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How to Enroll in a Nursing Program

Nurse checking patient with stethoscopeFinding the right nursing school may seem like a difficult undertaking, particularly if you don’t know what to look for in a good degree program.  As you may already know, in order to practice as a registered nurse, you must receive the proper education and training in order to become licensed.  So it is vitally important that you research and measure the qualifications of each school you are considering before enrolling in your final choice.  Unfortunately, too many future students base their decision solely on the cost of tuition and the proximity of the school.  Choosing the least expensive school or the one that is closest to your home is probably not the best way to choose a nursing program.  There are several important additional factors to look into before you decide where to attend classes.   But before we delve into that checklist, let’s first discuss what the role of a registered nurse is in our healthcare system, as well as the nursing degree options that are available.

The Role of a Registered Nurse

nurse taking vital signs of elderly womanRegistered nurses are the largest occupation in the healthcare delivery system.  RNs practice in many different medical environments, such as hospitals, private practices, outpatient clinics, nursing homes and even schools.  Their basic role is to assist doctors in the treatment of their patients.  However, the specific duties of a registered nurse will depend on their job or specialization as well as where they work.  Some of the duties of an RN may include:

    • Administering medication
    • Monitoring patients
    • Performing physical examinations
    • Coordinating care
    • Supervising LPNs, LVNs and nurse aides
    • Educating patients and their families
    • Maintaining health records and charts

Nurses with a more advanced degree may have more advanced job duties and responsibilities.  Nurse practitioners (NP), for example, must hold a Master’s Degree and typically work more independently than their RN counterparts.  They can provide primary or specialty care services, prescribe medications, and diagnose and treat common illnesses or injuries.

Nursing School Degree Options

There are several degree options available to become a registered nurse.  And in order to become an RN, a student must attend an accredited school and program.  A student can earn their qualifying degree in as little as 2 years, or continue on to obtain a graduate degree for a total of 6 years.  Following are some brief descriptions of the nursing degrees that are available.

  • Associates Degree. The Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) is typically a 2 year program offered by community colleges. It prepares graduates for an entry level position in nursing in healthcare facilities such as hospitals, clinics or nursing homes.  Many use the ADN as an entry into nursing and subsequently obtain a more advanced degree.
  • Bachelor’s Degree. The Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) offers more comprehensive training than the ADN. It is generally a 4 year program offered at colleges and universities.  Licensed RNs may be eligible to complete an accelerated program based on their previous training or degree and professional experience (RN to BSN).  Those applying to the program may want to advance to a clinical or administrative position, or be more competitive in the job market.
  • Master’s Degree. The Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) is generally a 2 year program after obtaining the BSN. The MSN program offers specialization training, for instance to become a nurse practitioner or focus on administration, management or teaching.

Once a graduating student has earned one of the above degrees, he or she must pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) in order to become licensed.  Additional requirements for licensing vary from state to state, so be sure to check with your State Board of Nursing for any state mandates.

Online Nursing Degree Programs

RN holding medical chartAttending nursing schools online is becoming a more popular way to receive training and earn a nursing degree.  Some schools will require attendance on campus for part of the training, and virtually all programs require a certain number of clinical rotation hours performed in a local healthcare facility.  But since the balance of the training can be accessed online, this option may be a more convenient solution to finding the time to attend college for some students.  Regarding tuition, some online degree programs are less expensive than other on campus options.  Even additional expenses such as for commuting and study materials can be reduced, helping to make education more affordable.  And many online programs are accredited by organizations such as the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) for BSN and MSN degrees.  So if your work and family obligations have left you with little time to pursue your academic goals, perhaps an online nursing program will make it easier to fit a degree into your busy schedule.

Registered Nurse School Checklist

Now that you have decided on which nursing degree to pursue, as well as on whether to attend your classes on campus or online, you can use the following checklist to begin narrowing down your options.  As you no doubt are aware, there are many nursing schools and colleges within the United States.  So it is important to reduce the number of schools to choose from so that you will have a manageable list.  As we previously mentioned, the location of the school as well as the cost of tuition are probably going to be the first two things that you will consider.  But as we also stressed, they should not be your only qualifiers.  So before making your final decision, use the following questions to see how your selection compares to the field.

