Affordable Online Nursing Degrees

Careers in nursing are on the rise in the United States. The primary reasons for this historical uptick in job opportunities include Medicaid expansion, longer coverage for young people on their parents’ plans, and widespread access to online marketplaces for insurance providers. Additionally, the Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that an aging baby boomer generation has led to a greater need for nursing professionals who specialize in treating elderly patients with “chronic and acute” medical conditions. Generally, nurses provide healthcare services to patients and work to educate the public about medical conditions and treatments. However, the nursing sector is subdivided into different areas of specialization.

Since passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that roughly 20 million American adults and children have gained access to health insurance coverage.

Registered nurses (RNs) make up the majority of this occupational sector in the U.S., with more than 2.7 million RN jobs in 2014. RNs work to provide care and coordinate patient services in a variety of healthcare-oriented settings, most often hospitals. RNs may also oversee other nursing personnel, including licensed practical nurses (LPNs) and licensed vocational nurses (LVNs). These nurses usually work in hospitals and long-term healthcare facilities (such as nursing homes), and provide basic patient care. LVN and LPN online nursing programs focus on these core competencies. BLS data notes that, as of 2014, there are more than 700,000 LPN and LVN jobs in the United States.

Finally, nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, and nurse practitioners make up more than 170,000 jobs in the country. Also known as advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs), these individuals coordinate patient care plans and provide specialized healthcare services. Online nursing programs can prepare nurses for APRN specialization; the cheapest online nurse practitioner programs are usually available in a hybrid format that combines bachelor’s and master’s-level curricula.

This guide explores different options for students who wish to earn a college degree from an online nursing program and pursue a career in the growing industry. Read on to learn more about specific occupational demands, academic requirements, salary expectations, and employment rates, and decide if an online nursing degree is right for you.

Did You Know?

Nursing is the most diverse among all healthcare professions. Some of the most common settings in the industry include pediatrics, women’s health, neonatal, and family nursing. Read on to learn more about the wide range of career options available with a degree in nursing.

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What Can You Do with a Degree in Nursing?

Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) and Licensed Vocational Nurse (LVN)

$43,170 Avg Annual Salary
Diploma Degree Required

LPNs and LVNs perform most of the hands-on patient duties in hospitals, nursing homes, and other healthcare facilities, and work to foster positive relationships with the patients under their watch. Usually directed by RNs and/or physicians, LPNs and LVNs monitor a patient’s temperature, blood pressure, and other vital signs. Other day-to-day duties include collecting fluid samples for lab testing, assisting with catheters, changing bandages, and other services that ensure the patient’s health and wellbeing. Some LPNs and LVNs provide certain services after they have received additional training, such as delivering certain types of medication and installing intravenous (IV) drips. LPNs and LVNs also maintain individual records for all patients, and are expected to keep their supervisors updated on the medical status and potential health concerns for everyone under their care. Many online nursing degree programs aimed at LPNs and LVNs are available in an accelerated format.

  • Degree Required: Practical nursing diploma or certificate
  • Licensure Required: National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-PN)
  • Time Commitment: 1 year or more
  • Median Annual Salary (Entry-Level): $36,604
  • Median Annual Salary (Mid-Career): $40,106
  • Median Annual Salary (Late-Career): $42,600

Registered Nurse (RN)

$43,170 Avg Annual Salary
Bachelor's Degree Required

Registered nurses observe and monitor patients, and will often perform diagnostic tests to monitor an individual’s medical status. RNs oversee LPNs and LVNs, and will work closely with their nursing staff to ensure all patients are as healthy and comfortable as possible while under their care. RNs often meet privately with patients and their families to discuss different treatments, procedures, and other medical options. Many RNs have a specialization. These include addiction nurses, who care for patients recovering from alcohol or drug addiction; rehabilitation nurses, who work with patients who are recovering from a physical injury; and oncology nurses, who assist patients undergoing cancer treatment. Roughly 61% of RNs work in hospitals; others work in nursing homes, physician offices, home healthcare, and government organizations (including the U.S. military). Online RN nursing programs are often combined into an accelerated format, such as the RN to BSN option.

