A popular career path, nursing is in higher demand than ever. If you'd like to jump right into the field, an online bachelor's degree offers a flexible and convenient route to becoming a registered nurse (RN). Some of the best nursing schools offer online nursing degrees.
Online nursing schools also allow you to enroll in the most affordable school without having to relocate. Explore our picks for the best accredited online nursing degrees and get tips to jumpstart your nursing career today.
Featured Online RN-to-BSN Programs
Types of Nursing Degrees and Specializations
Whatever education level you have or would like to attain, you can find a nursing career to match. Certified nursing assistants (CNAs) need only a high school diploma or GED certificate and successful completion of a training course, while some levels of advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) careers require a doctorate in nursing. You can explore accredited online nursing degrees for many of these options, in addition to on-campus programs.
Explore different online nursing degree levels and credentials and how to earn them. You just might find your next career step!
Certified Nursing Assistant
Working as a certified nursing assistant (CNA), can be a solid choice for somebody who wants to start working and earning money as soon as possible, or who isn't sure about a career in nursing. Many community colleges, some high schools, and even some hospitals and healthcare systems offer CNA courses.
The exact number of hours in these programs varies by state, but is usually approximately 150 hours. CNAs primarily assist patients with tasks such as dressing, eating, and bathing under the supervision of an RN.
Once you complete the course, you must pass the certification examination to work as a CNA. While the pay is not competitive with other nursing jobs, becoming a CNA can be a very low-cost introduction to a career in nursing.
Licensed Practical Nurse
Becoming a licensed practical nurse (LPN), is an enticing option for students interested in a quick program that allows them to start working in healthcare ASAP at a step up from a CNA role. LPNs typically do not require a degree for licensure, just a certificate/diploma that takes about a year to complete. After finishing the program, you can take the NCLEX-PN and earn your LPN license
Given the current nursing shortage, LPNs are in high demand. Becoming an LPN can be a low-cost and short-term way to make a career pivot.
While LPNs and RNs share many of the same responsibilities, RNs have a larger scope of practice and typically enjoy higher salaries and more leadership opportunities than LPNs. As a result, you may be interested in applying to on-campus or online LPN-to-RN programs.
There are two pathways to becoming an RN — earning an ADN or BSN. Both nursing degree levels prepare you to take the NCLEX-RN and earn an RN license, but the BSN is more valuable if you want a higher-level position or want to earn an MSN later in your career.
RNs conduct medical testing, provide treatment, educate patients, and work with APRNs or a physicians to create and carry out care plans. RNs work not only in healthcare settings, but also in facilities such as military bases, prisons, and nonprofits.
RNs are in tremendous demand because of the current nursing shortage and the aging Baby Boomer population. A nursing degree and RN license can be a very fruitful investment in your career.
An associate's degree in nursing (ADN) is the shorter route to a career as an RN, usually taking between two to three years to complete. While a high school diploma or GED certificate is required for this program, admission requirements tend to be less strict than BSN programs.
After completing your ADN, taking the NCLEX-RN examination, and earning a nursing license, you can become an registered nurse (RN). However, many employers prefer a BSN and view the BSN as the minimum nursing degree level for adequate career preparation — so make sure to do your research before starting a program.
A bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) typically takes four years to earn, though it may take less if you have other nursing credentials or transferable college credits. You must have a high school diploma or GED certificate; at least some science and math classes; and, depending on how competitive the program is, a GPA of 3.0 or higher.
Once you have a BSN through a nursing program online or on-campus program, you are eligible to take the NCLEX-RN examination, earn a nursing license, and start working as an entry-level registered nurse (RN).
While you can pursue RN credentialing with an associate degree in nursing (ADN), many employers view a BSN as the minimum nursing degree level for adequate career preparation.
If you want higher pay or more professional autonomy, an advanced nursing degree level, like a master of science in nursing (MSN) can prepare you to become a nurse practitioner or an APRN. Depending on your state regulations, you may even be able to practice independently.
Most MSN programs take 2-3 years to complete and require a BSN and a 3.0 GPA. Some colleges have an RN-to-MSN bridge program that can be an accelerated option for nurses with an ADN.
An MSN is an excellent option for nurses who want to advance financially, have more career independence, or both.
Licensed Nurse Practitioner
Nurse practitioners (NPs) are nurses who have earned an MSN or doctor of nursing practice (DNP) from an accredited on-campus or online nursing school and passed the certification examination for their specialty.
Unlike medical school, MSN programs focus on just one population or specialty, such as family care or acute pediatric care. An NP license authorizes you only to practice in that specialty or population. If your state offers full practice authority, you can even practice independently as an NP.
NP programs are either MSN or DNP programs, though some schools offer certification options that allow existing NPs to change specialties without having to repeat a full program from scratch.
