Looking for a career that's more than just a job? A career in nursing brings new and interesting hands-on challenges nearly every day, and the feeling of helping people for a living can be a benefit beyond measure. If you've ever thought about working in the healthcare field, we've got information that can help you get on track.
Nursing programs are on the rise at colleges and universities. The shift is most noticeable in southern states like Florida, where the number of associate and bachelor's degrees available for registered nurses (RNs) in the region has risen by more than a third since 2003. You can start work as an RN before earning a full bachelor's degree, but paths to advancement in the field typically require a four-year degree or higher.
On top of the growing number of degrees available, there are also some great initiatives that offer financial aid and other assistance to nursing students and graduates. The Nurse Corps Loan Repayment Program, for example, is a national program that can pay up to 85 percent of an eligible practicing nurse's unpaid student debt.
Clinical sections of RN training typically must be done in person, but the academic portions of nursing programs can often be found online or through other distance education methods. Master's degree candidates may especially be able to benefit from online nursing programs -- some of the best schools in the country offer graduate nurse education in the virtual classroom.
Read on to learn about the best schools for nursing degrees and pick up some info on various career paths within the nursing profession. You can also find details about top programs for Bachelor of Science in Nursing (B.S.N.), Master of Science in Nursing (M.S.N.) and Doctor of Nursing Practice (D.N.P.) degrees, plus a few tips about nursing certification and licensure, nursing specializations, financial aid initiatives and professional organizations for nurses.
Best Colleges for Nursing Degree Programs 2019-20
To compile this list, we gathered data from the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and scored hundreds of active nursing schools in important categories like affordability, schedule flexibility, graduation rate and availability of essential student services. Click the button for more detail about our methodology, and read on below to find out who made the list of the best nursing schools in the country.
The University of Florida has been serving the students of the Sunshine State for more than 160 years. Students here tend to stick with their degree programs once they start them -- the graduation and first-year student retention rates here are more than 88 percent and 96 percent, respectively, placing it among the top 25 nursing schools in the country in those categories.
Nursing programs at UF: Nursing students here can choose among three types of B.S.N. degree plan, including a 60-credit accelerated B.S.N. designed for aspiring nurses who hold a bachelor's degree in another subject. Several doctoral-level programs, such as nursing bridge programs from a B.S.N. to either a D.N.P. or Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degree, are available at UF as well.
This large institution in northern Virginia educates over 20,000 students each year, with the balance of the student body tilted roughly 90-10 in favor of undergraduates. James Madison University earmarks one of the nation's largest percentages of its yearly budget for instructional and academic support, suggesting that the administration places a high priority on educational quality and student success.
Nursing programs at JMU: If you're seeking a nursing degree program at the bachelor's level or above, JMU has got you covered. It offers a traditional B.S.N. program and an RN to B.S.N. bridge program, as well as options at the master's and doctoral levels. The M.S.N. curriculum here features six available specializations, and undergraduates can opt for a chronic illness minor to broaden their base of healthcare knowledge.
Originally founded in 1912, Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College holds an attractive distinction among our top 10 nursing schools. Graduates reported leaving school with the smallest amount of student debt of any of the schools on our list. In fact, the average debt load of around $7,900 for WITC graduates was less than the average tuition for one university year in the state of Wisconsin.
Nursing programs at WITC: The nursing programs on offer here are primarily designed to train entry-level nurses. The Associate Degree in Nursing (A.D.N.) at WITC can be taken as a traditional degree or an LPN to RN bridge program. Students looking for a shorter path to the workforce can opt for a nursing assistant diploma program that requires just three credits to complete.
This research university located just minutes from Tampa Bay serves more than 50,000 students at its three area campuses. Although it's relatively young among research universities -- founded just over 60 years ago -- the University of South Florida awarded more degrees than any other school in our top ten and ranks in the top 20 institutions worldwide for the number of patents granted to students and faculty.
Nursing programs at USF: The Tampa school offers an accelerated nursing degree for undergraduates with a previous bachelor's, a traditional B.S.N. and an online RN to B.S.N. bridge program. Graduate students have an array of study plans to choose from, including a part-time M.S.N. program and a nurse anesthesia specialization for B.S.N. graduates that takes nine semesters to complete.
The University of Central Florida is one of the largest universities in the country, boasting a student body of more than 68,000 learners. It's also one of the top universities for aspiring nurses and other health care personnel -- the list of its three most popular majors includes a B.S.N. and a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) in health sciences.
Nursing programs at UCF: The array of nursing degrees available here is one of the more diverse on our list, including an A.S.N. to B.S.N. program that allows students to attend classes at the Orlando campus, online or at partner schools elsewhere in the area. It also offers a nurse educator master's degree and an online nursing program for RNs seeking B.S.N. status.
If any institution among nursing and healthcare schools needs no introduction, it's Johns Hopkins University. This Baltimore school has been a national leader in health and medical education for centuries and has a graduation rate that ranks No. 10 out of the more than 1,500 colleges and universities we surveyed for this study. It also spends more per student on institutional and academic support than any other school on our list.