  • Degree Required: Associate nursing degree or bachelor of science in nursing (BSN)
  • Licensure Required: National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN)
  • Time Commitment: 2-4 years
  • Median Annual Salary (Entry-Level): $51,491
  • Median Annual Salary (Mid-Career): $60,145
  • Median Annual Salary (Late-Career): $66,318

Advanced Practice Registered Nurse

$104,740 Avg Annual Salary
Master's Degree Required

Nurse anesthetists (CRNAs), nurse midwives (CNMs), and nurse practitioners (NPs) all fall under the umbrella of advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs). CRNAs provide anesthesia for patients undergoing surgeries, obstetric exams, and other medical procedures. CNMS offer care and medical services to women, such as gynecological exams, prenatal exams, and family planning counseling. NPs undertake primary and specialty care services for patients and their families, often as part of a long-term medical treatment or health improvement plan. Daily patient duties for APRNs will vary by specialty, but their general responsibilities include performing physical exams, monitoring patient vital signs, and collecting fluid samples, and then analyzing the results of these tests. Roughly half of the nation’s APRNs work in physician offices, while another 28% work in state, local, and private hospitals. Accredited online nurse practitioner programs focus on areas of specialization, as well as core competencies.

  • Licensure Required: Certification from the National Board of Certification and Recertification for Nurse Anesthetists (NBCRNA) or the American Midwifery Certification Board.
  • Time Commitment: 4 years for bachelor’s degree, up to 2 more years for MSN
  • Median Annual Salary (Entry-Level): $85,327
  • Median Annual Salary (Mid-Career): $90,567
  • Median Annual Salary (Late-Career): $89,866

Nursing Careers by the Numbers

BLS data suggests that nursing careers far outpace most other employment sectors in terms of projected growth rate. In terms of salary, nursing professionals tend to earn more based on the required level of higher education; APRNs, who must graduate with a master’s degree to begin working, earn the highest salaries among nursing professionals. BLS data also notes that privately funded institutions tend to offer higher salaries than public facilities.

Top Nursing Careers by Income and Growth Rate
Career Median Annual Salary Job Outlook
Registered Nurse $67,490 + 16%
Licensed Practical Nurse & Licensed Vocational Nurse $43,170 + 16%
Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives & Nurse Practitioners $104,740 + 31%
BLS employment projections data, 2014-2024

Highest Paying Nursing Careers by Sector


What Does it Take to Succeed in Nursing?

Anyone can enroll in a nursing degree online, but individuals with certain character traits tend to excel in this demanding field. The following table lists a few of the personal attributes that will help you succeed in a professional role once you’ve finished your online nursing program.

  • Communication

    Nurses at all levels must meet with patients and their families on a regular basis to explain conditions, procedures, treatments, and other aspects of medical care. Nursing employers seek individuals who have the ability to articulate complex concepts and translate technical terminology for people who have not received training in this field.

  • Empathy

    When dealing with sick and wounded people, it is crucial to take a compassionate, non-judgmental approach. A successful nurse can meet with any patient and help them feel as comfortable as possible while they are receiving treatment. Medical facilities can be stressful workplaces, but nurses must suppress the demands of their job in order to effectively care for their patients.

  • Attention to Detail

    Every nursing duty requires painstaking precision and accuracy. An error on a patient’s medical chart or incorrect dosage can lead to dire consequences. Nurses must carefully study every detail of a patient’s care plan in order to avoid critical mistakes.

  • Strong Stomach

    Nursing education — particularly the hands-on, clinical components — will help students overcome their fears and/or negative feelings about blood and other bodily fluids, as well as procedures involving the human anatomy. The best nurses are able to approach every patient from a strictly medical standpoint and perform all of the necessary functions of their job with a clear head. The practicum areas of accredited online nursing programs will help students in this area.


Certificate in Nursing: An Overview

Who should pursue a certificate program in nursing?

Anyone who plans to become a LPN or LVN, or plans to advance into an RN or APRN career through an online nursing program at the bachelor’s level.

How many years will it take to complete?

