How to Choose an Online Nursing Degree

This article will describe what an online nursing degree is, and what is important to consider as you are choosing one. The article also will discuss the various career options available with a bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degree in nursing. Also featured are reviews of online nursing programs.

What Is an Online Nursing Degree?

The healthcare profession is growing at a very fast rate, which has greatly increased the job prospects for registered nurses (RNs). This explosive job growth has created a great increase in the number of online nursing programs available at the bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral levels.

Today, nursing students can accelerate their health care careers with a degree that they can earn from the comfort of their own home.

The common types of online nursing degrees are as follows:

Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)

A BSN degree is a four-year program online that prepares you to become an RN. It is possible to work as an RN for years with an associate’s degree or a diploma of nursing, but more hospitals today want to see their nurses earn their BSN.

There are several reasons that nurses should earn at least their BSN. These reasons matter in terms of their increasing their own nursing skill level and also enhancing their future job prospects.

First, research shows that patients have better health outcomes when more nurses with a BSN are involved with their healthcare. In the early 2000s, there were three major studies done that looked at more than 300,000 patients in 300 hospitals. It was found that a higher number of nurses with BSNs was linked to a lower patient mortality rate.

Second, hospitals want to achieve Magnet Recognition from the American Nurses’ Association, which can give them a competitive edge when patients have several hospitals from which they can choose. Having a higher level of employee education can help a hospital achieve Magnet status.

Third, employers want nurses who have a better understanding of the complexity of the healthcare system. It is important for nurses to have a BSN at least so that they understand evidence based practice, public health nursing, and current technology trends that affect healthcare.

A typical online BSN degree features both online courses and clinical practice that you must complete in your local area, such as at your current employer. Nurses earning their BSN learn about topics such as anatomy, biology, and physiology. Some of the common courses may include:

  • Emergency care
  • Nutrition
  • Health assessment fundamentals
  • Research for evidence-based practice
  • Public and global health
  • Modern issues and trends in nursing

Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)

A master of science in nursing prepares the experienced nurse for advanced nursing practice roles. These are some of the most in-demand and highest paying nursing occupations available today. They include:

  • Nurse practitioner (NP): NPs serve as primary and specialty care healthcare providers who deliver advanced nursing services to patients and families. Doing much of the same work as doctors, they determine the most effective ways to improve and manage the health of the patient. They also work with patients to determine ways to integrate modern and effective health promotion strategies into their lives.
  • Certified nurse midwife (CNM): These specialty nurses provided specialized care to women, such as birth services, gynecological examinations, family planning, and pre- and post-natal care. CNMs may help doctors deal with emergencies during labor, which can include repairing lacerations and stopping bleeding. CNMs also serve as primary care providers to both women and their babies.
  • Certified nurse anesthetists (CRNAs): They provide anesthesia services to patients before, during and after surgeries and various medical procedures. They play a very important role in determining which types of anesthetics to use and in what amounts. It is important for CRNAs to know any allergies that patients have to medications so that anesthesia may be administered safely.

An online MSN degree program will frequently cover topics such as nursing research, nursing theory, healthcare financial management, advanced patient assessment, legal and regulatory matters, and nursing leadership. Specific courses often include:

  • Nursing research
  • Healthcare ethics
  • Epidemiologic methods
  • Nursing leadership and management
  • Graduate nursing practicum

Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)

The DNP is an advanced nursing practice degree that prepares students with the critical skills that are needed to effectively translate evidence-based care into modern practice. DNP educated nurses are able to improve systems of care and effectively measure outcomes of patient groups and communities.

Nurses with a DNP usually are in line for high paid positions in various administrative and leadership roles in education, public policy, public health and nursing administration.

Professionals seeking a DNP may focus their studies largely on advanced nursing practice systems and methods, or on organizational leadership and administration. Nurses who want to focus on advanced practice nursing typically complete courses on health and physical assessment, physiology and pathophysiology, and pharmacology.

Nurses choosing the organizational pathway will focus on systems level analysis and thinking. Other important topic areas include healthcare policy leadership, information technology, and implementing and evaluating modern healthcare practice systems.

Earning a DNP may soon be necessary to work as an advanced practice nurse, such as NP or CRNA. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing in 2004 set a goal for moving the level of preparation for advanced nursing practice roles from the MSN to the DNP degree by 2015.

This endorsement by the AACN was because it conducted four years of research on the subject and concluded that DNP-educated nurses have a higher level of patient care skills that are needed in the modern healthcare arena.

At this time, most healthcare employers still only require the MSN degree for working as an advanced practice nurse. But this will likely change in the coming years.  Jump to How to Choose an Online DNP Program with No GRE.

