Expert Contributor: Shana Myers, RN, MSN, has more than 12 years experience working in medical-surgical nursing, nurse education, and informatics. In addition to her background in gynecology, colorectal, palliative medicine, and orthopedics, she works as a hospital educator helping new nurses transition into RNs.
An accelerated program allows students to obtain their academic credentials in a shorter period of time than a traditional program. Incoming students spend less calendar time in class and can get to work in their chosen profession sooner. This is good news for the student and for the healthcare system due to increasing demand for medical professionals. This means that healthcare organizations such as hospitals, clinics, and dental offices are in a constant search for graduates who have completed healthcare programs.
Colleges and universities recognize this demand, and have developed fast-track academic programs to help students get quality training and enter a new career (or advance within a current one) as quickly as possible. Let’s take a look at what kind of accelerated programs are available for current and future healthcare professionals, how students can find the best one for them, and how society benefits from these valuable educational opportunities.
Why Fast-Track Programs Are Unique
In a traditional program, a student usually attends school with a standard, full-time course load of about 30 credit hours per year in a semester system. The method of shortening a healthcare program can vary; for instance, some schools might offer academic credit for prior work experience or classroom training, while other schools require students to take heavier course loads or complete courses year-round. The exact method of acceleration depends on the school, the student’s academic background, and the medical profession they want to enter. Regardless of method, many fast-track programs have some of the following common characteristics:
- Admission requirements
The admissions requirements vary from one school to another; but as a general rule, in addition to an application, students may need to submit standardized test scores, take an entrance exam, complete a personal essay and attend an admissions interview. Additionally, students may need a minimum amount of work experience, proof of licensure, or a prior degree. This is necessary for accelerated programs with a curriculum that expands on earlier work or educational experience.
- Completion time
An accelerated degree can shave anywhere from a few months to a few years off the time it would otherwise take to obtain a traditional degree. In most cases, students can assume an accelerated program will save them at least one academic period (a quarter, semester or trimester). The exact amount of time saved depends largely on two factors: the student’s prior education and training as well as the need for any in-person academic requirements, such as clinicals, labs, or practicums.
- Course pacing
By their very nature, fast-track programs have a more rigorous pacing schedule. In most programs, the pacing will be intensified in several possible ways; students could take more courses in a given academic period, or the classes may be of shorter duration, but with a faster level of curriculum completion. So instead of meeting for 1.5 hours, twice a week, the student meets three times a week for two hours in each class. Another option is that students may attend class when most are normally on break, such as the Christmas holiday or summer vacation.
- Blended learning
The internet has contributed to the growth of accelerated programs by making distance learning readily available to almost everyone. Online courses give students the ability to complete courses in a more flexible manner, which works well for those who have other obligations, such as a full-time work schedule. Instead of attending a class on campus, the student can watch the lecture and complete assignments online whenever they have a free moment. Because so many medical programs require hands-on training, most accelerated programs are offered in a blended format, with some classes completed entirely online and others requiring in-person coursework, such as with clinical hours.
Many medical professionals focus on patients and work directly with them – therefore, they need some hands-on experience before they begin their new job. That’s why students will need to complete practicum or clinical element as a part of their program’s curriculum. Clinicals provide students the opportunity to gain experience and demonstrate their knowledge by working with real patients while under the supervision of a licensed or authorized medical professional. Because of accreditation and licensure requirements, accelerated programs will still have most, if not all of the clinical requirements a non-accelerated program will have. However, students may have greater flexibility in when and where they can complete those requirements.
Types of Accelerated Medical Programs
There are several different types of accelerated programs; which one is suitable for a particular student depends upon their career goals, academic history, and more. Let’s look at the most popular formats for accelerated programs and what students can expect from each option.
Second degree programs are just what they sound like: They are designed for those who already hold a degree. This gives students the opportunity to earn a completely new degree, but without having to start from scratch. For example, a student who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in marketing can get a bachelor’s degree in nursing without having to spend another four years in school. Second degree programs are gaining traction among students thanks to the changing economy; they are driven by students who would like to change careers but can’t afford to spend the time it would take to get a completely new degree.
What Makes It Accelerated?
A bachelor’s degree typically takes four
years to complete. Two of those years are filled with mostly general
education courses. In a second degree program, students can earn a
second bachelor’s degree in far less time, sometimes in a little
more than one year, because the accelerated program won’t require
retaking all those general education courses. However, it’s also
important to note that these programs will require students to
complete certain prerequisite courses before starting their
substantive coursework. Students who have not completed the
prerequisites may still be admitted, but will have to begin by taking
prerequisites before moving onto major-related classes.
