How to Choose a Program

Choosing a nursing program may seem overwhelming at times, since your decision helps determine your academic and professional path. It's important to account for whether a nursing program would allow you to pursue a specialty in the field or eventually become nursing faculty. You may also need to consider the cost of your selected program, and how to qualify for scholarships, grants, and financial aid to help pay for it.

It's important to account for whether a nursing program would allow you to pursue a specialty in the field or eventually become nursing faculty.

Making the right decision requires extensive research to understand your educational options and how to best meet your immediate and long-term goals. This guide outlines general (but critical) information about choosing the best nursing program for you.

Program Delivery: Online vs. On-Campus

Online nursing programs generally afford more flexibility and convenience than on-campus programs do. Online programs comprise primarily web-based courses, which usually allow students to attend class and complete coursework on their own time. Online nursing programs usually don't require campus housing and meal plan charges, either, making them a more affordable option. Many online nursing students opt to continue working full time while attending their online classes on a part-time basis.

Online programs have their fair share of benefits, but keep in mind that they require more self-motivation than many on-campus programs do. Students must demonstrate organization and maturity, holding themselves accountable for attending class and keeping up with the syllabus. As an online student, you will need to track and monitor assignment deadlines, and proactively contact your professors with questions about coursework. You must also identify and access support from your school -- including library resources, tutoring, and career services -- when necessary.

Online nursing programs may ultimately prove more rigorous than on-campus programs, because distance learners assume full responsibility for learning the material and completing the coursework.

Factors to Consider in an Online Nursing Program

Hybrid/Blended Learning: Online nursing students should consider whether they prefer fully online programs or ones that blends online and face-to-face classes (called hybrid programs). Some programs require students enroll in certain classes on campus, rather than complete them remotely online. For such programs, consider whether you'll be able to reach campus, and it how the commute might affect your overall cost of study. After all, you should concentrate on academics during your educational experience, rather than worrying about geographical and financial limitations.

Synchronous or Asynchronous: Online programs often offer asynchronous courses, which allow learners to attend class when their schedule permits, rather than at a set time. For this reason, asynchronous programs might work best for students juggling family and work responsibilities on top of their studies. Synchronous programs, on the other hand, give online students a specific lecture schedule, so they all log in at a specific time to "attend class" together. Synchronous programs might work best for students that thrive in more structured learning environments.

Class Size: Even with distance learning, class size can make a big difference. Large lecture classes usually permit only minimal interaction between the instructor and each student, and these lecturers typically have limited time to respond to student questions and give feedback on individual performance. Before choosing a program, check the institution's typical student-to-faculty ratio and average class size, and make sure the numbers refer to the online program.

Personal Learning Style: Think carefully about your ideal academic environment. Do you perform best when there is a frequent flow of ideas, dialogue and debate? Do you prefer one-on-one discussions with your professor? If your answer is yes to either of those questions, you might want to reconsider the online learning option. Web-based studies are generally autonomous and self-directed. Online students might interact via web chats, and faculty members still communicate with their students online, but it's very different from the traditional classroom setting.

Clinical Rotations or Internships: Consider whether you value practical, experiential learning through internships or practicums. If so, you may seek out online programs that offer internships and clinical rotations, but make sure to research their requirements. Some online programs offer internships, but only in specific areas, or under the direct, in-person supervision of faculty. In these cases, take into account geographical limitations and complications that might keep you from participating in internship opportunities, since most students want to complete their online programs with as few complications as possible.

Choosing an Accredited Program

It's critical to choose a nursing program that's been accredited by an entity such as the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). CHEA verifies the programs' curriculum, including their rigor and quality. Accreditation communicates that an institution abides by high standards, and applies to both online and on-campus programs. It also informs potential employers that you received a verified, high-quality education, making you an even more attractive candidate.

CHEA makes a database available to help applicants determine which schools and programs are accredited, and by which organizations. The U.S. Department of Education (ED) also accredits institutions and programs. Both CHEA and the ED recognize six regional accreditation agencies.

National vs. Regional Accreditation

As previously pointed out, both CHEA and ED recognize six regional accrediting bodies across the United States. In fact, more than 85% of colleges and universities in the country boast regional accreditation. Regional accreditation is the most prestigious, and credits from regionally accredited institutions usually transfer easily.

CHEA also acknowledges a selection of colleges accredited through national accreditation agencies, which are generally less prestigious than regionally accrediting bodies. CHEA recognizes two national accrediting agencies: the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges and the Distance Education and Training Council.

