The demand for registered nurses in today's healthcare environment is huge and growing quickly! The need for more and more compassionate individuals to become registered nurses (RN) has never been greater.

To meet this demand many schools have opened up their traditional 2 and 4-year degree programs to other types. These include online and accelerated nursing programs and are available for many different nursing degrees.

The Licensed Practical Nurse/Licensed Vocational Nurse (LPN/LVN), Associate's Degree in Nursing (ADN), Bachelor's of Science in Nursing (BSN), and Master's of Science in Nursing (MSN) degrees are available in various program structures. For every student a convenient and accessible program is available!

To become a registered nurse without any nursing experience the entry-level student will need to complete one of the following:

RELATED: The 6 Most Important Considerations in Choosing an Online Nursing Program

Online LPN/LVN Diploma

The Licensed Practical Nurse/Licensed Vocational Nurse (LPN/LVN) diploma track is becoming outdated but is a great stepping stone to becoming an RN. This is considered the first year of nursing school and graduates become licensed by the state after passing the NCLEX-PN and are able to begin working as a nurse. This can usually be completed in about a year. Vocational schools and community colleges offer these programs. PLEASE NOTE: There are no available “online” LPN/LVN programs. Need more insight into the difference in career profiles? Check out our LPN vs RN overview.

LPN/LVN programs are a good way for students to quickly get started in nursing. As they have less interest, they have short if any wait lists compared to RN programs.

For those who want to advance beyond an LPN, many online LPN to RN bridge programs are available and can be completed in about a year. Students may still need to complete in-person clinicals. Such programs award an Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN), the minimum requirement to take the NCLEX-RN. Passing this exam allows for licensure as a registered nurse.

NOTE: There are a few CNA to RN programs and Medical Assistant to RN programs but these programs traditionally are mostly “test out” programs that allow for CNAs to take the NCLEX-RN for certification.

Online ADN Degree

The Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN) is the shortest way possible to become a state-licensed RN. It prepares students for the NCLEX-RN exam, which they must pass to work as a licensed RN. ADN students complete prerequisites and volunteer hours in a healthcare setting to be accepted into a program. Many ADN programs do not require any healthcare experience. It is important to research the specific requirements of each school before applying.

Vocational schools and community colleges offer ADN programs, which can be completed in 2 years or less. Some may allow the students to work, especially if evening classes are offered, while others do not encourage it. ADN programs may have some online theory courses, but in-person learning is still the standard due to the clinical requirements. Clinical hours are “real world” experiences where students gain hands-on knowledge in the healthcare setting with an instructor or preceptor.

After graduation, RNs can choose from a number of online RN to BSN bridge programs to achieve higher education goals.

ADN-educated RNs can begin working in many types of healthcare facilities, including:

  • Hospitals
  • Clinics
  • Long-Term Care Facilities
  • Skilled Nursing facilities
  • Physicians’ Offices

Those who have worked as a paramedic or EMT might consider a paramedic to RN bridge program.

The Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing degree (BSN) is offered as a traditional 4-year degree, as an RN to BSN bridge program, or as a direct entry program for those with a bachelor's in a non-nursing area. The BSN is available in online, in-person or hybrid formats to meet students learning preferences.

All of these degrees will allow the nurse to work as a bedside RN, a role that is the cornerstone of nursing. It is often required experience for nurses who seek a non-bedside role in healthcare, such as healthcare informatics or research. Many RNs pursue the BSN to earn a higher salary, change roles, or because their employer requires it.

Online BSN Degree

The Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing degree (BSN) is offered as a traditional 4-year degree, as an RN to BSN bridge program, or as a direct entry program for those with a bachelor's in a non-nursing area. The BSN is available in online, in-person, or hybrid formats to meet students learning preferences.

All of these degrees will allow the nurse to work as a bedside RN, a role that is the cornerstone of nursing. It is often required experience for nurses who seek a non-bedside role in healthcare, such as healthcare informatics or research. Many RNs pursue the BSN to earn a higher salary, change roles, or because their employer requires it.

