What to Know About Online Nursing Programs

You can earn a nursing degree online, a route that can make sense for working adults and others.

student wearing headphones on laptop conference call
student wearing headphones on laptop conference call

In our fast-paced and busy world, those looking to start or change careers want as many options as possible for pursing an education. Many schools have responded by offering online programs.

Some programs are entirely online, while others—like those for nursing students—are hybrid programs, combining online coursework with in-person training. These programs are ideal for working students or parents who need flexibility.

What can you expect from an online nursing education? Here are answers to some of the most common questions about online programs.

1. Can I Become a Nurse Online?

There are many nursing programs that offer associate, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees online, though not entirely. That’s because nursing is a hands-on profession, and you’ll need clinical experience that’ll prepare you to work directly with patients.

So, while you may be able to do classroom coursework online, you’ll need to complete your clinical hours in person at a hospital or similar medical setting. This is known as a hybrid education.

An exception might be made if you already have the following:

If this is your case, you might be able to find programs for a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) that are offered solely online. A BSN can give you a deeper education in nursing theory and practice and open the door to professional advancement and a higher salary.

2. Do I Ever Need to Go to Campus?

diverse group of college students walking down stairs

It varies by program. Some may require classroom attendance one or two days a week, in addition to in-person clinical work.

Students who work full time or have families may want a program that offers all coursework online. On the other hand, students with fewer responsibilities might choose a program that offers some traditional experiences like working directly with professors and classmates.

If you choose an online nursing program, it’s still critical to be part of a collaborative learning community.

“Nursing is not a profession that you can do in a silo, so when you are learning online it’s very important that students have enough opportunity to interact with their classmates and faculty beyond just answering questions and submitting the assignments,” says Lisa Smith, PhD, RN, CNE, dean of the College of Nursing and Health Care Professions at Grand Canyon University. “There needs to be interaction and dialogue.”

3. Can I Complete an Online Program at My Own Pace?

Possibly. Some schools hold online programs on the same quarter or semester schedule as they do classes on campus. But others have year-round online programs or programs that let you progress at your own pace.

Students with previous education and nursing experience may be able to enroll in an online “bridge” program and finish school at an accelerated pace. In a bridge program, you don’t have to repeat coursework you’ve already taken, and you might not need to complete as many clinical hours. This route can save you time and money.

4. How Do Online and On-Campus Programs Compare?

An online program will provide the same education as a traditional program, but the two experiences can be vastly different.

Many online programs use web-based software to create virtual classrooms that mirror a traditional classroom. You’ll use the software to:

  • Access course content
  • Turn in assignments
  • Take quizzes
  • Interact with your professors and other students

You may attend some classes in real time via teleconferencing or watch them later on video or listen to them on audio at your convenience.

For many online students, frequent email communication, discussion forums, and online chat sessions can make up for a lack of face-to-face experiences. If you’re not worried about missing out on those interactions, an online program can be a rewarding educational experience and offer many benefits.

For many online students, frequent email communication, discussion forums, and online chat sessions can make up for a lack of face-to-face experiences.

One of the most important benefits is flexibility. Online students who have jobs or family responsibilities can study when it works for them. In exchange for this flexibility, a student will need self-discipline since they set the pace for much of their studies.

“Since online learning is a very different modality than face-to-face, prospective students need to think about how strong their time management skills are,” says Melissa Burdi, DNP, MS, RN, LSSGB, associate dean for the School of Nursing at Purdue University Global. “Do they have a baseline understanding or comfort with technology? Are they disciplined? Are they strong at basically carving out time in their day or throughout their week to budget and plan for the completion of certain materials?”

5. What Should I Look for in a Program?

young male student with headphones taking notes in college library

First, and most important, make sure your state’s board of nursing has approved programs that interest you. These boards license nurses in their state, and without a board’s approval, your nursing program may not qualify you to take the national nurse licensing exam. And without a license, you can’t practice.

Second, consider program accreditation. Accreditation shows that a program meets standards for the education that’s necessary to be successful in a field. While accreditation may not be necessary for licensing as a nurse in some states, an employer may require job candidates to have a degree from an accredited school. Plus, you’ll need to attend an accredited school if you want to qualify for federal financial aid or transfer credits if you decide to pursue additional education later.

Third, decide what you need from an online program. Look at your work schedule, family responsibilities, and other aspects of your life to determine whether a partially or fully online program (minus clinical hours) would be the right fit.

Then ask some additional questions, such as:

Does the school offer career placement programs?

