Nursing is one of the most attractive professions, especially in these hard economic times. Entry into the field is relatively easy and does not require a four-year college degree. The pay is good, and the potential for advancement is very good, with Registered Nurses (RNs) earning on average nearly $70,000 per year. Best of all, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the demand for nurses today at all levels of training is excellent and is expected to remain strong in the coming years.
The profession consists of a number of steps or levels, from Nurse’s Assistant at the bottom to Doctor in Nursing at the top. With each step up this career ladder, one obtains greater skill and responsibility, and gets better paid accordingly.
Unfortunately, the entry-level steps are not well supported by online degree programs at present—too much of nursing at that level requires hands-on, directly supervised experience. However, the good news is that once you have received the basic training in a one- or two-year program at a traditional brick-and-mortar school or hospital, further advancement up the ladder is readily available through a wealth of excellent and low-cost online degree programs.
In this article, we will first give you some background information about the various steps on the nursing career ladder. Then, we will make some general observations about the kinds of nursing programs that are available online. Finally, we will provide you with several different rankings of online nursing programs.
The Nursing Profession in a Nutshell
Many nurses begin their careers as a Nurse’s Assistant (also known as Certified Nursing Assistant, or CNA). This entry-level job typically requires only a high school diploma, or GED, and a brief course of instruction lasting anywhere from several weeks to several months, in preparation for a state certification exam. Nurse’s Assistants are primarily engaged in giving bedside care to patients. The BLS reports the average salary of Nurse’s Assistants in 2010 as about $25,000 (rounding to the nearest $1K).
The next rung on the nursing ladder is Licensed Practial Nurse, or LPN (also known in some states as Licensed Vocational Nurse, or LVN, as well as by other names). The LPN title usually requires a high school diploma, a year-long, state-approved training program, and a licensing exam. LPNs may assist patients with their personal hygiene, but are also usually responsible for monitoring and recording vital signs, giving injections, changing dressings, removing catheters, and performing similar procedures that demand mid-level skills. The average salary of LPNs in the U.S. was about $41,000.
The next step up is Registered Nurse (RN). RNs are the largest single healthcare occupation in the U.S., numbering about 2.6 million jobs. About 60% of RNs work in hospitals, while others may work in doctor’s offices, in schools, in large companies, in factories, in prisons, and in many other settings.
The RN is a type of state-regulated professional license. There are three kinds of training that prepare one for RN certification. One is a two-year program of study and practice in a teaching hospital, leading to the Diploma in Nursing. Another is an associate’s degree—typically, an Associate of Science in Nursing (ASN) or Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN)—in a community college or a four-year college. The third is the Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), which is a four-year college degree.
At present, most RNs in the U.S. have an associate’s degree. However, some predict that most RNs will eventually need to have a BSN degree, since research shows that better patient outcomes result when a higher proportion of the nurses providing care in hospitals have baccalaureate-level (BSN) training. In addition to programs of study that lead to the BSN directly (that is, before certification), there are also programs—called “RN-to-BSN” (or “post-certification BSN”)—that allow RNs with associate’s degrees to acquire the higher, baccalaureate-level of training.
RNs are not typically responsible for bedside care, but rather supervise the work of Nurse’s Assistants and LPNs, carrying out some of the more skilled tasks usually performed by LPNs, as well as certain more difficult and invasive medical procedures sometimes performed by MDs. RNs with a bachelor’s degree may perform a still wider range of medical procedures. The specific procedures that RNs may perform are regulated by each state in its Nurse Practice Act.
It is important to know that, at first, RNs with a bachelor’s degree do not typically earn much more than RNs with only an associate’s degree. However, the BSN is necessary for advancement into areas of higher medical responsibility and specialization, and ultimately higher compensation. It is also, of course, a prerequisite to the various post-graduate nursing degrees, which can lead to substantially higher salaries.
The average salary for all types of RNs in the U.S. last year was about $68,000.
Finally, there are the post-graduate nursing degrees: Master of Science in Nursing (MSN); Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP); and PhD in Nursing.
The MSN degree may be preparation either for certification as Nurse Practitioner (NP)—also known as Advanced Practice Nurse (APN) and Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP)—or else for a career in the teaching of nursing or in mid-level hospital administration. NPs also have additional specialized training beyond the MSN in a particular field of medicine. They are qualified to perform physical examinations, diagnose illnesses, and prescribe medications and other treatments within their area of specialization, much like MDs. In addition to MSN programs, combined BSN/MSN programs also exist. These are designed for students who already hold a bachelor’s degree in a field other than nursing. The average salary of NPs in the U.S. in 2010 was $82,000.