Most certificates in nursing require one to two years for completion.

Is a thesis or capstone usually required?

No. Most LVN and LPN online nursing programs that award certification culminate in a final exam.

What type of jobs does this degree prepare you for?

A nursing certificate can be used to obtain an LPN or LVN job. The certificate also prepares students to sit for the NCLEX-PN exam.

What's the average salary for someone who holds this degree?

The median salary for LPNs and LVNs is $43,170 per year (or $20.76 per hour).

Core Concepts

A practical nursing certificate at the non-graduate level focuses on the following core concepts:

  • Provide care for patients with common and well-defined health issues
  • Gather patient data and use medical technology to develop individual care plans
  • Exercise critical thinking in order to recognize diagnostic results and patterns that affect a patient’s health and recovery
  • Work with patients and their families to discuss medical conditions and explore therapies, procedures, and other treatment options
  • Collaborate with fellow nurses and other healthcare personnel to ensure effective care for all patients

Course Highlights

Fundamental Nursing Skills

Description Intro to basic nursing skills
Job Skill Ability to address the basic nutrition, hygiene, comfort, safety, and pharmacology needs of the client

Clinical Nursing Skills

Description Lab-based nursing skills training
Job Skill Ability to monitor vital signs, collect fluid samples and perform other medical care services for patients

Nutrition

Description Intro to food and dietary concerns
Job Skill Ability to advise patients on an appropriate diet (given their medical condition) and work with other nursing personnel to ensure patients are properly fed during their stay

Family Nursing

Description Training related to pediatric and obstetric care
Job Skill Ability to assist RNs and APRNs who specialize in treating women and children

Psychology/ Mental Health

Description Intro to psychiatric disorders and mental health issues
Job Skill Ability to care for patients who are mentally ill and consult with their families about treatment options

Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN): An Overview

Who should pursue an associate degree in nursing?

AAnyone who wants to become an LPN or LVN or enter an online registered nurse program.

How many years will it take to complete?

Most accredited online nursing programs at the associate level require a two-year commitment.

Is a thesis or capstone usually required?

No, although some nursing degree online programs will require a final project.

What type of jobs does this degree prepare you for?

An online associate degree in nursing prepares students for nursing leadership roles, such as an RN. An ADN will also ready students to sit for the NCLEX-RN exam.

What's the average salary for someone who holds this degree?

The average salary for students who earn an ADN is $64,389 per year (or $33.77 per hour).

Core Concepts

An online associate degree in nursing (ADN) focuses on the following core concepts:

  • Provide care for a wide range of adult and juvenile patients, and administer medicine and medical treatments for different conditions
  • Collect data, analyze test results and maintain up-to-date records for all patients
  • Effectively communicate with patients and their families in order to educate them about medical conditions and their corresponding treatments
  • Manage a clinical staff and delegate responsibilities to various personnel based on their role and level of experience

Course Highlights

Anatomy & Physiology

Description An intro to the human body and its systems
Job Skill Ability to check a patient’s vital signs, perform tests, and observe abnormal patterns that affect the patient’s overall health.

Pharmacology

Description An intro to the role of medicine in nursing
Job Skill Ability to administer different drugs and consult with patients and their families about different medicine options.

Advanced Maternal & Child Nursing (Clinical)

Description Lab-based training about complex obstetric and pediatric issues
Job Skill Ability to care for pregnant women and children with a full understanding of the specific medical issues and expectations of these two groups.

Patient Management

Description The fundamentals of treating individuals with complex conditions (often includes a lab component)
Job Skill Ability to diagnose complex or abnormal conditions in patients, and direct nursing personnel to the proper treatment and care of these patients

Affordable Schools With Online Associate Programs


Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing (BSN): An Overview

Who should pursue a bachelor's degree in nursing?

Anyone who wishes to pursue a career as an RN and wishes to boost their employment and earnings potential, or proceed to an accredited online nurse practitioner program.

How many years will it take to complete?

Most online bachelor’s degree in nursing programs — including online RN nursing programs — require a four-year commitment, although accelerated programs are available at certain institutions.

Is a thesis or capstone usually required?