What’s the school’s average student pass rate for nurse licensing?

Do I need to take online courses at specific times?

Does this program offer courses in a nursing specialty that interests me?

Will I get to work with an academic advisor?

How much communication will I have with faculty and other students?

6. Are There Program Prerequisites?

Prerequisites vary greatly based on the school, program, and degree you seek. But for many associate and bachelor’s degree programs, you can expect to need:

  • A high school GPA of at least 2.5
  • Passing scores on the school’s entrance exam for nurses
  • Prerequisite courses covering English, algebra, biology, and chemistry

Acceptable scores on the SAT or ACT might also be necessary for associate degrees and are almost certainly required for a bachelor’s. If you’re entering a BSN program and you already have an associate degree, you’ll also need a current RN license.

For an online program to earn a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), having a BSN from an accredited institution is the most common requirement. However, some programs accept students with associate degrees and allow them to earn a BSN and MSN at the same time. Depending on the master’s program, you might also need to submit scores from the GRE or take a different school entrance exam.

7. How Long Will an Online Program Take?

It depends on the program, but in most cases, online degrees take the same time to complete as traditional ones. You could reduce your time, however, if you choose an accelerated program or have previous credits you can apply to your current program.

Here’s a breakdown of the credits and time it takes to complete an associate, bachelor’s, and master’s degree.

Associate Degree: 60 credits over 18 months to two years

Bachelor’s Degree: 120 credits over four years

Master’s Degree: 30 to 40 credits over two to three years

Wrapped into these credits are your clinical hours, which include labs and clinical rotations working under the supervision of nurses in a healthcare setting such as a hospital, outpatient care clinic, or rehabilitation center.

Clinical requirements can vary by program. Both an associate degree and a bachelor’s generally require 700 to 800 clinical hours and in many cases more. A master’s degree requires 500 to 1,000 clinical hours.

8. Can I Receive Credit for Work Experience?

smiling nursing student standing in hospital hallway

Along with credits from previous coursework, you might be able to apply work experience to your online program requirements and shorten the time it takes to earn your degree. This will depend on the program, but students who want this option generally have two choices:

  • Submit an officially documented portfolio listing experiences for which college credit could be awarded.
  • Depending on the school, students seeking an associate, bachelor’s, or master’s degree can complete a school-approved proficiency exam to demonstrate knowledge in coursework that applies to their work experience. The American Council on Education maintains a database of recommended exams.

Commonly used tests include those designed by the College-Level Design Program (CLEP), and Dantes Subject Standardized Tests (DSST). These tests are most often used to earn credit for general education courses such as English, chemistry, biology, and math.

9. Is Financial Aid Available for Online Nursing Programs?

If you’re worried about paying for your education, there are financial aid options to consider. These apply to online and traditional programs.

Federal aid: Students attending an accredited school and program can get financial aid through the federal government in the form of loans, grants, and work-study programs.

Scholarships: There are many scholarships available, some for students in all fields and some designed specifically for nurses.

If, after graduation, you find work with a nonprofit organization, government agency, or in a region that has a critical shortage of nurses, you might also qualify for student loan forgiveness after a certain period of time.

10. Do Online Degrees Matter to Employers?

young nurse reads over anatomy papers

As online education becomes more mainstream, whether you receive your degree online or in a classroom isn’t as important to employers as whether you attend an accredited program. An online degree prepares you to be just as competitive in the workforce as one earned on campus.

“Online learning is an accepted and credible way to earn a high-quality nursing degree,” says Carla D. Sanderson, PhD, RN, provost at Chamberlain University. “Prospective students are encouraged to select the program that best fits their learning preferences and lifestyle needs.”

And that’s where dedication and commitment come in.

As online education becomes mainstream, whether you receive your degree online or in a classroom isn’t as important to employers as whether you attend an accredited program.

“You must be goal-driven because it is an environment where you can pick and choose most of the time when you’re going to sign on, when you’re going to do your work,” says Smith. “You can’t be distracted by all the opportunities that come up throughout the week that pull your attention away.”


anna giorgi

Written and reported by:

Anna Giorgi

Contributing Writer

With professional insight from:

lisa smith

Lisa Smith, PhD, RN, CNE

Dean, College of Nursing and Health Care Professions, Grand Canyon University

carla sanderson

Carla D. Sanderson, PhD, RN

Provost, Chamberlain University

melissa burdi

Melissa Burdi, DNP, MS, RN, LSSGB

Associate Dean for the School of Nursing at Purdue University Global