Programmatic Accreditation

Programmatic accreditation recognizes the caliber of a program's course content, and verifies that it meets industry standards. Students who complete accredited programs are generally more prepared for advanced studies, and hold a deeper understanding of their prospective career field.

Two organizations accredit nursing programs in the United States: the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) and the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE). The ACEN accredits all kinds of nursing programs, while the CCNE only accredits bachelor's and master's degree programs. In addition to these two organizations, the Council on Accreditation of Nurse Anesthesia Education Programs recognizes nurse anesthesia programs that award certificates, master's degrees, and doctoral degrees. The American College of Nurse-Midwife Division of Accreditation recognizes midwifery programs.

Career Goals

Prospective nurses should also consider their career path of choice when deciding on a nursing degree program. Some students may enter their programs with a clear vision for their professional future, but others may need time to identify their specific interests. Either way, make sure to consider the variables that can affect how you eventually embark on the career you desire.

Degree Level

Your level of degree helps determine your career options, as employers heavily consider educational experience in their hiring decisions. Review the following pages for more information on which jobs are available to graduates at each degree level, and what kind of salary each job entails.

Associate Degree

This two-year degree offers coursework in nursing fundamentals to permit quick career entry. Graduates can become, for example, a registered nurse, school nurse, or travel nurse.

Bachelor's Degree

Nursing graduates with four-year bachelor's degrees are well-versed in leadership and professional practice concepts. They may become registered nurses, or specialize as neonatal intensive care nurses.

Master's Degree

Students pursuing this advanced degree study topics including pharmacology, resource management, and advanced care of children and families. Career options include nurse educator, psychiatric nurse, and nurse anesthetist.

Doctorate Degree

This terminal degree in nursing emphasizes nursing leadership skills, including systems management and evidence-based decision making. It requires three to six years of coursework, and can prepare graduates to become nurse educators or clinical nursing specialists.

Bridge Programs for RNs

Registered nurses (RNs) generally follow one of two academic paths when they decide to advance their education: a bachelor's of nursing (BSN) or master's of nursing (MSN). The BSN program typically takes about four years, while the advanced MSN degree follows a bachelor's program. Each maintains specific requirements for entry and completion.


This bridge program allows you to seamlessly transition your two-year degree to a four-year degree. Classes examine topics like nursing management, innovations in healthcare, and information technology. Graduates can enter careers including labor and delivery nurse, nurse anesthetist, and flight nurse.


This bridge program enables you to earn your advanced nursing degree by transitioning to a master's program after earning your bachelor's degree. Courses explore concepts such as as nursing leadership, healthcare policy, and nursing informatics to prepare learners for careers including nurse administrator and clinical research nurse.

Nursing Specialities

Consider the course content in each nursing program before choosing a school, since different programs offer different curriculums to cater to students' different interests. Some bachelor's degree programs let you specialize in a specific area of nursing studies, as do nearly all graduate nursing programs.

Health Policy Nurse: These nurses work within private and public organizations to develop policies that promote people's health and wellbeing.

Nurse Educator: Nurse educators teach students who want to become nurses. They may teach courses at the associate, bachelor's, and doctoral degree levels.

Neonatal Nurse: These professionals deliver care to premature babies, often in the intensive care unit. The babies for whom they care frequently suffer an array of health issues.

Informatics Nurse: Informatics nurses gather, analyze, and report medical data from health facilities. They also train other nurses on new technology, and may work in pharmacies, hospitals, or government agencies.

Critical Care Nurse: These nurses typically work in the intensive care unit, often with patients suffering from severe problems including burns, wounds, and heart conditions. Hospitals, hospices, and nursing homes employ critical care nurses.

Nurse Researcher: Nurse researchers help conduct clinical studies to research the nursing field. This might include studies regarding nurses' performance, and strategies to mitigate infection.

Nursing Licensure

Choose a nursing program that will help you achieve the licensure you need to pursue your career of choice. Moreover, look into how your program's graduates tend to perform on the licensing exam you plan to take. Keep in mind that some graduate nursing programs require their applicants to obtain licensure, and the following table summarizes required licenses for common nursing careers by degree level.