Ph.D. in Nursing

Nurses who earn their Ph.D. in nursing are at the top of the field. This doctoral degree is largely an academic and research oriented degree, suitable for accomplished nurses who desire positions in academia and teaching, leadership and research.

The nursing Ph.D. is intended largely for academic and scientific exploration of nursing excellence. Many nurses with their Ph.D. are deeply involved in research; they develop the nursing knowledge that DNPs use to decide what clinical, practicing nurses do every day.

How to Choose an Online Nursing Degree

There are hundreds of online nursing degree programs to choose from today. Selecting the right one for your career goals can be challenging. We assembled the list below to help you to determine how to select the most promising nursing degree programs.

Most of the online degree factors listed here can be found by perusing the website of the online university program you are considering:

Degree of Student Engagement

The best online nursing degree programs for a BSN, MSN or DNP degree feature plenty of collaboration opportunities with students and professors. They also have well structured clinical internship programs, which feature several hundred hours of clinical work. These internships are another major feature of good student engagement.

Your instructors also should be responsive and accessible. They also should help you to stay properly engaged and enrolled so that you finish your degree in two to five years, depending upon which degree you select.

Instructor Credentials and Training

The best online nursing degree programs have instructors who have impressive academic credentials. Many of the best programs have the same professors teaching both the online and campus based programs. The university also should have ample resources to train instructors on how to teach instructors to teach online effectively.

US News and World Report ranks this category. It is important for online students because all of their learning takes place through distance technology. It is vital that the professor know how to teach effectively using technology.

Reputation Among Peers

The reputation of the online nursing degree program among high ranking education officials is important, although it is hard to always capture this in official statistics. Highly regarded online degree programs frequently will tout their reputation in the field, if they are well thought of.

Reputation among peers is one of the criteria that US News and World Report uses for its rankings.

How Selective

Generally, the best online nursing degree programs, many of which are non-profit colleges with campus-based programs as well, are quite selective. The student body at the university should have to have a high GPA, proven accomplishments and aptitudes to handle tough coursework. This is even more important in an online program because there is much more independent work involved.

Student Services

The best programs have excellent online learning technologies that provide more flexibility and opportunities for learning for distance learning students. Outside of your regular classes, strong technological learning structures provide you with help to accelerate learning, career guidance, financial aid help and networking.


It is  important to ensure that the online program and university are properly accredited. Accreditation shows that a well respected body of accreditation has done a complete evaluation of the online university and program and that it meets or exceeds the best nursing education standards.

The most well known accreditation body in the field of nursing generally is the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, which features the accreditation agency the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education or CCNE.

This nursing organization is recognized by the US  Secretary of Education as a respected national accreditation agency for online nursing programs – bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degree. If your nursing degree program has been accredited by the CCNE, you can be assured that it is a high quality nursing program.

You also should  check that the university itself is accredited by one of the   six regional accreditation associations that are recognized by the Department of Education:

Style of Online Classes Taught

Online universities feature synchronous and asynchronous classes. Synchronous means that the classes are taught at a specific day and time – live. You must be available to take the class at that time. This offers you more interaction with students and faculty.

Asynchronous means that the classes can be taken on your schedule. While this offers more flexibility, you are more on your own and taking classes by yourself.

Why Earn an Online Nursing Degree?


The most obvious reason that nursing degrees online are so popular is that the general nursing field is seeing very rapid employment growth. For regular clinical nurses, job growth will be at least 16% by 2024, which is much faster than average when compared to all occupations.

RNs are needed more today because of the need to educate and care for patients with many chronic illnesses that come with living longer: arthritis, diabetes, heart disease and dementia

There also is more financial pressure on hospitals to get patients out as soon as they can. This leads to more patients going to long term care facilities and outpatient care, as well as more home healthcare patients. These factors are leading to higher demand for nurses in these alternative healthcare facilities.

The median pay for RNs with a BSN is an impressive $68,450, and many RNs receive overtime and night pay. This may push their salary above $100,000 per year.


Employment of advanced practice nurses – including nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives and nurse practitioners – will rise by  31% by 2024. This is a very rapid growth rate.

Demand for more advanced nursing professionals is due to a great increase in the elderly population of Americans. As people age and live longer, they want more healthcare services that both extend and improve the quality of life. Technology also has developed at a rapid pace in the last decade. This allows more life-saving and life-enhancing healthcare treatments. More nursing professionals are needed to provide this advanced level of care.

There also are more people with access to health insurance now than a decade ago, so there is more pressure on the healthcare system to provide services. Advanced practice nurses also are needed to care for the baby boom population that is now entering retirement.