Nursing programs at Johns Hopkins: The school of nursing at Johns Hopkins offers only graduate programs, although the catalog does feature an M.S.N. degree plan for aspiring nurses without clinical experience. Students here can also choose among several online nursing programs, including an M.S.N. in health systems management and eight D.N.P. specialties.
Florida International University is true to its name. Students at the Miami institution come from more than 140 different countries and the institution is home to over 300 cultural organizations and other student associations. FIU also goes out of its way to provide arts and culture programming to its students, featuring four museum and gallery spaces and putting on music festivals throughout the year.
Nursing programs at FIU: More than a dozen nursing programs are available at FIU, from four B.S.N. tracks to a five-year B.S.N. to Ph.D. bridge program for research-minded nursing students. Seven doctoral study tracks can be found here, as well as a post-master's certificate program for aspiring nurse practitioners that takes 28-32 credits to complete.
Clarkson College became Nebraska's first school of nursing at its founding in 1888, and it's continued its original mission even through the expansions of its catalog over the last 130 years. This close-knit institution might be a great choice for students who prefer an intimate learning environment -- the student body comprised fewer than 1,300 students in 2018, and the student-faculty ratio is a comfortable 13:1.
Nursing programs at Clarkson: The LPN to B.S.N. track at Clarkson can help licensed practical and vocational nurses advance their education while training to take on registered nursing responsibilities and can be completed in as few as six semesters. RNs with an associate degree can also move straight into an M.S.N. degree with a 130-credit RN to M.S.N. bridge program.
The graduation rate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill ranks it among our 20 best colleges and universities in that category nationwide, and its annual budget allocates more than $12,000 per student to instructional and academic support expenses. The Chapel Hill campus is the flagship institution of the UNC system, which educates close to a quarter of a million students across its 16 campuses each semester.
Nursing programs at UNC-Chapel Hill: Undergraduate options at this North Carolina institution include a traditional B.S.N. and a four-semester accelerated plan that can be completed by students who already hold a bachelor's degree in a different field. The master's program here comes in two flavors -- RN to M.S.N. and B.S.N. to M.S.N. -- and postdoctoral fellowships are available for dedicated nursing scholars.
Rutgers University, one of the oldest institutions of higher education in the U.S., has been educating students in its home state of New Jersey since before the American Revolution. The flagship New Brunswick campus is located less than 35 miles from New York City and 65 miles from Philadelphia, giving nursing graduates access to two of the largest job markets in the country once they complete their programs.
Nursing programs at Rutgers: The D.N.P. program at Rutgers features nearly a dozen nursing specializations and has been ranked by U.S. News and World Report as one of the top 20 such programs nationwide. Advanced nursing students can choose among six post-master's certificates to educate themselves in a new specialty and change the direction of their career.
Nursing Degree Programs and Common Career Paths
Different levels of nursing education cover different bodies of knowledge and prepare you for different sets of careers. Here's a quick rundown of what you can expect from each of the following degree levels.
Nursing Bridge Programs
If you've already earned one of the above nursing degrees and you're looking to move up a level in your career, nursing bridge programs can help. These programs were developed with the goal of making it possible for nurses to expand their career horizons without starting from square one in a new academic program. Here's a quick breakdown of the three most common nursing bridge programs:
|LPN/LVN to RN||RN to B.S.N.||B.S.N. to M.S.N.|
|Available careers after graduation|
|Licensure requirements||Active LPN/LVN license||Active RN license||Active RN license|
|Program length for full-time students||12-18 months||1-4 years, depending on previous college work||2-3 years|
|What you can expect to study||General education subjects in the sciences and humanities; clinical protocols; care practicum for specific populations||Further general education in chemistry, biology, social science and more; pharmacology; health informatics; intro to research||Advanced coursework in your chosen specialty (nurse midwifery, critical care, gerontology, nurse education, health administration, etc.)|
Nursing Specialties and Specializations
Specialization is one of the cornerstones of successful nurse education. Here's some detail about a few key roles that nursing students might choose to focus on in their nursing programs:
- Nurse midwife. Nurse midwives deliver obstetric and gynecological (OB/GYN) care, up to and including infant delivery and surgical assistance during caesarian births.
- Public health nurse. Nurses in public health roles focus mainly on educating communities about avoiding or managing diseases and chronic health conditions. They may organize community health screenings, blood drives or other outreach programs.
- Critical care nurse. Critical care nurses are specially trained to provide care to patients with serious, complex or acute conditions that must be closely monitored.
- Nurse advocate. These nurses focus on fostering communication between patients and medical personnel. They typically work in large hospitals or outpatient surgery centers.
