Not so long ago, a distance-learning nursing program would have been considered questionable, a fly-by-night mail order scam with no forwarding address and ultimately, no real credentials.

But these days an online nursing degree is a real and serious option for potential nurses. Whether you’re an experienced nurse trying to advance or a beginning nursing student going for either an associate’s (ADN) or a four-year bachelors in science (BSN), an online degree program is a viable option. So when is the best time to pursue an online education, versus attending a brick-and-mortar school in person?

Advantages to Online Nursing Degrees

It’s flexible: This is the key for stay-at-home parents or those working another job while you attend school. You can study, attend classes and take tests when you want and in the privacy of your own home. A caveat: some online universities with traditional nursing programs will require online students to study at the same pace as students on campus, so check with your program carefully before signing up.

It’s a great way to bridge degrees: Many nurses contend the best use of online learning is when an experienced nurse is trying to advance in his or her career, for example, going from a two-year ADN degree to a four-year BSN degree, or going from a BSN to a master’s in nursing (MSN).

It sometimes can be less costly than a traditional program. This is a qualified benefit, containing a lot of “ifs” – if you don’t extend your study for too long (paying for extra semesters); if you are applying to an online school from out-of-state (out-of-state and instate tuition are the same at online universities), and if you qualify for one of the many scholarships and loans available in distance learning programs.

You Get Lecture Notes: Unlike most traditional schools, many online instructors provide written transcripts of lectures – a small, but useful perk.

The Advantage to a Traditional Program:

Camaraderie: Some nurses argue that at least for beginning education, taking classes and doing clinical rotations with your fellow students is an important part of the nursing degree – and that’s missing from the online education component.  “I couldn’t have imagined doing without that support during the first years of my nursing education,” writes Keith Carlson, an RN/BSN for over 14 years who currently runs a health and wellness consultancy, in an opinion on online nursing degrees he penned for bestnursingdegrees.com.  “The lively conversations over cups of coffee and midday lunches were crucial to my enjoyment of the experience and the development of deep bonds between many of the students.”

Some things to know about online degrees:

There are fewer two-year nursing programs online: Most online schools offer either a four-year BSN program, or bridge programs (RN-to-MSN, for example). It’s tougher to locate programs that will offer the two-year ADN degree, though they are out there: Mount St. Mary’s College in Los Angeles is one option.

Clinical Lab Hours: Even thought you can do your coursework online, you’ll still be required to do a one-to two-year (varying depending on which state you are in) supervised clinical internship at a hospital or other medical institution.  You’ll generally set that up in a hospital or medical facility near where you live.

Check with your state nursing board on specific license requirements: Not all schools offer the same training, so check in with your state nursing board to make sure you are enrolled in the right program for your state. While nursing programs will vary from state to state and location to location, you’ll most likely need to take and pass the following courses: anatomy, physiology, chemistry, nutrition, microbiology, general psychology (and other behavioral science courses) and nursing courses. You must also complete the required core curriculum courses (such as history, math and English composition), along with electives.

Top ranked online programs: The list varies, obviously, from source to source and depending on what criteria is used, but some names are showing up consistently as being a good education and a good value for money in online nursing education: Indiana State University, the University of Phoenix, and Gonzaga University show up on more than one list.

Most importantly, make sure you’ve got a consistently good internet connection and a quiet place to work.  Nursing school online is just as challenging as nursing school in the flesh. So fire up the laptop and you’ll be ready to fire up your nursing education.

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