The two doctoral-level degrees lead to careers in a highly skilled nursing specialty (such as anesthesiology), in higher-level hospital administration, or in biomedical research and teaching. All of the post-graduate nursing degrees will ordinarily be pursued either in a university setting or in a large, teaching hospital. The salary of a DNP or a PhD in Nursing may vary greatly according to the career path chosen. However, as an example, one may cite such positions as Associate Professor of Nursing (average salary: $68,000), Nursing Director ($110,000), Chief Nursing Anesthetist ($173,000), and Head of Nursing ($178,000).
Obviously, many nursing skills can only be acquired from hands-on experience, which is not something that can be taught online (at least, not yet). This means that study for the entry-level steps into the profession—the Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA), Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN), and Registered Nurse (RN) certificates and the Associate of Science in Nursing (ASN) degree—must be pursued for the most part in a traditional brick-and-mortar college or hospital setting.
A few schools do offer a portion of the instruction for the ASN degree online. For example, Kaplan University and Chamberlain College of Nursing both offer the lecture portion of their ASN degree programs online. However, even these schools require that you take the practical, or hands-on, portion of the program (sometimes called the “practicum”) at one of their physical campuses (in Florida and Ohio, respectively).
It is important not to confuse programs leading to the ASN (or ADN) degree with the many similar-sounding programs out there leading to associate’s degrees in non-nursing health fields, such as occupational therapist, message therapist, medical office assistant, medical coding specialist, and the like. Another peril to watch out for is “diploma mills”—organizations that are unaccredited and whose diplomas are essentially worthless.
Bottom line: If you are interested in entry-level nursing training, then you probably should contact your local community college or (if you live in a major metropolitan area) a local teaching hospital.
Once the initial steps into the nursing profession have been made, the more advanced degree programs are actually quite well suited to online teaching. This is because so many of the people enrolling in them already possess much practical skill from on-the-job experience. Moreover, many will continue to work in their profession either full- or part-time while going to school, and thus will continue to acquire practical skills on the job while at the same time acquiring formal knowledge.
Of course, many of the higher-level online nursing programs also require “practicum” courses, in which newly acquired knowledge is put to practical use. However, these courses may often be arranged for you in cooperation with a local hospital or other medical facility in your area.
Overall, the RN-to-BSN program is the most popular type of online nursing program, with the greatest number of options available nationwide at present.
In summary, most nurses who seek career advancement through online study will already have a high level of practical skill and will continue to work while they study. This means that an online degree program makes a lot of sense for any nurse who is looking to take the next step up the career ladder of the profession.
What, then, are the very best online nursing programs in the United States? The answer to this question will depend on your life situation and goals. Let’s look at two different ways of evaluating such programs: by affordability and by academic excellence.
If money is a key factor in choosing where to go school, what you need to know, above all, is how much the various online programs charge in tuition costs.
Determining tuition costs, however, is not so straightforward. That is because schools have three different ways of providing information about their tuition charges: by credit hour, by semester, or by total cost of the program. We’ll do the math for you and put everything in terms of credit hours.
Below are two lists of online nursing programs, for the RN-to-BSN and MSN degrees. We rank the schools on each list (in order of tuition cost per credit hour), provide a link to the program in question, and give its primary geographical location. The locations indicated are those of the administrative headquarters or the main brick-and-mortar campus associated with the online program. Dollar amounts have been rounded to the nearest $5.
Where part-time and full-time tuition rates differ, we list the lower, full-time rate. (In general, the tuition rates we list assume full-time study; part-time study may be considerably more costly.) However, where in-state and out-of-state resident rates differ, we list the higher, out-of-state rate.
Finally, only schools offering nationwide access, or something close to it, are included in our rankings.
The Most Affordable RN-to-BSN Programs Online
- Baker College Online (Flint, MI) – $205
- Pima Medical Institute (Tucson, AZ) – $250
- United States University (Chula Vista, CA) – $250
- University of Texas at Arlington (Arlington, TX) – $255
- Grantham University (Kansas City, MO) – $265
- Western Governors University (Salt Lake City, UT) – $270
- Adventist University of Health Sciences (Orlando, FL) – $300
- Liberty University Online (Lynchburg, VA) – $305
- Rasmussen College (Minnetonka, MN) – $310
- Kaplan University (Ft. Lauderdale, FL) – $315
- Northeastern University (Boston, MA) – $325
- Colorado Technical University (Colorado Springs, CO) – $340
- Indiana State University (Terre Haute, IN) – $355
- American Sentinel University (Aurora, CO) – $370
- South University (Savannah, GA) – $380
- Colorado Christian University (Lakewood, CO) – $380
- Indiana Wesleyan University (Marion, IN) – $395
- Kent State University (Kent, OH) – $420
- Arizona State University (Scottsdale, AZ) – $425
- Jacksonville University (Tampa, FL) – $440
- Grand Canyon University (Phoenix, AZ) – $460
- Graceland University (Lamoni, IA) – $465
- Nebraska Methodist College (Omaha, NE) – $480
- University of Phoenix (Phoenix, AZ) – $500
- University of Massachusetts (Amherst, MA) – $510
- Azusa Pacific University (Azusa, CA) – $530
The Most Affordable MSN Programs Online
Most of the schools listed above also offer online study for the Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) and higher nursing degrees.