Nursing Program Accreditation
When a nursing program has earned accreditation, students can rest assured that the education they receive will be up to the standard of quality that employers and advanced nursing schools expect. It goes without saying that you want an education that sets you up for success, so make sure to give first consideration to nursing degrees that are accredited by one of the following agencies:
- The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
- The Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN)
Specific nursing specialties might have their own specialized agencies for nursing program accreditation, as well. The Council on Accreditation of Nurse Anesthesia Educational Programs (COA) and the American College of Nurse-Midwives Division of Accreditation (ACNM) are two such examples.
Nursing Certification and Licensure
Nursing certification and licensure are two different things, but they're equally important to a nurse's career. We'll go over the differences here, as well as provide further references for specific nursing careers.
Certification is the process by which a non-governmental organization issues formal recognition that an individual's qualifications meet the level of knowledge and skill required for their profession. There are nearly 200 specialized nursing certifications in the U.S., offered by dozens of different industry and professional groups.
Licensure, on the other hand, is a grant of legal authority to practice a regulated profession. In the U.S., nursing licenses are awarded by the state or territory where you intend to practice. Most state licensing boards expect candidates to have already earned certification in their field before applying to be licensed.
For more information on nursing certification and licensure, check out our pages for these individual nursing careers:
Career Outlook for Nursing
Rapid job growth can be found all across the health care industry, and nursing is certainly no exception, which could be a good indicator for those looking to work or study full-time or part-time as a nurse. Check out this rundown of the career outlook for aspiring nurses and the nursing practice to see if options from a nursing BSN degree program to a DNP nursing degree program could be up your alley.
PROJECTED JOB GROWTH(%)
|Home Health Aides||$25,330||797,670||36.6%|
|Nursing Instructors and Teachers, Postsecondary||$81,350||55,710||20%|
|Nursing, Psychiatric, and Home Health Aides||$28,180||2,355,640||18.3%|
|Licensed Practical and Licensed Vocational Nurses||$47,050||701,690||10.7%|
Q&A with an Expert
Are there significant differences between RN training in diploma programs vs. associate degree programs or online nursing programs?
Yes. Not all diploma programs offer college level classes and not all are two-year or four-year or offer online nursing progams. In today's environment it is important to confirm the diploma program you are considering is affiliated with an accredited college and awards college credit for the work you do whether full-time or part-time, or for BSN program or others.
Which nursing degree would you recommend to new nursing students seeking a nursing education today? Is it a good idea to go straight to nursing schools for a BSN or MSN programs or should they spend some time hands-on working as an RN first, whether full-time or part-time or something in between?
Either is OK — it depends upon their end goal. Many nursing students are second career or returning students, so a degree in a non-nursing field positions them well for a direct entry advanced practice program if nurse practitioner is the goal.
Nursing Initiatives and Funding
Numerous governmental and private organizations are working to support the nursing profession by providing funding for nursing schools and offering financial aid opportunities for prospective nurses. Here's a list of just a few programs you can check out:
- The National League for Nursing (NLN) offers grants and scholarships designed to help nurses and nurse educators advance research and scholarship in the nursing field.
- The National Institutes of Health (NIH) features loan repayment programs (LRP) designed to help doctors, nurses, dentists, and other medical and research personnel repay their college debt.
- The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) provides a wide range of nursing scholarships for both undergraduate and graduate students.
State-specific initiatives, such as the Nursing Student Loan Forgiveness Program (NSLFP) in Florida that awards up to $4,000 per year for four years, can also help you pay for your nursing education. Check with your state board of nursing or chat with advisors at your nursing school to learn more about your options.
Financial Aid and Scholarships in Nursing
Fortunately for those working on their nursing education, a wide range of scholarships are offered to undergraduate nursing students such as those looking to enroll in a BSN program or earn a DNP degree. Many of the available aid packages are specific to certain nursing specialties like emergency, long term care and behavioral health nursing, while others, like the Nurses Make a Difference Scholarship, are open to all nursing students in the nursing practice.
To be included in these rankings, all schools must meet the following initial criteria for the specific subject being ranked.
- Offer a degree or certificate program in that subject
- Have awarded at least one degree or certificate in that subject in the most recent year of IPEDS data available.
Based on those criteria, we ranked all 2-year and 4-year schools in IPEDS that reported data for all of the following points. Ratings are calculated on a 10-point scale, using the weights specified.
- In-state undergraduate tuition & fees, National Center for Education Statistics, 2017
- Median debt of completers, College Scorecard, 2017
- 3-year loan repayment rate, College Scorecard, 2017
- Graduation rate, National Center for Education Statistics, 2017
- Full-time retention rate, National Center for Education Statistics, 2017
- Institutional spending, based on two equally weighted factors, National Center for Education Statistics, 2017
- Instructional and academic support expenses per full-time enrolled student
- Instructional and academic support spending as a percentage of all expenses
- Flexibility, based on the following factors, National Center for Education Statistics, 2017
- Percent of students enrolled fully or partly in distance education
- Whether the school offers programs that can be completed entirely in the evenings and on weekends
- Whether the school offers academic and career counseling
- Size of program, based on how many of the degrees and certificates awarded in 2016-17 were in this particular subject, National Center for Education Statistics, 2017