Is the Nursing School Program Accredited?  Most nursing colleges and programs have attained a regional or a national accreditation, or both.  One of the most highly regarded accrediting agencies in this field is the Accreditation Commission For Education in Nursing (ACEN).  Colleges receiving accreditation from the ACEN have gone through a comprehensive screening of their curriculum and instructors.  Online schools may also receive accreditation from the Distance Education and Training Council, which focuses on distance or online learning.  Make sure that the degree or certificate program as well as the school is accredited by a U.S. Department of Education recognized accrediting organization.  In addition to helping ensure that you receive a quality education, it may assist in securing financial aid or student loans, which are often not available for non-accredited schools.

Does the RN Degree Prepare you for Licensing?  Licensing requirements for registered nurses vary from state to state.  In all states, a passing score is required on the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) as well as graduation from an accredited school.  Some states require a certain number of clinical hours completed, as well as passing additional tests.  It is important that the school you are attending not only provides an excellent education, but also helps you to meet the minimum licensing standards for the state where you will be practicing.

What is the Reputation of the Nursing College?  The RN school as well as the program you choose should have an excellent reputation within the medical community.  Check online rating services to see what the reviews are for each school.  Ask the accrediting organizations for each school for their reviews as well.  Also, check with the state school licensing authority to find out if there are any complaints or compliance issues.  Finally, you can also contact some local healthcare organizations that you may be interested in working for upon graduation.   Ask what they think about your short list of schools.  You may even receive referrals to other nursing schools that you hadn’t considered.

What are the Graduation and Job Placement Rates?  Find out from the RN schools you are considering what their graduation rates are as well as how long on average it takes students to complete their programs.   A low graduation rate may be an indication that students were unhappy with the program and dropped out.  It could also mean that the instructors were not competent to teach the curriculum.  It’s also important that the schools have high job placement rates.   A high rate will not only confirm that the school has a good reputation within the medical community, but that it also has the network of contacts to help students obtain internships or employment upon graduation.

Does the College offer Internship Programs?  The best way to get experience as a registered nurse is to work in a clinical environment.  Virtually all nursing degree programs require a certain number of clinical hours.  Many states have minimum clinical hour requirements for licensing as well.  Find out if the schools have a working relationship with hospitals, clinics or labs for internship programs.  Not only will the experience be rewarding, but it will also help establish relationships in the local medical community and open doors for employment upon graduation.

Is Financial Aid Available?  Many RN colleges offer financial aid or assistance to their students.  Contact the financial aid department of the schools you are considering to find out what options are available.  Some schools offer scholarships or will assist in obtaining student loans or grants.  So do not eliminate any school due to the cost of tuition without first finding out what financial resources are available.

How Large are the Classes?  It’s important that you receive as much personal attention as possible.  If the classes are large, you may receive little or no one-on-one instruction.  Find out if you can monitor a few classes before enrolling in the school you have selected.  Talk with some of the students and find out what their experience has been.  Finally, meet with some of the instructors and find out what their levels of expertise are and what degrees they hold.

When are Classes Offered?  Finally, find out if the schools offer flexible class scheduling that meets your needs.  If you can only attend classes on weekends or in the evenings, only consider those schools that offer night and weekend classes.  If a school requires a full-time schedule and you can only attend part-time, then cross that school off of your list.  Also, find out if you can make up classes that you may miss due to work, illness or family emergencies.

Learn More About Enrolling in Nursing School

Enroll in the Right RN Program

Picking the right registered nursing school is perhaps the most important step to beginning your new career in the healthcare industry.  As we have emphasized in this article, it is critical that you select an RN college and a degree program that are both accredited and have excellent reputations within the medical community.  By using our checklist of qualifying questions, you will be able to create a short list of schools to choose from so that you can make your final selection.  And with the right degree and training, combined with your hard work and desire to succeed, you can become a licensed registered nurse.