For RNs, many online bridge programs are available from both online and brick-and-mortar universities. They typically have short wait lists and include:

  • RN to BSN
    • Online
    • Traditional in-classroom
  • RN to MSN
    • Online
    • Traditional in-classroom

Traditional BSN Degree

The traditional BSN degree is available through universities and often includes prerequisites. The downsides to these four-year programs are the long waiting lists and high demand. They are arguably more competitive than bridge programs and take longer to finish.

Accelerated BSN Programs

Students who hold a bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing area can earn a BSN through a specialty bridge program. This track is typically offered as an accelerated, in-person option requiring clinical hours. It includes intensive courses, takes 18-24 months to complete, and often has a shorter wait list than traditional BSN programs.

These accelerated programs may have a minimum 3.0 GPA and a requirement of “hands-on” healthcare volunteer hours.

Since the same amount of clinical hours are required for these bridge programs, they may be scheduled at a demanding pace. As such, it can be challenging to balance family responsibilities; working full-time is not suggested. However, for ambitious students who are skilled at setting priorities, the reward is becoming an RN quickly!

Learn more about accelerated BSN programs.

RN to BSN

The RN to BSN bridge program is a fast and convenient way for nurses to earn a BSN. Full-time employment is often required to satisfy practicum requirements. This accelerated degree program is commonly offered online, though traditional and hybrid options are available.

Online RN to BSN

The completely online RN to BSN is possible because registered nurses have already completed their clinical hours from their associate’s degree and work experience. This is an accelerated program with few or no breaks and can typically be completed in less than a year. The cost of these programs may be less than traditional in-person ones. Over 100 schools nationwide currently offer an RN to BSN.

Learn more about an RN to BSN.

Traditional In-Class RN to BSN

For those students not interested in online learning, traditional programs may be preferred and are available in most areas. These students may seek the convenience of evening or weekend classes. Such flexibility allows students to continue working as an RN. Traditional in-class programs allow for more networking and face-to-face interaction with others in the field.

Online MSN Degree

Earning a Master’s of Science in Nursing (MSN) is a popular choice for students interested in becoming nurse practitioners, advanced healthcare providers, educators, or researchers. They may also seek to earn more money or plan to advance to a post-master’s degree, such as a DNP or Ph.D. Clinical hours or preceptorships are required as part of the program. For more on this, see online RN to MSN bridge programs.

RN to MSN

The RN to MSN bridge program prepares students for this advanced career path. It may be offered partially online through in-person clinicals are required for APRN tracks.

Specialties for the MSN include:

Though it varies by program, many RN to MSN programs are flexible allowing students to continue working. This also enables students to apply what they learn immediately to the real-world environment. Part-time hours may be more conducive to balancing work with educational goals.

Online RN to MSN

The online-only RN to MSN bridge program is usually reserved for specialties that do not provide direct patient care, such as:

The cost of these accelerated programs varies by school, and financial aid is usually available. Many non-clinical, online-only RN to MSN degrees can be completed in less than 2 years.

Accelerated nursing programs have grown in popularity over the years and are accomplished by applying a streamlined format and omitting breaks. Before applying, prospective students should verify that they satisfy their state's requirements.

Direct-entry MSN programs are available to those with a bachelor's degree in a non-nursing field.

Learn more about accelerated MSN programs.

Traditional In-Class RN to MSN

Graduate degree programs that require clinical hours or preceptorships, such as Family Nurse Practitioner or Clinical Nurse Specialist, are often offered via traditional in-class formats. Some schools may have certain classes available online, such as statistics or nursing ethics.

These programs are usually priced competitively, as there are many available. The student should consider the salary increase that may come with earning the MSN.

Learn more about an RN to MSN and RN to NP.

Direct Entry MSN

Direct Entry Master of Science in Nursing degrees (or MENPs) are intended for students who have a bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing major. These accelerated, in-person programs are often very competitive and take about 18 months to complete, including clinicals. Due to their intense pace, most universities recommend that students don't work while completing them.

Interested in an online NP program or MENP?