Many online nursing programs at the BSN level require a capstone course, though some do not.

What type of jobs does this degree prepare you for?

BSN nursing programs online will help students find work in an RN role, and may be used as a stepping stone toward a master’s degree. Online nursing programs also prepare graduates to sit for the NCLEX-RN licensure exam.

What's the average salary for someone who holds this degree?

The average recipient of a BSN earns a salary of $73,606 per year (or $38.34 per hour)

Core Concepts

Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) and other online registered nurse programs focus on the following core concepts:

  • Provide comprehensive patient care involving routine exams, observations, and administration of different medicines and medical treatments
  • Perform patient tests, analyze results, and maintain up-to-date records for each individual
  • Consult with patients and their families in order to educate them about medical conditions and treatment options
  • Oversee nursing personnel and delegate responsibilities to different staff members based on their roles and levels of experience.

Course Highlights

Pathophysiology

Description A look at the relationship between disease and the human body
Job Skill Ability to observe physical symptoms in patients and diagnose specific medical conditions based on these observations, as well as speak with patients and their families about physical expectations of their condition.

Healthcare Management & Finance

Description An intro to the economic factors driving healthcare facilities and medical treatment
Job Skill Ability to analyze an institution’s financial gains/losses and create feasible budgetary plans.

Ethical & Legal Considerations of Healthcare

Description A look at the legal frameworks governing modern patient care and healthcare administration
Job Skill Ability to confidently offer care and treatment to patients with a full understanding of current laws, regulations and ethical considerations.

Capstone

Description A practicum course allowing students to demonstrate the skills and knowledge they have gained during their BSN program
Job Skill Ability to perform a wide range of tasks related to nursing care and administration. Capstones usually involve a presentation-based format with an emphasis on clinical and medical demonstrations.

Master’s Degree in Nursing (MSN): An Overview

Who should pursue a master's degree in nursing?

Online nursing master’s programs are suitable for anyone who has earned an undergraduate online nursing degree and wishes to pursue a specialized nursing career, such as an APRN.

How many years will it take to complete?

Most MSN and online nurse practitioner programs require a commitment of one to two years.

Is a thesis or capstone usually required?

Yes. Most nursing degree online programs at the MSN level require students to submit a capstone project concentrated in their nursing specialization area.

What type of jobs does this degree prepare you for?

An online nursing master’s program will prepare students for APRN roles. These programs will also ready students for their state licensure exams.

What's the average salary for someone who holds this degree?

The average student who graduates with a degree from an MSN program stands to earn an average salary of $88,500 per year (or $46 per hour).

Core Concepts

A master of science in nursing (MSN) program will generally focus on the following core concepts:

  • Learn the various diagnostic procedures, care techniques, and treatment methods related to a nursing specialization area
  • Coordinate care plans for patients based on their condition, medical history, and other individual factors
  • Perform routine patient tests and observations, analyze the results, and maintain up-to-date records
  • Prescribe medications and consult patients and their families about different pharmacological options
  • Educating fellow nurses and other onsite personnel about various aspects of a specialization area

Course Highlights

Nursing Theory

Description A look at the theoretical approaches to nursing
Job Skill Ability to treat and look after patients following a theoretical framework designed to improve overall efficiency and quality of care.

Leadership for Advanced Practice Nursing

Description An intro to the fundamentals of the APRN role
Job Skill Ability to direct nursing personnel and other staff members in an organized, resourceful manner.

Measurement & Data Analysis

Description A look at techniques and strategies for data management
Job Skill Ability to collect patient data, analyze the results, and incorporate findings into the patient’s care plan

Advanced Physical Assessment

Description A look at complex diagnostic measures for evaluating patients
Job Skill Ability to perform tests and observations on patients of all ages, and use the patient’s age as a factor in determining diagnostics, care plans, and treatment options.


Affordable Schools With Online Master’s Programs


Doctor of Nursing Practice Degree (DNP): An Overview

Who should pursue a DNP?

Anyone who has earned an MSN or other master’s-level nursing degree, and wishes to advance toward a leadership role.

How many years will it take to complete?