Education and Training Requirements for Common Nursing Careers

Registered Nurses (RNs): Licensure required. Specialty certification may be required or preferred by employers.
Minimum Degree Required: Associate
Median Salary: $70,000

Licensed Practical Nurses (LPNs) and Licensed Vocational Nurses (LVNs): Licensure required. Certification may be required or preferred by employers.
Minimum Degree Required: Postsecondary nondegree
Median Salary: $45,030

Nurse Anesthetists: RN license required. CRNA and additional certification may be required or preferred by employers.
Minimum Degree Required: Master's
Median Salary: $165,120

Nurse Midwives: RN license required. CNM and additional certification may be required or preferred by employers.
Minimum Degree Required: Master's
Median Salary: $100,590

Nurse Practitioners: RN license required. Additional certification may be required or prefer by employers.
Minimum Degree Required: Master's
Median Salary: $103,880

Nursing Instructors or Teachers, Postsecondary: Nursing license may be required.
Minimum Degree Required: A master's degree may be the minimum requirement at some community colleges. Postsecondary teachers at four-year universities usually require a doctoral degree.
Median Salary: $71,260

Cost and Financial Aid

Nursing school costs vary depending on whether you enroll part time or full time, and what kind of degree you choose to pursue. Additional expenses include books, school supplies, laboratory costs, insurance coverage, and immunizations, if required. The following sections examine how various kinds of nursing schools differ regarding tuition and financial aid. Make sure to check online scholarship databases, as well, to explore other financial aid options.

Public vs. Private Schools

Nursing program costs also depend on whether you enroll in a public or private college. Tuition costs between public and private institutions can vary significantly, because state governments typically establish public institutions, and subsidize these schools' operating costs. Private schools, on the other hand, do not receive government funds and rely primarily on donor contributions. Both public and private colleges offer financial aid, but private schools may not make as many scholarships available.

Public colleges often enroll a large number of students -- tens of thousands, in fact -- while private colleges tend to enroll fewer learners. For this reason, public schools tend to have larger class sizes and a higher student-to-faculty ratio than private institutions do. Furthermore, while public schools offer a relatively larger range of degree programs, you might find that private colleges offer fewer programs, but greater opportunity to concentrate in specialized studies within them.

In-State vs. Out-of-State Schools

Students should also consider the cost difference between in-state schools and out-of-state institutions. This is especially relevant for public institutions, because state residents generally pay lower tuition rates than nonresidents. In some cases, out-of-state public school tuition can reach four times higher than in-state public school tuition.

State institutions may impose more strict admission standards on nonresidents, meaning they can be more selective among out-of-states students than they are for in-state students. This makes the admission process more competitive for nonresidents applying to public schools.

In-State vs. Out-of-State College Tuition Prices
  2016-2017 2017-2018
Public 4-Year In-State College $9,670 $9,970
Public 4-Year Out-of-State College $24,820 $25,620
Private 4-Year Nonprofit College $33,520 $34,740

Two-Year vs. Four-Year Schools

The length of your nursing program also affects how much you must pay to earn your degree. Two-year associate programs are generally less expensive than four-year bachelor's programs. Associate programs require significantly less time for students to complete their studies, so those students pay for fewer classes. Associate students also pay for fewer books and laboratory costs. Moreover, four-year colleges typically charge higher tuition rates than community colleges, even if both deliver similar nursing program content.

Two-Year vs. Four-Year College Tuition Prices
  2016-2017 2017-2018
Public Two-Year In-District College $3,470 $3,570
Public 4-Year In-State College $9,670 $9,970

Online vs. On-Campus Programs

Online nursing programs are usually much less expensive than in-person programs are. On-campus program tuition can cost $300 more per credit hour than online program tuition does. The George Washington University, for instance, charges more than $70,000 to enroll in its four-year on-campus nursing program, while its online RN to BSN program costs just $640 per credit.

Most schools also make financial aid available to online students, and online programs avoid many costs associated with traditional, on-campus programs. Such costs might include housing, meals, parking, and childcare. The following table highlights room and board fees at public and private two- and four-year colleges.

Room and Board Fees
  2016-2017 2017-2018
Public 4-Year In-State/Out-of-State College $10,480 $10,800
Private Nonprofit 4-Year College $11,850 $12,210

Program Reputation

Employers pay attention to program rankings, which are based on course content rigor, plus how competitive enrollment is. Admissions officers also value reputational standing when deciding who to accept. ranks nursing programs throughout the country. Its methodology includes assessing exam pass rates, teacher credentials, and accreditation status.

As you research nursing programs, be sure to think carefully about:

NCLEX Exam Pass Rates: This data helps you understand how likely program graduates are to pass their nursing license exam based on information collected in recent years.

Teacher Credentials: This information demonstrates quality of faculty members' education, especially considering that they pass their knowledge on to students through their instruction.

Accreditation Status: As discussed previously, accreditation validates a nursing program for offering robust curricula that prepares graduates to enter the profession.