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Online RN-to-BSN Programs: Ask the Right Questions Before You Enroll


The nursing profession continues its push to increase the number of U.S. nurses with at least a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degree. This push comes as the demand for traditional on-site degrees wane due to COVID-19 pandemic concerns and online educational programs increase in popularity.

[caption id="attachment_77277" align="alignleft" width="260"]RN-to-BSN Sooa Devereaux, RN[/caption] So, how do nursing students make the most of the online RN-to-BSN degree experience? It's a combination of things, according to Sooa Devereaux, MSN, RN-BC, Relias SME Writer for Clinical Nursing. Nursing students should go into these programs with motivation, know what they need in an educational program, choose a program that meets those needs, and engage with fellow students and faculty - even if the program is online. Online BSN and other nursing degree programs have long been part of nursing education. There are close to 800 RN-to-BSN programs in the U.S., including more than 600 programs that have online components or are completely online, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN). Even before the COVID-19 crisis, online programs were growing in popularity because they're convenient, Devereaux said. Online education is well suited for nurses with different lifestyles, including those with full- or part-time jobs, evening or night shift positions, or those caring for children or other loved ones, according to Devereaux. But not every student is a fan of the online format. Nursing students who might have been reluctant to try online degree options or avoided them altogether in the past might feel compelled to adapt during and post-pandemic, said Devereaux, author of's continuing education course, "How to Thrive in an Online BSN Program." Even those students can thrive in an online format.

Is an RN-to-BSN Program Flexible Enough for You?

A simple Google search for online RN-to-BSN degree programs yields lots of advertisements and questionable resources. "It's actually quite overwhelming," Devereaux said. Still, it's important to find the program that fits an individual's needs and career aspirations, according to Rita F. D'Aoust, PhD, ANP-BC, CNE, FAANP, FNAP, FAAN, Associate Dean for Teaching and Learning at Johns Hopkins School of Nursing.

"Does the program offer flexibility through selection of courses and practicums that will allow you to pursue interests within the degree program?" D'Aoust said. "For example, if you are interested in leadership-management, does the program offer elective courses as part of the program that will allow you to pursue additional study in quality systems or finance? If you are interested in clinical areas such as cardiology, is there a course specific to cardiovascular management? Are you able to complete nurse educator courses as part of your degree or is there an accelerated pathway for dual degree or certification?"

[caption id="attachment_77282" align="alignright" width="245"] Rita F. D'Aoust, RN[/caption] D'Aoust said these choices provide efficiency that saves time and money. "Flexibility and choice allow a value differentiation that allows an adult learner to obtain focused learning that will align their interests with opportunities - the fit," she said. Adult students who are working and have families also should consider scheduling and course delivery, according to D'Aoust. Among the questions to ask: Is the course schedule organized so that work schedule requests can be reasonably accommodated? "Online and hybrid courses offer flexibility, but time on task to complete the online learning and outside reading and assignments need to be considered," D'Aoust said. Online RN-to-BSN programs have different formats. Many nurses, according to Devereaux, choose the asynchronous format, which means they can log on at any time and get their work done within set weekly assignments.

"Schools are coming up with different types of programs that make learning even more independent and on your own time," Devereaux said.

An example is self-directed programs in which faculty gives students the entire curriculum. Students complete the work at their own speed, Devereaux said.

What will it Cost You?

Students also should consider costs, which can vary greatly among RN-to-BSN programs. The costs don't start and end with tuition.While tuition is usually the largest expense, there also are hidden costs to keep in mind. "What are the textbook costs for the program and are any of the textbooks available as electronic books through the library?" said D'Aoust. "Many nursing programs use educational software and may pass the cost to students. This can be expensive and not evident upfront." Some schools accept more transferred credits from previous RN programs than others. Students should look into what they can transfer beforehand to avoid unnecessary duplication. And in some cases, employers have agreements with nursing schools to potentially reimburse students for their educations. Nurses choosing those programs could be in school with their colleagues, which could give them extra motivation, Devereaux added. A program's name (or brand) recognition can be an important factor for choosing a school for some nurses. But it's more important to make sure a school is accredited by either the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) or Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN), Devereaux said. An RN-to-BSN program's quality will, in many cases, enhance the experience for nursing students. Students should look beyond the marketing at quality indicators including faculty expertise and support services, such as access to journal articles and writing support, according to D'Aoust. "Licensure and certification rates are a measure of accountability to the student and profession that the program prepares the individual to meet professional standards for practice," D'Aoust wrote.

Are You Self-Disciplined Enough?

Self-motivation is important for online degree success because no one is taking attendance or making sure students go to class. "Learning-wise, you have to be self-motivated," said Devereaux. "There is a lot of independent reading on your own, researching on your own." While motivation helps students complete online education programs, participation helps them thrive.

"The student who does not engage much online and does the minimum is going to get the minimum education out of it, said Deveraux. "That's as opposed to someone who is in there conversing with other online students, reading what they have to say, participating, researching what others say, developing their own ideas, and having a real live discussion. Those are the students who I think will thrive and enjoy that type of education."

A common misconception about online RN-to-BSN and other degree programs is that they're easy. Students might think they can do the minimum, log off, and still graduate. That might be true for some, but they won't get much out of the experience, Devereaux said. "Hopefully, the reason a lot of people want to go back to school is not because they feel like they're forced to for their job, but because they want to for their education and to learn something," she said. Even though many students are in the privacy of their homes when taking online courses, they should treat their time at the computer as if they were in an actual classroom, staying engaged and focused. "It's so easy to be on the computer and start researching something that's not related to school," said Deveraux. "You start Googling something else or checking your personal email or your social media accounts. I think it's important to eliminate your distractions when it's time to focus on school work."

Why Bother?

Most nurses complete online RN-to-BSN programs in 12 to 24 months, according to AACN. The investment in time and money is well worth it, Devereaux said. "There have been numerous studies about better patient outcomes when care is delivered by BSN nurses," Devereaux said. "Because of that, hospitals and organizations want to hire BSN nurses. You'll have better job security." Deveraux said once those BSN nurses want to move away from the bedside, they have more opportunities for transitioning to different positions, whether that is to a managerial position, as a case manager, or other roles. "A lot of roles require a BSN," she said. According to AACN, employers have a strong preference for new nurses with baccalaureate preparation. An AACN survey shows that 46% of employers require new hires to have a bachelor's degree while 88% strongly prefer baccalaureate-prepared nurses.

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