Most DNP programs require a commitment of at least four or five semesters.

Is a thesis or capstone usually required?

Yes. Most nursing programs online at the DNP level require a capstone or scholarly project designed to demonstrate the student’s understanding of advanced nursing theories and care/treatment methods.

What type of jobs does this degree prepare you for?

Those who earn a DNP are prepared for advanced ANRP roles, as well as nursing leadership positions.

What's the average salary for someone who holds this degree?

The average student that graduates with a DNP will earn a salary of $90,967 (or $47.38 per hour).

DNP Overview

The DNP builds on undergraduate and master’s-level nursing curricula and focuses on areas like leadership, data management, medical law/ethics, and interdisciplinary healthcare. Unlike other doctorate programs ― which are research-based ― a DNP focuses on building clinical skills through hands-on practicum training, and will usually culminate in a dissertation or scholarly project. Students who write a dissertation must present their findings and orally defend their position in front of a special committee. Dissertation approval is usually the final step of a doctoral program prior to graduation. The timeline for most DNP programs is as follows:

  • Semester One

    Areas of study include healthcare statistics, informatics, and an introduction to evidence-based practice.

  • Semester Two

    The focus will be on intermediate evidence-based practice studies, as well as real-world applications for these practices. Students will begin working on their dissertation around this time.

  • Semester Three

    In addition to additional evidence-based practice applications, students will learn about organizational strategies for medical facilities and economic factors driving modern healthcare. By this time, most students who plan to choose a specialization will have done so.

  • Semester Four

    Areas of focus include advanced applications for evidence-based applications, as well as key legal and ethical frameworks that pertain to nursing and healthcare administration.

  • Semester Five (and Beyond)

    Students finalize their knowledge and skills training, and focus on preparing their dissertation or scholarly project for presentation. The semester will most likely conclude with the presentation and oral defense of the student’s dissertation.


The In-Person Aspect of an Online Nursing Degree

Online nursing programs allow students to access lectures, complete assignments and take some exams from the comfort of their home computer. However, due to clinical requirements, online nursing education is supplemented with practicum sessions that allow students to gain hands-on experience in a clinical setting. Generally, web-based nursing degree programs are flexible and will allow students to complete clinical requirements at a hospital, nursing home, physician’s office, or other healthcare facility near their home; however, students should carefully research program requirements to ensure they will be able to complete the practicum components in their current setting. Many higher learning institutions feature on-campus facilities where nursing students can fulfill their practicum requirements. Practicum hour requirements may vary by specific nursing programs (i.e., advanced degrees with specializations).

Regardless of degree level and specialization, practicum courses are designed to prepare students for real-world interactions with patients and their families, as well as fellow nursing personnel, physicians, and other medical staff. The nature of practical training will vary by degree level and, if applicable, the student’s area of nursing specialization. Students at the certificate and associate degree level will learn to take patient vital signs, update medical records, and administer various forms of need-based care. BSN students build on basic nursing knowledge and skills to learn more advanced care techniques, as well as strategies for educating patients and their families; many BSN programs also include practical leadership components designed to build nursing management competencies. Master’s-level nursing education exposes students to techniques and procedures related to their area of specialization, such as anesthesia or midwifery. Finally, DNP programs include hands-on sessions built around evidence-based practice and their applications.


Next Steps: Professional Certification

What is it?

The National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) is the standard exam for registered nurses and licensed practical nurses in the United States. The exam has been offered since 1994. Today there are two forms of the exam: The NCLEX-RN and the NCLEX-PN. The NCLEX-RN focuses on creating care plans and performing patient evaluations, while the NCLEX-PN is concentrated on collecting patient data and supporting care plans.

Who should take it?

Successful completion of the NCLEX is required of any RN or LPN who wishes to work as a professional nurse in the United States or Canada.

Why is it important?

The NCLEX critically evaluates nursing students on a comprehensive level to ensure they are prepared for the various functions of their profession. Specific areas of the NCLEX-PN and NCLEX-RN exams focus on providing essential care and comfort to patients, fostering a safe healthcare environment and promoting health and wellness.

