Online Nursing Schools

Nurses are on the front lines of medicine. They help diagnose patients and assist physicians, but with advanced education and experience, they can also serve as part of leadership teams and have greater autonomy when it comes to their patients' care. There isn't just one nursing job. There are several, and each comes with its own educational requirements, licensing conditions and responsibilities. The main types of nursing and their required degrees are:

  • Licensed Practical Nurses/Licensed Vocational Nurses: Despite the different names, these occupations are essentially the same. LVNs are found in Texas and California only, while the rest of the country uses the term LPN. But regardless of their job title, these nurses provide basic care under the direction of a registered nurse or physician. To work as an LPN or LVN, students typically need to complete a one-year vocational training program and pass a licensing exam.
  • Registered Nurses: RNs provide a higher level of care than what is offered by LPNs and LVNs. They might administer medicine, run diagnostic tests and consult with physicians on treatment plans. As a result, RNs need a higher level of education. They may become licensed after earning a nursing diploma, an associate degree or a bachelor's degree in nursing. Depending on the program selected, it could take anywhere from two to four years before they are ready to enter the workforce.
  • Advance Practice Registered Nurses: The highest level of nursing is provided by APRNs. These professionals must have a master's degree, pass a national certification test and get licensed in their own state. At that point, they're able to work as nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives and nurse practitioners. They may be able to manage patient care independently, conduct physical examinations, order lab work and write prescriptions.

Do you need a degree if you're already a nurse?

As the medical field has evolved, education options for nurses have advanced as well. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing reports 55 percent of nurses in 1980 had received their training in diploma programs. By 1996, an associate degree became the most common education achieved by nurses.

Today, the AACN recommends all registered nurses hold a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree to ensure they have the skills and expertise needed to fulfill their duties and advance their career. However, there are many current nurses who are already working but do not have a four year degree.

In response, a number of colleges and universities have launched RN to BSN programs. These degree programs build upon the knowledge and experience of current nurses while helping them achieve the same level of education as is the standard for many new nurses. Current registered nurses without a bachelor's degree may want to consider an RN to BSN program as a way to improve their income potential and open up new career opportunities.

Finding the right nursing degree program

Students looking for a nursing program must be sure to select one that is both approved and accredited. According to the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, state boards approve degree programs to ensure graduates meet basic standards of competency. Graduating from an approved program is required for students to be able to sit for the nursing licensure exam.

Meanwhile, accredited programs are deemed to meet certain levels of quality by third-party accrediting agencies. The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education and Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing are the two main accrediting agencies for nursing programs, but they're not the only ones. Before enrolling in a program, prospective students should check the list of national and regional accrediting agencies provided by the U.S. Department of Education. These include:

Accrediting Agencies

Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools

Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing

Accreditation Commission for Midwifery Education

Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education

Council on Accreditation of Nurse Anesthesia Educational Programs

Kansas State Board of Nursing

Maryland State Board of Nursing

Missouri State Board of Nursing

New York State Board of Regents, State Education Department, Office of the Professions
(Public Postsecondary Vocational Education, Practical Nursing)

North Dakota Board of Nursing

Once they've selected an approved and accredited program, students might want to consider whether to earn an online or on-campus degree. Fully online programs aren't available to those who are just entering the profession because clinical work is required to graduate. However, some schools may allow nursing students to combine online coursework with on-campus clinical work and labs.

Working nurses who are entering an RN to BSN program or earning an advanced degree might be able to find fully online nursing degree programs. However, if the program is through a school based in another state, students should check to make sure it meets any requirements set forth by their state board of nursing.

Picking the right career path

Just as there are different nursing careers, there are different paths to becoming a registered nurse. Some students opt to immediately study to become an RN, while others prefer to become an LPN or LVN first before continuing their education part-time. Some associate degree programs have long wait lists, and the latter option gives individuals the opportunity to enter the workforce immediately while waiting for an opening. In addition, some employers may help pay tuition for LPNs and LVNs who go back to school to become an RN.

On the other hand, job opportunities may be sparse for LPNs and LVNs in some areas, and some students may prefer to finish their schooling immediately rather than spread it out over time. There is no right choice, and individuals would be smart to carefully weigh their choices, career goals and resources.

For instance, while it may take six years or more to become an APRN, these nurses have the greatest income potential and are also in the most demand. The annual mean wage in the U.S. is $157,690 for a nurse anesthetist and $95,070 for a nurse practitioner, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By contrast, the annual mean wage nationwide is $68,910 for a registered nurse and $42,010 for an LPN or LVN. In addition, the BLS reports that demand for APRNs is expected to grow 31 percent from 2012-22.

LPNs and LVNs are the next most in-demand nursing occupation with the BLS estimating job growth for these positions to be 25 percent during that time frame. The need for RNs will be smaller, but growth for the occupation will still be faster than average. From 2012-22, jobs for RNs should increase 19 percent nationwide.

Regardless of the career path chosen, requesting more information from nursing schools is the next step for those who think the challenging, yet rewarding work, of a nurse is right for them.

Sources:

The Baccalaureate Degree in Nursing as Minimal Preparation for Professional Practice, American Association of Colleges of Nursing,
http://www.aacn.nche.edu/publications/position/bacc-degree-prep

What Nurses Do, American Nurses Association,
http://nursingworld.org/EspeciallyForYou/What-is-Nursing/Tools-You-Need/RNsAPNs.html

Approval vs. Accreditation, National Council of State Boards of Nursing,
https://www.ncsbn.org/357.htm

Agency List, The Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs, U.S. Department of Education,
http://www.ope.ed.gov/accreditation/agencies.aspx

Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2013: Licensed Practical and Licensed Vocational Nurses, Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor,
http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes292061.htm

Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2013: Nurse Anesthetists, Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor,
http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes291151.htm

Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2013: Nurse Practitioners, Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor,
http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes291171.htm

Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2013: Registered Nurses, Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor,
http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes291141.htm

Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners , "Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition," Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Jan. 8, 2014,
http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/nurse-anesthetists-nurse-midwives-and-nurse-practitioners.htm

Registered Nurses, "Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition," Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Jan. 8, 2014,
http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/registered-nurses.htm

Licensed Practical and Licensed Vocational Nurses, "Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition," Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor,
http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/licensed-practical-and-licensed-vocational-nurses.htm