Specifically, these advanced practice nursing professions will see the following rise in job demand:

  • Nurse anesthetists: 19%
  • Nurse midwives: 25%
  • Nurse practitioners: 35%

Job demand for these nursing professionals also is due partly to cost. It is less expensive for healthcare employers and insurance companies to use advanced nursing practice professionals to do many of the same jobs that full doctors do. With proper training and licensing, NPs, midwives and nurse anesthetists can perform many of the same tasks as physicians. In some states, they need to be under the supervision of a physician, but in others, they can work independently.

This level of growing job demand makes it very clear why so many professionals are choosing to earn an online nursing degree. Remember that to work in any of the above three specialties, you need to hold at least your MSN degree. Fortunately, there are many excellent online MSN degree programs available.

The median pay for NPs, nurse anesthetists and nurse midwives was an impressive $107,460 as of May 2016.

Other Reasons to Earn Online Nursing Degree

There are other reasons besides high pay and job demand to get your online nursing degree:

  • The American Nurses Association passed a resolution in 2008 that recommended that all RNs get their BSN within 10 years of earning their licensure. While getting your associate’s or diploma is acceptable for getting into the field, it is important to understand that you will benefit greatly in your career by earning your online BSN.
  • The Institute of Medicine recommended in 2012 that all nurses have their BSN by 2020.
  • In addition to a nursing shortage, there also is a shortage of properly trained nurse educators to teach new nurses. Earning an online BSN, following by several years of experience, can put you on track to eventually becoming a nurse educator; that occupation does require the earning of an MSN eventually.
  • Earning a BSN online opens the door to many other nursing job opportunities, such as nurse practitioner or nurse educator. Without your BSN, you will be restricted to performing basic clinical care for all of your career.
  • Earning a BSN will allow you to eventually specialize in populations of patients you prefer. Some nurses with a BSN specialize in neonates, pediatrics or even a specific disease, such as cancer or diabetes.
  • Many online nursing degrees can be completed part time, on your own schedule, with classes that can be viewed at any time.

Online Nursing Degree Options

When the above criteria are considered, the following three online nursing degree programs are highly rated according to our analysis.

#1 Ohio State University

This top rated online nursing program is a public university features synchronous classes and allow for more real time interaction among students and faculty. Their College of Nursing has an interprofessional collaborative practice, where online nursing students can manage patients as part of a team.

Ohio State offers a highly regarded RN-to-BSN program online that was most recently ranked as #8 in the US according to US News and World Report in 2017. According to, it was ranked #1 in 2016.

The BSN program may be taken either full time or part time, either on campus or online. All nursing programs at Ohio State University are accredited by the CCNE, which is the top accreditation body in the nursing education field.

  • Nursing programs available: BSN, MSN, Ph.D., DNP
  • Total enrollment: 111 in master’s program
  • Nurse practitioner specialties: Primary care, clinical nurse leader, neonatal, nurse midwifery, pediatric, psychiatric, women’s health.
  • Tuition per credit hour: $746 full time – in state and out of state
  • Admissions deadline: January 15

#2 Medical University of South Carolina

This online university is a public university that offers master’s and doctoral degree programs in nursing. It has been educating students online since 2001.

Its online BSN program may be completed in only 16 months, and includes a summer semester. The program focuses on the skills, knowledge and values that are thought to be essential for nursing practice today.

This university also offers a DNP and Ph.D. in nursing program that can be completed online. All nursing programs are CCNE-accredited.

  • Nursing programs available: BSN, MSN, DNP, Ph.D.
  • Total enrollment: 238 in master’s program
  • Nurse practitioner specialties: Adult-gerontology, family practice, pediatric.
  • Tuition per credit hour: $902 full time in state, $1061 full time out of state.
  • Admissions deadline: March 15

#3 University of South Carolina

The University of South Carolina is a public university in Columbia SC where most of the online students are already employed in nursing when they enroll in the program. It is very highly ranked in terms of faculty credentials, student services and technology and admissions selectivity.

The online BSN program can be completed in as little as 3.5 years. If you have your RN and work experience already, it is possible to earn your bachelor’s in as little as 12 months.

All nursing programs at the University of South Carolina are accredited by the CCNE.

  • Nursing programs available: BSN, MSN, DNP
  • Total enrollment: 120 in master’s program
  • Nurse practitioner specialties: Family practice, adult-gerontology, psychiatric mental health, nursing administration.
  • Tuition per credit hour: $714 full time in state, $1303 full time out of state
  • Admissions deadline: April 1


Earning your online nursing degree is a good, solid educational decision for professionals who want to excel in the nursing profession. It also is a wise move if you want to enjoy very strong job demand, salary, and upward mobility in a rapidly growing field.

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