning elements will not be able to provide the necessary learning through online exclusive means. Therefore, nursing students have to gain their in-person instruction through the use of clinicals.

The In-Person Clinicals

Online nursing programs that prepare students to become registered nurses almost always require completion of various in-person clinicals or practicums. This is because much of what a registered nurse needs to know involves hands-on skills. How students decide to complete their clinical requirements depends on where they plan on taking them. Nursing schools have arrangements with medical facilities near the school’s physical location, but things are more complicated with online students who may be thousands of miles away.

To accommodate these students, many online nursing programs allow students to work with program administrators to choose a clinical facility close to the student’s location. But distance students can’t just choose any hospital or clinic; they’ll need to find one that can provide the educational and training opportunities that warrant a nursing program’s approval. Fortunately, program administrators are usually well-versed in helping students choose the medical setting that suits their clinical requirements.

Nursing Programs & Accreditation

Accreditation refers to the independent review of a school or program to ensure it meets certain educational standards. This is particularly important with online nursing programs, where it can be very tempting for schools to cut corners to make it easier for students to graduate. When researching campus or online nursing programs, make sure the schools on your shortlist have (1) regional accreditation and (2) programmatic accreditation specific to nursing. The following accrediting bodies are key:

  • Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN): The ACEN is a US Department of Education and Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) recognized accrediting body for nursing programs in the United States and its territories. The ACEN accredits the full spectrum of nursing programs at the certificate, undergraduate, and graduate level.
  • Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE): As the second major US Department of Education recognized accrediting body, the CCNE focuses on accrediting nurse residency programs as well as traditional academic programs at the undergraduate and graduate level.

Why NCLEX-RN Pass Rates Matter

Accreditation confirms a nursing program meets basic education standards, and it’s a sign that the program readies its students to sit for the NCLEX-RN exam. Passing this exam is required to work as a registered nurse in all 50 states.

The NCLEX-RN exam is managed by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) and administered by Pearson VUE. It uses computerized adaptive testing, which means the test taker completes the exam on a computer, with the computer deciding which questions to provide the test taker based on how they answered the prior question. This means the exam may be different for every person, including the number of questions they must answer. Most test questions are in multiple choice format.

Because there’s so much weight on passing the exam, NCLEX-RN pass rates should be a key component in your nursing program search. Higher pass rates mean that a program’s curriculum is complete and its educators are well-versed in the nursing profession and education standards.

Can You Get into an Online Nursing Program? A Look at Admissions and Pre-Requisites

Exact requirements to gain acceptance into an online nursing program depends largely on the type of program. For instance, for a post-licensure program, incoming students need to already have a registered nursing license. This requirement does not exist for students entering a pre-licensure program. In contrast, students entering a pre-licensure program do have certain academic prerequisites that registered nurses enrolled in a BSN completion program won’t need to complete. In addition to academic prerequisites, incoming students also need to meet other admission requirements.

  • Academic Prerequisites

    Before beginning their nursing education, pre-licensure students must first complete prerequisites, which help provide an educational foundation for more advanced nursing courses. These prerequisite courses may differ slightly between programs, but usually consist of the following:

    • Introduction to psychology
    • Anatomy and physiology
    • Microbiology
    • Introduction to sociology
    • Chemistry
    • English composition
    • Human development and growth
    • Communication and speech
    • One or more general education courses, such as humanities or US government

    Depending on how the nursing program is set up, students may be able to gain acceptance to a school before completing any of these prerequisites. But, these students must then complete them during their first year or two while they apply for admission into the actual nursing program.

  • Physical Prerequisites

    Nursing is a very physical field, so incoming students must demonstrate the ability to meet the physical requirements of the profession. These requirements usually consist of:

    • The ability to lift up to 50 pounds
    • Fine and gross motor abilities
    • Good balance and coordination
    • Visual ability that allows nurses to provide medical care to patients, such as distinguishing colors
    • Stand for extended periods of time
    • Perform lifesaving activities, such as CPR
    • Sufficient hearing to have full awareness of patient sounds and medical instruments
    • Reach above shoulders

    Additionally, students must provide evidence that they are healthy enough to work with patients. This includes proof that they are up-to-date on their immunizations and currently enrolled in a health insurance plan.

The Admissions Process

Prospective nursing students need to pay close attention to each program’s admissions requirements, as there are a wide number of variations between programs. In addition to admission to the school, there are also degree-specific admissions requirements. At the very least, students will submit an application and evidence that they meet the physical requirements for the program. Below is a list of other common admissions criteria.