Program Highlight: Accelerated BSN
The accelerated BSN program is for students who already have a bachelor’s degree in a field other than nursing. Coursework consists of approximately three semesters of classes. This means students can earn their BSN in as little as 13 months. However, to complete the BSN this quickly, students will need to have already completed a number of prerequisite courses, such as writing, statistics, microbiology, psychology, chemistry, and pathophysiology.
Because many students seeking a second degree
BSN fast-track program will already have a job, many programs present
the curriculum in both online and in-person formats. In these hybrid
programs, students can complete the majority of the classwork online,
while the in-person clinicals are completed at an approved medical
facility near the school or the student’s location.
Upon completion of an accelerated BSN program, students will be ready to work as registered nurses after applying for licensure with their state and passing the NCLEX-RN exam. To learn more about this degree option, check out our accelerated online BSN programs page.
Bridge programs are for students who already have a degree or licensure in the medical field, but would like to get a more advanced degree. For instance, registered or licensed practical nurses can enroll in a bridge program to earn their BSN without having to go to school for the time it usually takes to earn a bachelor’s degree.
What Makes It Accelerated?
Bridge programs only accept students who already have a degree or work experience in a particular field. Because of this prior training, schools can drastically reduce the curriculum a student must complete to earn a higher degree. It’s hard to predict much a bridge program will cost and the time it will take to complete compared to a traditional program, but in most cases, students will save both time and money by enrolling in a bridge programs.
One near universal characteristics of these
bridge programs is the special admission requirements: incoming
students must have a minimum degree in a particular field, often an
associate or bachelor’s degree, or a valid, in-force credential,
such as a state-issued license.
Program Highlight: Accelerated RN to MSN
One of the most popular medical bridge programs is the RN to MSN academic pathway, which often comes in an accelerated format. Incoming students will have either an associate or bachelor’s degree in nursing (or a closely-related field). After completing the prerequisites, they can immediately being taking master’s level nursing courses. These programs usually do not award a BSN, only an MSN.
Because incoming students will already be
practicing registered nurses, some of these MSN bridge programs have
no in-person course requirements. This means many programs are
available for completion entirely online. However, certain MSN
concentrations will have a clinical, laboratory or practicum
requirement, which requires in-person attendance. These in-person
requirements are usually less extensive than the clinical
requirements for a BSN.
Upon completion of an MSN program, graduates
will be ready for more advanced responsibility and leadership
positions, whether in the academic, research, or clinical settings.
Buying things in bulk usually results in a discount. This same concept can actually apply to post-secondary degrees. For those who know they want two degrees and are certain of their future career path, they can save time and money by earning both at roughly the same time.
What Makes It Accelerated?
Combined degrees can speed the education process by allowing students to take classes that fulfill the academic requirements for two degrees at once and reducing the number of electives required. In many cases, a combined degree can save anywhere from six months to a year or more. There are two key things to consider: first, while these programs may save money in the long run, students may need to spend more money in the short term. And secondly, getting admitted can be more difficult, because students may need to earn admission into two separate departments simultaneously.
Program Highlight: Accelerated Occupational Therapy
The combined bachelor’s and master’s degrees programs in occupational therapy are popular because most individuals will need a master’s degree to practice as an occupational therapist. If the degrees are obtained separately, students could spend anywhere from six to seven years in school. An accelerated combined degree program can provide both the bachelor’s and master’s degree in about five-and-a-half years.
Students begin the program by taking general education and occupational therapy prerequisite courses during their first three years. At the start of their fourth year, graduate courses begin. Because of the length of time and intensity of schooling, the admissions process can be competitive; students often show not only academic excellence, but also a strong commitment to a career in occupational therapy. Upon completion of a combined occupational therapy program, students will be prepared to sit for the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy and become licensed in their state.
Life is unpredictable. Despite the best of intentions, many students who begin college are unable to finish on time. But later, those same students often decide to return to school. Then there are those who earn a degree, such as an associate, but later decide they want a bachelor’s. That’s where degree completion programs come in; they allow students to build on what they have already learned to finish or upgrade their degree.
What Makes It Accelerated?
Degree completion programs work by allowing students to obtain credit for previously completed coursework, such as prerequisites and general education classes. Due to the nature of these programs and what they expect from incoming students, applicants will need to show they possess a degree or professional certification (or licensure) in order to gain admission into a degree completion program. Depending on the student’s prior training and desired degree, completion programs can usually save a few months to two years.
