What Is the Appeal of Online MSN Programs?

Online education is a growing option for nurses who are thinking about getting a master’s in nursing degree.

Thanks to student demand, many of today’s colleges and universities offer online degree options. Nearly one-third of college students took at least one online course and 17% were enrolled in fully online programs in 2016, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

That same year, 72% of public and 50% of private nonprofit schools had fully online programs, according to the 2019 Online College Students: Comprehensive Data on Demands and Preferences report.

Online education offers nurses flexibility and convenience. But is an online MSN a good choice in the long run?

We found that it can be if nurses know what to look for.

In its ranking of the top online MSN degrees nationally, U.S. News and World Report looks for programs with strong traditional academic foundations based on student-instructor access. Other important aspects for quality online education programs are graduation rates and instructor credentials. Highly ranked programs excel at educating online learners. Top programs also offer robust career and financial support.

Eight things to examine in online MSN programs

1 — Nurses should look for and verify an online MSN program’s accreditation.

Employers tend to prefer degrees from accredited online graduate degree programs.

Third-party accreditation helps to ensure that online MSNs have the same standards as traditional programs. Highly regarded accreditation agencies in nursing are the National League for Nursing Commission for Nursing Education Accreditation, Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing and Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education.

Nursing students also should check on a school’s regional accreditation, which suggests a school meets regulatory and quality requirements. Regional accreditation also suggests a program is in good standing with the U.S. Department of Education, according to the Nurse.com blog post, “What you need to know about online nursing education.”

Professional accreditation is a stamp of approval whether a program is online or face to face. It’s a step above regional accreditation requirements.

2 — Know what the costs will be going in

Tuition varies among U.S. News and World Report’s top-ranked online graduate nursing programs. For example, tuition costs for the first 20 programs ranged from $429 to $1,838 per credit. One highly-ranked online MSN in nursing education program requires 39 credit hours. Students usually complete the program in 19 to 21 months, and the total tuition is just more than $20,000.

There are other costs, including books, devices, potential living expenses, health insurance and more. Some programs have estimates of these costs online.

Remember, cheap doesn’t mean better. Nurses should look at the big picture, including costs.

3 — Understand a program’s clinical requirements and how they might fit into work and other schedules

While much of the program is online, nurses have to complete clinicals or practicums onsite. Students usually have the option of completing these relatively close to where they live (that’s good to check, too). For example, one MSN nursing education program requires that students complete 90 non-precepted clinical hours and 135 precepted clinical hours

4 — Nurses who already have a BSN should consider looking for programs with a bridge option

That’s a program that takes one’s current degree into consideration. Bridge programs include the RN-to-MSN and BSN-to-MSN options. Bridge programs help ensure that nurses efficiently learn what they need to learn to go from an associate’s nursing degree to an MSN or from a BSN to MSN.

Another option that’s important to some students is having a blended program, which combines in-person and online learning. Students who want some face-to-face interaction should look for blended options.

5 — Online degree programs have various course loads

Nurses want to know what those are when choosing the best program for them.

Time management is one of the biggest challenges with any advanced degree, especially if a nurse tries to juggle other things, such as a full-time job or caring for a family. Nurses who know what will be expected of them can better plan for how much they’ll devote to their MSN education. Sometimes, that means planning to take one course at a time because nursing courses tend to be rigorous.

6 — Find a school that offers your chosen MSN specialization

Nurses who want to go into education should look specifically for those programs. The same goes for nurses who want to become nurse practitioners, clinical nurse specialists, nurse anesthetists or nurse-midwives. The online MSN with a specialization offers classes for a specific career path.

7 — Research the program’s faculty

What do student reviews say about the faculty members’ responsiveness and experience? Are they quality educators? Do they communicate with students when needed?

8 — Some online programs take longer than others

While the traditional MSN degree generally takes a bachelor’s-prepared nurse from 18 months to two years, online MSN degrees often take two to three years to complete, according to U.S. News and World Report. That could be, in part, because online programs often allow the nurse to progress at his or her own pace.

What online education is and isn’t

Online nursing students often interact with faculty and other students from around the country, and even around the world. That’s a benefit to many. A potential drawback, however, is that those interactions aren’t in person. So, students need to be comfortable with interactions using their devices rather than sitting in a classroom.

“Online education is more convenient, but it’s a misconception that it’s easier than traditional classroom education,” according to our blog post about the features of online education.

Nurses looking at different education options should ask themselves if they’re disciplined enough to make the time to do their work. Those who aren’t self-disciplined might be better off in a traditional classroom environment.

But for many nurses, online MSN options offer quality educations.

“Recently, there has been a public debate about the value of a college education,” according to the 2019 Online College Students: Comprehensive Data on Demands and Preferences report.

“A 2017 survey explored this topic by asking 30,000 college students how well their school prepared them for the workforce (Gallup, 2017),” the report said. “Two of those questions appeared on the 2019 survey of online college students with similar results, as 75% of all college students in 2017 and 81% of online college students in 2019 affirmed they would graduate with the knowledge and skills to succeed in the workplace.”

Another Gallup poll from 2016 surveyed postgraduate degree holders in the U.S. Those who took at least half of their postgraduate coursework online made up a subset of the overall study.

Among the findings was that “postgraduate degree holders who took the bulk of their classes online are just as likely as their peers who took most courses on campus to be currently employed full time (79% vs. 78%), to hold professional and managerial jobs (85% vs. 88%), and to strongly agree they are ‘deeply interested in the work [they] do’ (52% vs. 48%). And, among those promoted at work, they are similarly likely to say their degree was ‘very important’ for getting promoted at work (55% vs. 48%),” according to Gallup.

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