1. Academic history

Most applicants will need to provide academic transcripts and meet minimum GPA requirements. This is one of the key elements of an admissions application, as it provides a relatively objective measure of a student’s academic ability.

How to stand out

Have the highest GPA possible. An average or sub-par GPA usually won’t keep a student out (except at the most prestigious programs), but a GPA that’s high can be one of the single best ways a student can stand out. It also helps to mention extracurricular activities, such as volunteering, to show that an applicant is well-rounded.

2. Work experience

This is important for entrance into post-licensure programs. However, it can be useful for pre-licensure students as it can demonstrate other skills that the applicant may possess.

How to stand out

For pre-licensure students, experience that’s relevant to nursing can serve as evidence of a student’s desire to work in the nursing field. For admission into a post-licensure program, diverse or long-term experience in nursing can help in that it adds to the diversity of the incoming nursing class.

3. Test scores

This includes admissions and entrance test scores. Like the GPA, test scores serve as an objective measure of a student’s academic ability. Schools want their students to do well academically, and excelling on tests provides some evidence that an applicant will be able to succeed.

How to stand out

Applicants shouldn’t just aim to pass the exam or get the minimum score, but to achieve the highest scores possible. Not only does this catch the attention of admissions officers, but high test scores, especially on standardized entrance exams like the ACT or SAT, can help earn merit-based scholarships.

4. Personal interview

An interview helps students provide a personal touch to their application and get more attention in competitive programs.

How to stand out

Acceptance offers aren’t usually given based on the personal interview, but many rejection letters are. The best thing the applicant can do is be themselves and come fully prepared. Applicants should be able to explain why they want to attend that particular school and have good questions ready to provide evidence that their interest in the program is authentic.

5. Personal statement

Personal statements are essays students write to show another side of themselves beyond what a transcript, test score, or resume might provide.

How to stand out

Personal statements are the most common opportunity for applicants to stand out, especially if they don’t have a stellar GPA or test score. If the applicant has a very unique story to explain why they want to become a nurse, the personal statement may be the only opportunity to show this. It’s important to start writing this essay as early in the admissions process as possible to have plenty of time for revisions.

6. Letters of recommendation

Not all applications ask for this and when they do, they’re not the most critical part of the application. This is because they’re always going to be positive. But, they can also reflect subtle reservations from the recommender.

How to stand out

Applicants should find someone who can write a strong letter. To do this, cultivate relationships with certain teachers or mentors well before asking for a letter of recommendation. Nothing tempers a positive letter or recommendation like feeling as though you are an afterthought. Provide plenty of time for the recommender to write the letter.

7. Current registered nursing license

This is usually only necessary for post-licensure nursing applicants, such as those interested in an RN to BSN or MSN program.

How to stand out

Have a current license in good standing. Being a registered nurse won’t help applicants stand out, but not having the necessary licensure will virtually guarantee rejection.

Inside Online RN Programs

One of the strengths of nurses as healthcare professionals is their broad level of knowledge. So it comes as no surprise that the nursing curriculum for training registered nurses covers a wide arrange of subjects and topics. While each program has the freedom to create its own curriculum, all registered nursing students will take courses in several key areas.

Evidence-Based-Practice

Evidence Based Practice: All pre-licensure nursing programs require students to complete several courses focused on understanding medical research and how it applies to improving medical outcomes. In these courses, students will learn basic concepts concerning statistical analysis, the research process, and how this information contributes to the creation of policies and procedures in the healthcare setting.

Ethics

Ethics: The general principles of ethics in the medical field are fairly straightforward. But when those ideas intersect with the real world, moral conundrums that can stump even the most seasoned medical professional can arise. Therefore, registered nurses must learn to put the overarching ethical principles within the context of society, legal statutes, regulations, and medical science.

Leadership-and-Management

Leadership and Management: Providing healthcare services is a team effort, with registered nurses being key players. It’s important for future registered nurses to understand how the managing of nurses takes place in a medical facility, such as a hospital. Nursing students will also learn about the financial aspect of providing healthcare services to patients and how economic considerations play a part in healthcare.

Critical-Care-and-Assessment

Critical Care and Assessment: In these courses, nursing students learn how to assess patients and provide necessary medical care, especially for serious or traumatic injuries. One of the key skills of any medical professional is being able to identify a medical issue as quickly as possible. Another equally important skill is being able to take that initial assessment and convert that into actionable behavior, such as a specific intervention or treatment.

In addition to these core subject areas, nursing students will have opportunities to specialize in certain areas of medical practice as a means of obtaining professional advancement.

