The 'traditional entry' path for nursing students is to start with an undergraduate degree in nursing and then work up to a Master of Science. An undergrad nursing degree is not actually required to become a nurse or to obtain a master's degree, however. 'Alternate entry' programs are designed for students who already have a bachelor's degree in a subject other than nursing. These programs help address a sustained shortage of qualified nurses in North America that began in the 1990s and is expected to continue into the 2020s. Students who may not have any previous specific nursing training can move directly into graduate-level nursing coursework through these alternate entry programs.
Students should expect that an online program of this nature will not necessarily be 100% online, as practicum courses (those that require fieldwork in an actual health care setting) are a significant part of it. Online nursing programs will either arrange practicum courses with a facility that is located somewhere near the student, or will ask the student to make arrangements on their own. Theory and other classroom-based courses can be handled online, however.
Online nursing programs will be accredited by either the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) or the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE). This accreditation is in addition to the university's general accreditation. Accredited nursing programs will always have a clinical requirement that has to be attended in person. Programs that consist of nothing but online classes and virtual labs are not accredited.
Students who complete an alternate entry program will graduate with a Master of Science in Nursing degree and will be prepared for the registered nurse (RN) examination. Programs may also include preparation for the Clinical Nurse Leader (CNL) examination, a more advanced form of RN with more of a senior administrative role in a clinical setting.
Graduates of an alternate entry program will at minimum be qualified for entry-level nursing jobs in a variety of patient care settings. The Master of Science degree is a foundational element needed for more advanced nursing roles such as advanced practice registered nurse (APRN), certified registered nurse anaesthetist (CRNA), nurse practicioner (CNP) and certified nurse midwife (CNM).
General Admissions Requirements
Alternate entry nursing programs always require students to have a bachelor's degree in a field other than nursing. Students who have an associate's degree in nursing may be able to qualify for a traditional Master of Science in Nursing program.
Some prerequisites that you might encounter include a minimum GPA, particular prior coursework in subjects related to nursing, American Red Cross Basic Life Support (BLS) certification, some amount of volunteer hours in a clinical setting, and academic references.
Since clinical work is a part of these programs, students should also expect to have a physical screening and have their immunizations up to date.
Alternate entry Master of Science in Nursing online programs are fewer in number than more traditional graduate nursing programs and specialization programs that require RN licensure. Students should expect to spend a significant amount of time in offline coursework. All programs will have clinical requirements, and programs will vary in how many of the other classes can be taken online.