Program Highlight: Dental Hygiene
The primary degree completion option for dental hygienists is earning a bachelor’s degree. Incoming students usually have a certificate or associate degree. They have the option of completing their degree entirely online, with no on-campus or residency requirement. However, toward the end of the program, students may need to complete a capstone course; this could require them to observe, intern or teach others as a method of demonstrating what they’ve learned. Most students can expect to earn their bachelor’s degree in about two years.
The primary requirement for admission is proof that they completed an
accredited dental hygiene program and have a current dental hygienist
license. This means applicants don’t apply to begin working as a
dental hygienist. Rather, they earn a bachelor’s degree so they may
open up additional career opportunities in teaching, administration
or corporate sales.
Accelerated certificate or diploma programs are ideal for individuals looking to start working in an entry-level job as soon as possible. It’s a good choice for those who have a high school diploma or equivalent, since most certificate or diploma programs in the medical field do not require a degree for enrollment. Certificate and diploma programs are widely available, both in online and on-campus learning formats.
What Makes It Accelerated?
Most certificate or diploma programs are inherently short, so they’re not technically “accelerated.” However, we’re including them because of how quickly they can be completed; many programs last less than six months, and sometimes as few as four. The fact that they are so short also makes them financially superior to associate or bachelor’s degree programs, which cost much more.
Unlike traditional college degree programs, students don’t usually have to adhere to the semester rule; the programs often start on a rolling schedule. Most curriculums provide maximum flexibility in that a student can take as many courses as they can handle. Another difference from an associate or bachelor’s degree program is that there are no general education courses; every course will be on a topic that speaks directly to the student’s chosen field of study.
Program Highlight: Medical Assisting Certificate Program
Some of the most popular certificate or diploma programs are those in medical assisting. Because there is no degree or licensure requirement to work as a medical assistant, schools have the freedom to develop their own medical assisting curriculums. However, because certification is a popular professional goal for many graduates, most programs will provide a basic level of coursework that prepares students for pursuing that certification. Most applicants will just need a high school diploma, GED or equivalent for admission.
The medical assisting programs are very popular for those looking for the flexibility of an online education. Students can take accelerated courses and complete the program as soon as possible, or they can take one course at a time as it fits into their busy schedule. Online students should keep in mind that even though the coursework is fully online, there will still be an in-person course requirement in the form of a clinical externship, often lasting around 160 hours.
Deciding Factors: Is an Accelerated Program Right for You?
Think earning a post-secondary degree is hard? It is – and an accelerated program can be like college on steroids. In addition to book smarts, it takes plenty of ambition and conscientiousness to excel. In deciding if you’re capable of handling an accelerated program, consider the following:
These are the top benefits students can expect from attending accelerated programs. Keep in mind that each program is unique, so some of these might not apply – but most of them certainly will.
- Convenience of blended learning. To facilitate faster learning, many schools implement online coursework into the accelerated program. This hybrid learning format not only saves time, but also adds maximum flexibility for already busy students.
- Potential to save money. By spending less time in school, students can save money on tuition. Shaving a semester or two off a degree can easily put another $10,000 or more in a student’s bank account.
- Test out of pre-requisites. To save even more time, many accelerated programs require students to complete prerequisites before starting their core curriculum. To facilitate this prerequisite completion process, many programs let students test out of certain courses.
- Looks great on a resume. Accelerated programs are hard, not just academically, but from a time management perspective. Employers recognize that a student who can succeed in an accelerated program will possess the willpower and organizational skills to succeed at work, too.
- Get to your career faster. For most students, schooling is just a means to an end, with the “end” being the start of a new career. Accelerated programs make it easier for individuals to reach their professionals goals faster.
- Increased salary potential. As a general rule, the more education someone has, the more money they can potentially make. Therefore, the easier someone can get a more advanced degree, the easier they can earn more money through career advancement.
Finishing a degree in less time seems like a no-brainer, but there’s a price students have to pay to save this time. These challenges can be overcome, but it’s important to understand them going into the program. Being prepared is a key to success!
- High admission standards
Due to the extra difficulty of an accelerated program, schools want to make sure applicants have what it takes to succeed, or possess the prior training to make an accelerated degree possible.
- Compressed course structure
The learning curve in a compressed class is steep. It takes staying on top of every homework and reading assignment. If students get behind, they don’t have much time to catch up.