Specialization & Career Growth

When it comes to career growth, nurses have a plethora of specializations available to them. Moving into a specific area of practice can increase career prospects due to a higher degree of skill required. Let’s take a look at some of the more popular specializations for registered nurses.

  • Acute care
    When it comes to serious illness and trauma, acute care nursing is the place to be. Acute care nurses can be found in emergency rooms, intensive care units, or treating patients recovering from surgery. These nurses are usually involved when immediate or urgent medical care is required.
  • Geriatric
    One of the most common types of long-term care nursing involves treating elderly patients. Many of these patients deal with health problems that take a long time to treat or are incurable and must be managed. Geriatric nurses aren’t exclusive to treating chronic conditions and may commonly practice acute care for their patients as well.
  • Neonatal
    For nurses who enjoy working with newborn babies, a neonatal specialization should be considered. Neonatal nurses can work with both fully healthy and extremely ill or premature newborns, or may choose to further specialize and work in just one area. For example, some neonatal nurses find themselves working primarily in the neonatal intensive care unit.
  • Oncology
    Cancer is one of the most common and serious diseases humanity faces. Whole teams of medical professionals focus on this healthcare issue, including registered nurses who specialize in treating it. Oncology nurses work with a wide range of patients, a variety of ages, and deal with many types of cancer.
  • Pediatric
    Pediatric registered nurses work in a variety of settings, but almost exclusively with young children and adolescents. Some pediatric nurses can be found in an acute care setting, such as an intensive care units at a hospital. Others may be found in doctor’s offices providing routine and preventative care.
  • Women’s health
    As its name implies, women’s health nursing focuses on health issues specific to women. Most of the time, these issues involve reproductive and gynecological issues. However, women’s health nursing can also involve diseases that primarily affect women, such as ovarian or breast cancer.

The Cost of an Online RN Program

One of the major decisions to make when choosing an online registered nursing program is how much it costs to complete it. The exact cost depends on a variety of factors, such as residency status, program type, and the availability of financial aid. However, to provide a general idea of tuition costs, we’ve chosen three sample schools.

1 1. University of Tennessee Health Science Center College of Nursing, RN to BSN Program $4,900/year (in-state); $12,975 (out-of-state) or $448/credit (in-state); $1,122 (out-of-state).
2 2. Aspen University, Bachelor of Science in Nursing (pre-licensure) $37,069/year or $309/credit
3 3. Arkansas State University, RN to BSN Online $8,937/year or $248/credit

Paying for an RN Program

A nursing education isn’t cheap. Even though most nurses can expect to make a decent income after graduation, they must still figure out how to pay for the cost of education to get to that point. Like any other student, nurses are eligible for several forms of financial aid, such as scholarships, grants, and loans. But there are also some options tailored specifically to nursing students.

  • Financial aid
    Outside of the student’s own finances, financial aid is the primary method of help to pay for school. Some of the most popular sources of financial aid come from the federal government in the form of need-based grants and loans. To learn more about these options, check out the “Pay Less for Education: How to Take Charge of Your Financial Aid” page.
  • Military discount
    Many programs and schools provide special tuition rates (as much as a 30% discount) to current or former members of the armed forces. This can amount to thousands of dollars in savings over the course of a nursing program. Some schools offer these discounts to a service member’s spouse as well.
  • Scholarships & grants
    Scholarships and grants are the most desired form of financial aid because the money does not need to be paid back. Scholarships and grants can be awarded based on any number of characteristics or traits, including academic excellence, financial need, and membership in a particular group, such being a minority or pursing a specific academic field.
  • Transfer credits
    To help facilitate the goal of earning a degree as efficiently as possible, most schools allow students to gain transfer credit for academic work completed at another postsecondary institution. Exactly how the credits will transfer depends on each program’s specific policies. However, most programs allow students to transfer the equivalent of several courses, which can easily shave off a few months and a several thousand dollars from the time and financial cost of pursuing a nursing degree.
  • Prior work experience in healthcare
    In recognition of extensive work experience, some schools provide academic credit based on that work. Many online programs offer this potential, although programs differ on what experience counts toward what type of academic credit. For instance, earning general education credit for work experience is more common than earning academic credit for nursing courses.

Salaries for Registered Nurses

Great pay is a significant reason many decide to become registered nurses, but as you can imagine, how much a specific nurse makes depends on a variety of factors, including area of specialization, geographic location, and employer. The following is a list of what registered nurses can expect to make as a median salary based on where they work. 

  • Ambulatory healthcare services $66,300
  • Government entities $75,900
  • Residential and nursing care facilities $62,320
  • State, local, and private hospitals $72,070
  • State, local, and private education institutions $60,300