Online APRN Programs

Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRNs) are nurses with graduate-level degrees (either an MSN or DNP) including Nurse PractitionersCertified Registered Nurse Anesthetists (CRNAs)Certified Nurse-Midwives (CNMs), and Clinical Nurse Specialists (CNSs). RNs looking to advance their careers often seek APRN specialties for the increased autonomy and salaries they provide. With increasingly busy lifestyles, online APRN programs have become a lifesaver for RNs who want to fit an advanced nursing degree into their schedules. Such online APRN programs still require in-person clinicals.

Online Nurse Practitioner Programs

Most online nurse practitioner (NP) programs allow students to choose a specialization or population focus, including:

Other Online APRN Programs

In most cases, students pursuing an online APRN including CRNA, CNM, or CNS, need to hold at least a BSN and have an active, unrestricted RN license. While online APRN coursework is convenient and flexible, students should be aware that many programs have an in-person component as well as required in-person clinical hours. These can usually be arranged at a hospital or medical facility in the student’s local area.

Perhaps you are looking for a Post-Graduate Certificate Program in Nursing?

Frequently Asked Questions About Online Nursing Programs

What Will the Day-To-Day Be Like in an Online Nursing Program?

Generally online programs require:

  • Participation points
  • Assignments
  • Employment

Participation Points

Most online courses require participation points. This is the equivalent of showing up for class in the traditional setting. The method for earning these points may vary depending on the program, but typically logging in to a discussion board and posting a few questions and answers to a topic of discussion a few times a week is required. This usually takes about 15 minutes to complete.

Assignments

In addition to participation points, various assignments are required. These are usually projects or papers and may be required every week. This could be in the form of PowerPoint presentations, essays, research papers, Excel spreadsheets, and/or other formats. As the course progresses and the projects or papers get more demanding, many schools make these items worth more points for class credit. These assignments support the required reading from the textbook.

Employment

During the RN to BSN program, nurses may be required to remain employed throughout the program to satisfy a practicum requirement. Working a 12-hour shift three days a week, which is the most common schedule of bedside nurses, and fitting in assignments, reading, and participation points are usually manageable for most students.

Read more about working as an RN, RN salary, or find an RN job.

How Much Do Online Nursing Programs Cost?

While the costs of online nursing programs vary greatly by school, many students discover that they are less expensive than traditional programs. This is particularly true after considering the time and money saved on commuting and incidentals. The convenience of completing classes from the living room often outweighs the downsides.

Many schools require electronic books to be purchased as well as uniforms, stethoscopes, white nursing shoes or other items for clinicals.

Online courses require each student to have access to a computer that is fast and has enough memory to support the program. Purchasing a new computer may be required if the standard is not met.

See our guide discussing the cost of RN programs.

Which Nursing School Accreditation Should I Be Looking for In a School?

Accreditation is very, very important. These are issued by regulatory bodies that monitor education quality and maintain high standards for schools. Completing a nursing degree from an accredited school is especially important when hoping to advance education at a different school, as many schools will only accept degrees or credits from schools with certain accreditation.

The government regulatory body of accreditation commissions is the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and they recognize seven agencies when considering schools for regional accreditation as of 2021. Be sure to visit https://www.chea.org/chea-and-usde-recognized-accrediting-organizations for the most current information.

For more on this see nursing school accreditation.

How Do I Complete Clinicals, Practicums, and Internships During Online Nursing School?

Clinicals, preceptorships, or internships are required for all nursing programs except for the RN to BSN option (however, the RN to BSN bridge may require students to work full-time.)

For all other online programs, either the student is required to find a healthcare provider willing to act as a preceptor, or the school will arrange for a preceptor in the student’s local area. The student may have to travel to another area to complete the required hours. The school may have resources to help locate a preceptor and tips on the best ways to approach them.

Students can learn more about clinical hours during RN school.

Do Nursing Programs Accept Credits from the CLEP?

Many programs do not accept credits from the College Level Examination Program (CLEP).

The CLEP is an exam designed to curb the cost of college tuition by allowing students to "test out" college classes. However, looking into each program individually is recommended as these rules are subject to change and programs vary.

How Can I Find Out More About Accelerated Nursing Schools?

Working nurses may want to ask colleagues and nurse educators about recommended accelerated programs as they are becoming increasingly common.

See our guide to accelerated nursing programs as well as our complete school list of accelerated BSN programs and complete school list of accelerated MSN programs.

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