- Heavy reading & homework load
If it’s not taught in class, students will have to learn it themselves. Because class time is precious, there’s plenty of information students will be expected to learn on their own. This requires a lot of self-discipline.
- Juggling family or social obligations
Completing an accelerated program’s curriculum is a full-time job. But most students in these fast-track programs also have family or work obligations. This leads to struggles managing work, school and family needs. The balancing act is real, and sometimes precarious.
- Working while studying
It can be extremely difficult for students to work full-time while in an accelerated program. Students may need to take time off from work or work part-time so they can give their full attention to their schooling.
- Financial obligations
Because most students can’t work full-time while attending school on an expedited basis, there will often be a financial toll they will have to face due to the temporary loss or reduction in income. As a result, students may need to rely on a spouse or other family member’s income, apply for financial aid or start saving plenty of money well before the first day of class.
If you think the challenges of an accelerated program are worth the benefits, then perhaps enrollment in a fast-track program is in your near future. But once you’re accepted, what can you do to maximize success?
How to Succeed in an Accelerated Degree Program
Now that you’ve decided to take the leap into an accelerated program, you’ll want to do what it takes to make the most of your education. Here are some important traits that successful students in fast-track programs share.
- Be proactive. Anticipating what to expect is an extremely important part of doing well in these programs. For example, anticipating when completion of the clinicals will take place can allow students to make adjust their work schedules well in advance.
- Set reasonable expectations. Being realistic can help with the psychological challenges students will typically face, such as mitigating disappointment over a bad grade. It can also force students to make adjustment before it’s too late.
- Hit the ground running on day one. Be prepared to hit the books immediately. Gone are the days where it takes a class or two for things to pick up and the learning to begin.
- Stay organized. In an accelerated program, staying organized is literally half the battle. Being fully prepared for an exam means nothing if you forget to log on at the appropriate time to take it!
- Don’t procrastinate. In a traditional college or graduate school course, there’s usually a full semester to catch up on overlooked material. But this ability is diminished in an accelerated program.
- Practice self-care. Taking care of grades is important, but so it taking care of emotional and physical health. Don’t forget it is always okay to take some time off to relax or engage in fun activities.
- Use support systems. A good way to practice self-care and maintain good health is to take advantage of support systems. For instance, there’s no need to spend hours reinventing a study outline that you could have gotten via email in five minutes from a study buddy.
- Find a mentor. Mentors can provide valuable instruction outside the classroom. Having a mentor can also create a connection that can help with the future job search or even a graduate school application.
Other Ways to Speed Up
Besides enrolling in an accelerated program, students have alternative methods of shortening the time it takes to earn a degree. These methods primarily work by allowing students to skip over certain course requirements, especially prerequisites.
- Take the CLEP. The College Board’s College-Level Examination Program consists of 33 examinations that give students the opportunity to demonstrate knowledge of a variety of foundational college courses. Even though CLEP is sponsored by the College Board, each school will have its own policies in how it provides college credit for CLEP completion.
- Test the DSST. Sponsored by DANTES, DSST is a program that’s similar to CLEP in that students can gain college credit by taking an exam. While DSST is usually more common among military personnel (and their family members), it’s also available to civilian students.
- Technical Credits. A result of the Tech Prep program, technical credits are college credits in a technical field (including healthcare) that students can earn while still in high school. Typically, students will begin earning technical credits during their final two years of high school.
- Work & Life Experience Credits. Accelerated programs commonly have many non-traditional student enrollees. This means many have prior work experience they can use for college credit. How a school provides college credit for work or life experience will vary, but students can expect to demonstrate their knowledge in any numbers of ways, including papers, tests or creating a portfolio.
Resources for Fast-Track Medical Programs
We’ve provided plenty of background information for anyone interested in applying to an accelerated medical program. For those who want to complete their own deep dive into what it takes to earn an accelerated degree, we’ve compiled a list of reputable resources to get you started.
- ABHES: The Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools is one of the key accrediting organizations for allied health post-secondary programs.
- ACEN: The Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing is one of the two primary accreditation organizations for nursing programs. The site has a search tool to help prospective nursing students ensure a program of interest has programmatic accreditation.
- CAAHEP: The Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs is a major accrediting organization for allied health programs.
- CCNE: Along with the ACEN, the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education is the second of the two major nursing program accrediting organizations.
- CLEP: The College Board’s website is where students can register to earn CLEP credits and find out more about how this program works.
- DSST: Administered by Prometric, DSST’s website explains everything there is to know about DSST exams and how to use them to gain college credit.