Is an Online RN Degree the Right Choice?

Beginning or returning to college to become a registered nurse is a dream for many people. At times, though, circumstances make it difficult to pursue and realize this aspiration.

If you’ve considered enrolling in nursing school — or even earning a more advanced nursing degree — but not been able to do so, then online programs may be just the right fit for you.

The Advantages of Online RN Programs

While campus nursing programs have much to recommend them, they’re not the best fit for all students. Many prospective nursing students work full-time or care for family members, responsibilities that make it difficult (if not impossible) to attend classes at set times and locations. If you are passionate about nursing and self-motivated, an online nursing program from an accredited provider may be an excellent choice for you.

Let’s consider a couple of examples.

The Stay-at-Home Dad

A father — we’ll call him Dave — with two young children and a busy, working wife has long dreamed of becoming a nurse. His family responsibilities, however, prevent him from commuting to community college and following the schedule that the program demands.

He can begin his coursework in an online ADN-RN program and take classes during periods when his children are in school. He also has the opportunity to look ahead in his program and plan the support he’ll need to fulfill his clinical rotation requirements at the local hospital.

The ADN-RN Seeking an Advanced Degree

An ADN-RN — let’s say she’s named Karen — whose husband is disabled wants to continue her education by earning a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), an educational achievement that would advance her career and increase her earning power. Helping to care for her husband while also working full-time in a local clinic make it impossible for Karen to attend classes at the university.

By enrolling in an accredited online RN-to-BSN program, she can complete her courses from home when her husband’s caregiver is on duty, and then arrange for her family to help out while she attends her clinical assignments at a medical office in the next town.

The Nuts and Bolts of Online Nursing Programs

Online nursing programs offer a variety of paths for students at different levels of education, expertise, and professional advancement. Many universities offer online entry-level nursing programs for students who are entirely new to the field. And just as with traditional brick-and-mortar programs, current nurses who want to advance their nursing careers can attend online “bridge” programs that enable them to earn one or more additional degrees.

Common Online Degree Options

  • Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN)
  • Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)
  • LPN-to-BSN “bridge” program
  • LPN-to-MSN “bridge” program
  • RN-to-BSN “bridge” program
  • RN-to-MSN “bridge” program
  • Various other master’s and doctoral programs

Course Experiences

In these programs, students interact with professors and other nursing students through various technologies, from live and recorded webinars to virtual classrooms and discussion boards. Some programs rely on synchronous — or scheduled — experiences, while others use asynchronous learning technologies that allow students to log into the virtual classroom at any time to access lectures and to complete assignments. There are also programs that offer a combination of synchronous and asynchronous learning. Most online nursing programs ensure that instructors are available by phone and email for coaching, mentoring, and assistance.

Degree Requirements

Generally, online nursing programs require the same number of credits as their traditional (in-person) counterparts. They also have similar expectations for internships in real-world clinical settings. A typical ADN-RN program may require an average of 60 to 80 credit hours, whereas BSN programs require approximately 120 to 140 credit hours. Online programs typically also have both part-time and full-time tracks that afford students the flexibility to choose the program that best suits their needs.

Students who complete accredited online nursing programs are eligible to sit for the NCLEX-RN (just like their peers in on-campus programs) and to seek licensure from their state boards of nursing.

Clinical Placements

Clinical placements are an integral part of nursing education, and online programs handle these in different ways. For example, the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh, in its description of the school’s accelerated online BSN program, explains:

As part of the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh's Accelerated Nursing Option, students complete 728 clinical hours during six rotations. Clinical time is important to successfully apply the theoretical concepts of nursing to clinical situations.

Accelerated UW—Oshkosh nursing students complete clinical rotations at appropriate health care agencies near their home communities under the direct guidance of qualified registered nurse preceptors. Clinical experiences are supervised by UW—Oshkosh faculty members. Due to the complexity of securing unique one-to-one precepted clinical experiences, students may be required to travel an hour or more from their homes to clinical sites.

By contrast, the Regents Online Campus Collaborative website states that online MSN students are responsible for arranging their own clinical preceptorship placements:

Student requests for clinical/practicum placements must be approved by [the] Concentration Coordinator and course faculty before beginning [the] preceptorship. All clinical experiences are arranged by the student in the student’s home area to the fullest extent possible. Affiliation Agreements must be executed with the approved agency and all required forms must be completed by the approved preceptor.

Because logistics vary from one program to another, you should be sure to ask about your school’s policies because securing your own clinical placement is not always easy.

Important Questions to Ask When Considering Online Programs

For many aspiring nurses, online programs are a great fit. To determine whether one might suit your needs, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I sufficiently self-disciplined, organized, and motivated to complete most of my nursing studies from home?

  • Will the absence of face-to-face interactions with fellow students and faculty be a positive or negative aspect of my educational experience?

  • What are the technological requirements of online study? Do I have access to them in my home, or can I purchase the necessary equipment?

  • What percentage of the program involves synchronous and/or asynchronous coursework? Am I comfortable with the program structure?

  • Who arranges clinical experiences? Are there available sites within a reasonable driving distance of my home?

  • Is this program accredited by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education, the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing, or other regional or national accrediting organizations?

(Accreditation affects access to financial aid, eligibility for the NCLEX-RN, and future employment prospects; it’s critical that prospective students ask if, and by whom, a program is accredited.)

  • Are there former or current students as well as professors and instructors with whom I can speak to discuss their experiences with this type of learning experience?

A Final Thought

When considering an online nursing option, it’s especially important to think about the program structure and your temperament. These offerings provide students with tremendous flexibility, but they also require learners to be motivated and self-directed. There will often be less support coupled with significant pressure to meet the program’s demands. Schools want their online students to succeed just as much as traditional nursing candidates, but the responsibility to do so is likely to fall more on your shoulders in the online-program setting. That said, this option has made it possible for many nurses to enter the field or advance fulfilling careers when they might not have been able to otherwise. Consider wisely, and good luck!

Additional Resources