Why is it important?

The NCLEX critically evaluates nursing students on a comprehensive level to ensure they are prepared for the various functions of their profession. Specific areas of the NCLEX-PN and NCLEX-RN exams focus on providing essential care and comfort to patients, fostering a safe healthcare environment and promoting health and wellness.

What does it do for you?

Those who pass the NCLEX will be able to legally practice nursing in the state or territory where the exam was taken. Those who wish to relocate to a different state or territory must retake the exam in their new location once they have moved.

When can you take it?

There are no set dates for the NCLEX. Any student can select a testing date once they have registered and applied through their state’s Board of Nursing. They must also register through Pearson VUE testing and pay the required exam fee (usually $200 per exam, plus additional charges that may apply).

Preparing for the Test

The NCLEX-RN and NCLEX-PN exams focus on the duties of their respective professions, but specific exam subdivisions are the same. Practice questions based on past exams are available online for the NCLEX-RN and NCLEX-PN. In order to effectively study for either NCLEX, it’s important to brush up on skills and knowledge related to the following core areas:

  • Safe Effective Care Environment
  • Management of Care
  • Safety and Infection Control
  • Health Promotion and Maintenance
  • Psychosocial Integrity
  • Physiological Integrity
  • Basic Care and Comfort
  • Pharmacological and Parenteral Therapies
  • Reduction of Risk Potential
  • Physiological Adaptation

Other Licensure & Certifications

  • Nurse Licensure Compact: Enacted in 2015, the Nurse Licensure Compact allows RNs and LPNs/LVNs to practice in any of the NLC member states without obtaining additional licensure. Currently, 25 U.S. states recognize the NLC license.
  • NNAAP: The National Nurse Aide Assessment Program (NNAAP) is designed for those who wish to pursue careers as nursing assistants and/or orderlies who perform basic care functions for patients at healthcare facilities. The NNAAP exam includes two components: a written or oral section, and a practical skills demonstration. At this time the NNAAP is offered in 25 U.S. states and territories. Some states allow those who complete the NNAAP exam to transfer their certification to other states, but transferral rules will vary by state.
  • MACE: Like the NNAAP, the Medication Aide Certification Examination (MACE) is aimed at those who wish to become nursing aides. The MACE focuses on administration of different medications at hospitals, nursing homes, and assisted-living facilities. At this time, MACE certification is available in 21 U.S. states; transferral rules vary by state.

Sites You May Also be Interested In

Nursing Job Boards

  • Nursingjobs.com A service available through AMN Healthcare, this comprehensive site lets job-seekers and employers search for positions across the country. The aggregator may be filtered by location and/or professional title.
  • Nurse.com In addition to a categorized job-search aggregator, this site allows you to register for job alerts, upload their resumes, and explore continuing education opportunities.
  • American Nurses Association (ANA) The nation’s leading professional organization for nurses maintains a comprehensive job board that you can filter by location, professional title, and date of original posting.

Nursing Blogs

  • Johns Hopkins School of Nursing The prestigious Baltimore university’s nursing education branch maintains a blog with posts covering a wide range of medical and education-oriented topics.
  • Evidence-based Nursing Blog BMJ Blogs features an extensive number of posts centered around evidence-based nursing practices, dealing with everything from palliative care to breastfeeding.
  • Minority Nurse This site created to provide information and job leads to travel nurses features a comprehensive blog that covers different areas of nursing education, certification, and employment.
  • NurseEyeRoll Created by a practicing care nurse in North Carolina, this humorous blog chronicles the trials and tribulations of patient care, hospital administration, and other key aspects of professional nursing.

Professional Organizations

  • American Nurses Association Founded in 1896, the ANA today serves roughly 3.6 million nurses in the United States. The organization is governed by a House of Delegates made up of appointed members from across the country.
  • National Student Nurses Association Currently serving more than 60,000 members nationwide, the NSNA offers educational advice and career leads for nursing students at all academic levels.
  • American College of Nurse Midwives First incorporated in 1955 to address the growing field of professional midwifery, this organization serves members of the nursing community who specialize in maternal health.