Online RN Colleges: How to Choose a School for Registered Nursing

Registered nurses require a minimum of a diploma or associate's degree to sit for the RN exam. Online nursing programs include on-campus or clinical requirements along with distance-learning components.

Online registered nursing programs are offered at every level, but some require that students already be licensed as a nurse. When choosing a program, students should consider the degree level desired and look at in-person requirments.

How to Select an Online Registered Nursing School

There are degree programs in nursing that prepare students to become a registered nurse. Students must weigh the award level and program delivery with the licensing factors.

Award Level

There are a variety of associate's, bachelor's and master's online degree programs available. Most professional nurses hold at least an Associate in Nursing degree or a bachelor's degree in nursing. Due to the growing number of specializations and sub-fields in the profession, the Bureau of Labor Statistics recommends a master's degree for nurses aspiring to management, teaching or administrative positions (


Nurses must be licensed to practice. Online educational programs prepare students for the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) conducted by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing ( Some states may require additional tests, so students should check with their respective state about specific license requirements for registered nurses.

Program Delivery

Online programs in nursing offer students a variety of enrollment options such as full online immersion, low-residency (hybrid) and self-paced programs. Online immersion programs provide course instruction though e-learning platforms and generally don't require students to attend classes on campus, though they do require a clinical component near the student's home. Students watch lectures though streaming video and participate in class exchange though online chat rooms, message boards and email.

Hybrid programs offer a combination of on-campus and online courses. Students who need extra time getting comfortable with online technology may benefit from classroom instruction and extra tutoring. A few schools may also offer accelerated or self-paced study options that allow students to complete courses at their chosen pace.

List of Popular Online Nursing Programs

Online Associate Degree in Nursing

Associate degrees in nursing qualify students to take the exam to become entry-level nurses. Students are required to complete 15 credit hours of liberal arts and science requirements that include courses in biology, chemistry and physiology. The remainder of the program focuses on technical knowledge required for medical professionals, such as knowing how to operate medical equipment, administer shots and read medical charts.

Due to the high level of hands-on training needed at this level of medical training, most online programs require students to spend some time on campus along with an internship at a hospital or clinic. Working nurses with an associate's degree who wish to return to school and earn an online bachelors or master's degree often benefit from tuition reimbursement programs often available to though their employer. Courses include:

  • Adult health concepts
  • General psychology
  • Pharmacology
  • Nursing skills

Online Bachelor of Science Degree in Nursing

A Bachelor of Science in Nursing offers a competitive edge by giving professional nurses training in human relations, communications, research and administration, skills that are becoming more important as nursing develops into a more complex field. Online bachelor's degree programs provide students with a core of liberal arts, science and math requirements such a microbiology, statistics and history.

Students participate in online courses via live streaming video or by following lectures. They can chat and discuss topics with faculty and classmates through designated chat forums and virtual faculty office hours. A special 30 credit program is available to registered nurses with an associate's degree who are taking courses in order to advance from an RN to the BSN degree. Upper-level students focus on practices in nursing, such as:

  • Genetics
  • Physical assessment
  • Public health nursing
  • Rehabilitation nursing

Online Master of Science in Nursing

An online master's degree offers advanced education for students looking to become nurse practitioners, enter leadership positions in education, management or administration or train in clinical nursing. Students participate online though the blackboard course system where they watch video lectures, reply to announcements and participate in discussions on designated chat forums. Depending on the concentration, a typical courses load may also include classes in legal and ethical issues in health care, and theoretical perspectives in nursing. Online master's degree programs are designed to be completed in 2 years. The curriculum varies according to the specific degree area, such as Nurse Administrator or Educator. Course topics might include:

  • Theoretical foundations of nursing
  • Healthcare issues
  • Nursing research
  • Pharmacologic therapy
  • Public policy analysis

Schools with Online Registered Nursing Programs

Penn State University's online campus offers a Master of Science in Nursing with two track options: one for Nurse Administrator, and another for Nurse Educator. Two graduate certificates can also be earned along the way, and if students choose to do so, they can enter the online Doctor of Nursing Practice directly from the Bachelor's program, obtaining the master's degree in the process.

Arizona State University offers an online RN to BSN program, which can be started with an existing associate degree or diploma. Up to 64 credits can be transferred into the program from another accredited university, and the program can be completed in as little as 15 to 18 months. Public health, writing for nurses and management are among the courses.

Northwestern Michigan is home to an online associate degree in nursing program. All theoretical and academic courses are offered online, while the lab and clinical courses will need to be taken at sites in the Traverse City area several days each week. The online courses are available to take for the length of the program, provided they are completed in the proper sequence.

Online registered nursing programs differ in their partial requirements for campus attendance. Students may wish to consider how often they can devote time to commuting to those classes before they enroll.

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