Also, the following online MSN programs are offered by schools which either did not make the top-30 cut above (that is, their online BSN programs were more expensive) or else do not offer an online BSN degree.
As you can see, most online MSN programs are substantially more expensive than online BSN programs.
- Aspen University (Denver, CO) – $300
- Walden University (Minneapolis, MN) – $535
- Spring Arbor University (Spring Arbor, MI) – $540
- Norwich University (Northfield, VT) – $600
- Chamberlain College of Nursing (Downers Grove, IL) – $650
- St. Louis University (St. Louis, MO) – $725
- Drexel University Online (Philadelphia, PA) – $765
- University of Cincinnati (Cincinnati, OH) $830
- Georgetown University (Washington, DC) – $860
- Seton Hall University (South Orange, NJ) – $900
- Duquesne University (Pittsburgh, PA) – $945
If you can enroll in a top-caliber nursing program, regardless of expense, you face a different problem. How can you tell which schools are the “very best” in the sense of providing the best possible training? In other words, how do you measure academic excellence in the field of nursing?
Nursing, of course, is part of medicine and the health sciences. And medicine—from an academic perspective—is part of biology, which is part of the natural sciences. Luckily, there is an objective and widely accepted measurement of academic excellence in the field of the natural sciences: namely, federal funding.
In other words, the schools engaged in the most important research tend to be the ones that receive the biggest federal grants, since money follows past research success. And, not surprisingly, the schools receiving the most financial support tend to be the ones with the most highly respected faculty, the most outstanding teaching and research facilities, and so forth.
For nursing, the relevant form of federal funding will be for the biomedical sciences. And the lion’s share of funding in the biomedical sciences comes through the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The NIH maintains a website that details the funding they provide to the nation’s universities and research hospitals, arranged by state and name of institution. This allows us to determine which institutions received the highest levels of federal support for biomedical research in a given year.
Here, then, is a ranking of the 20 institutions receiving the largest NIH grants for 2010, together with a link to each school or hospital’s online nursing program (if any), its primary geographical location, and the dollar amount it receives (truncated to the nearest $1,000,000).
The Academically Best Nursing Programs in the U.S.
- Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore, MD) – $610M
- University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, PA) – $481M
- University of California, San Francisco (San Francisco, CA) – $475M
- University of Washington (Seattle, WA) – $474M
- University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, MI) – $470M
- University of Pittsburgh (Pittsburgh, PA) – $424M
- University of California, San Diego (San Diego, CA) – $390M
- Washington University (St. Louis, MO) – $386M
- Yale University (New Haven, CT) – $378M
- University of California, Los Angeles (Los Angeles, CA) – $368M
- Duke University (Durham, NC) – $351M
- University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill, NC) – $341M
- Stanford University (Stanford, CA) – $339M
- Massachusetts General Hospital (Boston, MA) – $331M
- Vanderbilt University (Nashville, TN) – $322M
- Brigham and Women’s Hospital (Boston, MA) – $302M
- Columbia University Health Sciences Division (New York, NY) – $290M
- Emory University (Atlanta, GA) – $262M
- University of Minnesota (Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN) – $255M
- University of Wisconsin (Madison, WI) – $248M
Note that fewer than half of the 20 top biomedical research institutions in the U.S. offer any online nursing courses at all.
Of the rest, some (for example, Stanford and Washington University) used to have respected nursing programs that were closed some time ago due to the growth of hospital-based training for nurses in the 1960s and ’70s. Most of the others still have excellent nursing programs, which, however, don’t offer online courses.
Finally, even the nine schools that do offer some online training for nurses provide only selected courses in this format. None of them offers a complete degree program in nursing for distance learners.
In summary, U.S. research universities and hospitals with the greatest academic prestige in the biomedical sciences do not offer many opportunities for online learning in nursing, at present. This means that nursing students for whom academic excellence is the main criterion, and money is no object, will probably need to study at a brick-and-mortar campus.