Family Nurse Practitioner
Family practice is the most common NP specialty. Family nurse practitioners (FNPs) are licensed to act as primary care providers. These professionals can order medical tests, diagnose conditions, and prescribe treatment.
FNPs work in a number of settings, including hospitals and health systems, independent practices, and other healthcare settings. Depending on the state and workplace, they may work independently or under the supervision of a physician. They may also supervise RNs and other nursing staff.
A typical MSN FNP program takes 2-3 years to complete and includes extensive fieldwork in family practice settings. Some programs offer hybrid or online options, though you may need to find your own fieldwork placement for online nursing degrees.
Mental Health Nursing
Demand for mental health nursing is growing in most parts of the country, especially in areas affected by the opioid crisis. You can start your career in mental health nursing by taking an entry-level RN job in an institution that offers mental health care. As you advance in your career, however, you may want to consider becoming an APRN or earning certification.
Mental health nurses may collaborate with other mental health professionals, such as psychiatrists or counselors.
Mental health nursing, like public health nursing, is a master's or certification program rather than a BSN program. RNs or APRNs can work in mental health nursing.
Critical Care Nursing
Critical care nurses care for patients with unstable health from illness or injuries. They are sometimes also called intensive care unit (ICU) nurses. Depending on the hospital, they may work in neonatal, pediatric, or adult ICU settings.
Like other nursing specialties, RN programs online or on-campus cover the basics of critical care nursing. Nurses seeking to specialize can take continuing education courses and pursue certification. This field calls for advanced collaboration skills and quick thinking in crises.
Most critical care nurses learn on the job and pursue continuing education to become certified in critical care or in critical care specialty topics.
Medical-surgical nurses provide patient care before and after surgical procedures. The majority of this care takes place in hospital inpatient settings, but it can also occur in other settings, such as a plastic surgery office or in a patient's home during recovery. The role also involved patient or family education, such as teaching patients or those helping them how to treat wounds and how to look for signs of infection.
There is no degree program for medical-surgical nurses. Instead, medical-surgical nurses can pursue certification in medical-surgical nursing through continuing education, work experience, and passing certifying board examinations.
Clinical Nurse Specialist
Clinical nurse specialists (CNS) are APRNs who specialize in a particular population and have passed the CNS certification examination in their specialty field. While they may engage in hands-on patient care, their primary focus is acting as a leader and educator.
They focus on identifying best practices and ensuring hospital staff knows how to use them through education, developing procedures, or other leadership tools.
To become a CNS, you must earn an MSN, pass the certification examination, and apply for a state CNS license.
How Important Is Accreditation for Online Nursing Schools?
Accreditation is especially important for online nursing degrees. Your nursing program is a major step in qualifying for a nursing license. If your program is unaccredited, you may be unable to apply for licensure.
An online degree will be just as respected as a traditional degree, so long as it's from an accredited nursing program.
Here are the two major programmatic accreditors to look for as you compare nursing degrees:
- Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN)
- Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
Frequently Asked Questions About Online Nursing Degrees
Can I earn a nursing degree completely online?
Yes, you can earn a nursing degree 100% online. In fact, many of the best nursing schools offer fully online degrees. This applies to associate, bachelor's, and master's degrees in nursing.
Students complete coursework online through a distance learning platform. You'll then need to fulfill clinical requirements locally and in person.
Can you become a nurse without a degree?
Yes, you can become a nurse without a college degree. Some nurses choose to start their career with a registered nursing diploma that takes a year rather than a degree that takes two to four years. These diploma programs provide you with a foundation in biology and social sciences, in addition to clinical experience with patients.
However, registered nurse diplomas are not as common or as popular as they used to be, and they don't prepare you for a career in registered nursing as well as an ADN or BSN would. Only 43 accredited nursing diplomas exist in the U.S. and only about 2000 students who took the NCLEX-RN in 2023 graduated from a diploma program. Additionally, some diploma programs have NCLEX-RN pass rates less than 60%.
Alternatively, you can become a licensed practical nurse (LPN) with a diploma. These programs normally take about a year.
How long does it take to become an RN?
In general, it takes 2-4 years to become an RN. The specific timeline for becoming an RN will depend on the educational path you take, whether that's an ADN (two years) or a BSN (four years).
What courses will you take in a registered nursing program?
Typically, an RN program will include courses like basic nursing care, family health assessment, and nursing leadership. You'll also learn about physiology, psychology, microbiology, and pharmacology.
What type of nurse is most in demand?
Nurse practitioners are not only the most in-demand nurses but also one of the fastest-growing job in the U.S. The BLS projects a 45% growth rate for nurse practitioners between 2022 and 2032. Nurse practitioners earn a median annual salary of $121,610 as of May 2022. To become a nurse practitioner, you'll need a master's degree in nursing.