Here's What You'll Study in a Registered Nurse (RN) Degree Program

You'll have plenty of education options as a registered nurse, but first you'll need to earn at least an associate's degree.

What degree levels are available?

registered nurse who has earned an associate's degree

Registered nurses (RNs) are required to have a minimum of an associate's degree, but bachelor's degrees in nursing (BSN) are also available and can help an RN's chances to earn better pay.

Weigh your school options based on your current educational needs and timetable.

Associate's Degree Programs

An associate's degree in nursing (ADN) includes courses in anatomy, nursing, nutrition, chemistry, microbiology among others. You'll also be required to take general liberal arts classes. Earning an ADN is the most popular option for registered nurses and opens the door to entry-level staff nurse positions which will provide you with hands-on experience in the medical field.

This is the fastest path to becoming a registered nurse as most associate's degree programs last about two to three years.

Bachelor's Degree Programs

An aspiring RN can earn a bachelor's of science in nursing (BSN) in four years at a college or university. If you're already an RN, you can enroll in an RN-to-BSN program which is geared specifically for RNs who have an associate's degree or nursing diploma. This path usually takes about two to three years.

An even quicker BSN option is for candidates who already hold a bachelor's degree in another field. An accelerated BSN program allows students to apply general education credits from their first degree to the BSN. This route takes between one to one-and-a-half years.

As an example of a typical RN-to-BSN course load,  Kaplan University offers the following:

Examples of RN-to-BSN Core Courses
  

  • Bioethics
  • Fundamentals of microbiology
  • Nursing research
  • Nursing care of the older adult
  • Public health nursing

What certification will I need?

After completing your degree program, you'll need to take the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX).

In order to sit for the exam, you'll need to apply for a nursing license from your state board of nursing. Since each state has different eligibility criteria, check with your state board to ensure you've met the requirements in order to take the exam.

The NCLEX exam covers four "categories of needs," according to the National Council of State Boards of Nursing:

  • Safe, effective care environment: Management care and safety and infection control
  • Psychosocial integrity: Coping and adaptation and psychosocial adaptation
  • Health promotion and maintenance: Growth and development through the life span and prevention and early detection of disease
  • Physiology integrity: Basic care and comfort, pharmacological and parenteral therapies, reduction of risk potential and physiological adaptation

NCLEX is a registered trademark and/or servicemark of the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, Inc.

What will I learn in my courses?

Associate's degrees in nursing will provide students with the foundation they need to become a registered nurse. Classes will include core education requirements along with specific nursing topics. BSN programs will provide more depth and detail into various aspects of the nursing field. 

Typical courses include:

  • Anatomy
  • Microbiology
  • Chemistry
  • Nutrition
  • Psychology
  • Nursing practice and theory

How long will it take?

Depending upon your level of dedication, a nursing degree can take the following time to complete:

  • Associate's degree programs, which provide entry-level opportunities, usually take two years
  • A bachelor’s degree program takes four years
  • A bachelor's degree with direct entry typically takes three years
  • Master's degree programs generally require two years

Attending part-time is usually an option at most schools, but the program will take longer to complete.

Are online programs available?

Nursing is certainly a hands-on profession, but that doesn't mean online programs aren't available. In fact, there are many associate's and bachelor's degree programs to choose from. Distance learning usually requires to students complete their studies online and conduct their clinical experiences within their local community. If you're already an RN, online RN-to-BSN programs are also available. These programs are specifically geared toward working nurses and using an online classroom can make getting a nursing degree more convenient.

Accelerated, or second degree programs, can also be completed online and can usually help people starting a new career in nursing get going quickly (one or two years). Students with a bachelor's degree in another field who want to enter nursing should have a high GPA and health care experience.

How much will my education cost?

The type of degree you earn will factor into your education costs. An ADN, which takes about two years to complete, averages about $3,200 for the 2013-2014 school year, according to College Board's Trends in College Pricing report. As an example Pima Medical Institute offers a nursing program that costs $15,052 per academic year (two semesters). Considering an ADN takes two years, you're looking at roughly $31,000 to complete the degree.

You may be tempted to go with the cheaper option (associate's degree), but if your future career plans involve midwifery or nurse practitioner, you'll need a master's degree. In this case, a bridge program can sometimes be a cost-effective option.

*Cost of tuition only. Prices do not reflect other fees, books, room and board.

Are there prerequisites?

An associate's degree in nursing or a nursing diploma is required to practice as a registered nurse, but entry to a program is based on a few things.

  • Minimum SAT or ACT exam scores
  • GPA range between 2.0 and 3.25 (check your specific school's requirements)
  • 3 years of math, including geometry and algebra II
  • 3 years of science, including biology and chemistry
  • 4 years of English
  • 2 years of a foreign language

If you're applying to a 4-year college or university to earn a BSN, you will usually declare nursing as your major once you've completed prerequisite classes at the college or university.

What accreditation is there for my program?

Accreditation is a sure-fire way to know if a program meets nationally-recognized nursing education standards. Independent accrediting organizations register schools once they've undergone an arduous application process. For students, accreditation is a gateway to potentially reach financial aid eligibility. Secondly, earning a degree at one accredited school allows a student to pursue further education at other accredited schools.

The relevant accreditation bodies are listed below. When searching for accredited schools, you don't have to dig too deep. AllNursingSchools.com indicates which institutions are NLNAC-accredited using an easy-to-see logo next to the school/program name.

A quick tip: Accreditation isn't earned and maintained in perpetuity. Accreditations are usually handed down for a certain amount of time, usually between 5 and 10 years, and are different for each school. It's a good idea to check with your potential program about the length of time it's accredited for.

Main Accreditation Bodies
 

  • The Accreditation Commission For Education in Nursing (ACEN), formerly NLNAC: Accredits the entire spectrum of nursing programs (associate's, diploma, bachelor's and master's)
     
  • The Commission of Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE): This body accredits bachelor's and master's nursing programs

There's another element students should consider when researching nursing schools. State boards of Nursing approve schools so they can prepare students for the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX). However, state board approval does not automatically equal school accreditation from one of the national organizations. While most accredited schools are state board-approved, it's always a good idea to check.

Non-accredited schools: If you're thinking of attending a non-accredited, but state board-approved school, there can be drawbacks.

 
While you can still take the NCLEX, your nursing profession may stall out if you're seeking additional education. Generally, education from a non-accredited school doesn't qualify students to attend an accredited school.  

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