Nursing Degrees: Bachelor's, Associate's & Online Class Info

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What will you learn in a nursing degree program? Read about degree requirements, the pros and cons of an associate's and a bachelor's degree, and potential careers.
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Studying Nursing: Degrees at a Glance

Enroll in a nursing degree program and you'll learn how to provide healthcare in a variety of settings through the study of anatomy and physiology, chemistry, nutrition, and other nursing fundamentals. You'll receive instruction through supervised clinical experience as well as traditional classroom teaching.

As a nursing student, you'll learn how to provide conscientious and consistent healthcare across a range of settings, including retirement homes, emergency rooms, mental health clinics, and pediatric units. You'll be eligible to pursue jobs not only in hospitals and doctor's offices but also in schools, correctional facilities, community centers, and the armed forces. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that registered nurses (RNs) can expect a 26% increase in employment opportunities between now and 2020.

Associate's Bachelor's
Who is this degree for? Individuals looking to become registered nurses Individuals looking to become registered nurses but who also want to explore more opportunities at some point in their career
Common Career Paths (with approximate mean annual salary) - Nursing care facility RN ($61,000)*
- Home health care RN ($65,000)*
Surgical hospital RN ($70,000)*
- Doctor's office RN ($73,000)*
Time to Completion 2-3 years full time 4 years full time
Prerequisites Most programs require applicants to have taken high school algebra, biology, and chemistry. Other requirements range from letters of recommendation to an existing nurses license. Requirements range from prerequisite coursework to existing nursing license
Online Availability Some hybrid programs available Yes

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures)

Associate's Degree in Nursing

This degree program is the main training and education route to becoming a registered nurse (RN). RNs provide primary patient care in nearly all healthcare settings. The curriculum is usually designed to concentrate on core nursing courses, with few other academic requirements. Upon graduating, you should be ready to take the National Council Licensing Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN). With regard to the core nursing curriculum, there is essentially no difference between the 2-year and the 4-year degree.

If you think you'd like to continue your education later in pursuit of a bachelor's or graduate degree, you might want to choose a program that has a transfer credit policy in place. Many community colleges have such relationships with area state or 4-year schools.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • You can complete your education in 2-3 years
  • According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment opportunities for RNs should increase at a faster-than-average rate over the coming decade
  • As a healthcare professional, you'll have the chance to positively impact the lives of strangers and loved ones

Cons

  • A 2-year nursing degree may not provide you with as many job choices as a 4-year program
  • RNs can be called upon to work evening and weekend hours and to have unconventional rotating schedules
  • Providing care for the sick, infirm, and dying can be emotionally challenging

Courses and Requirements

Your coursework will consist of traditional classroom instruction alongside lab courses (such as anatomy and physiology) and supervised clinical experience (supervised work in an healthcare setting for course credit). Below are listed some core course topics you'll encounter.

  • Microbiology
  • Pharmacology
  • Human physiology
  • Anatomy

Online Degree and Course Info

Associate's degree programs in nursing that are entirely online are virtually nonexistent. This is largely due to the type of curriculum these programs employ, with supervised clinical lab experience difficult to simulate online. Some programs offer some of their courses online, with the balance of courses taught in the traditional classroom setting.

Getting Ahead With This Degree

After completing your degree program from an accredited institution, you'll need to become licensed before you can practice as an RN. This licensing process is required in every state, although the exact process can vary between them. One common component of each state's licensing procedure is the National Council Licensing Examination (NCLEX-RN). Once you pass this comprehensive exam (and comply with your state's other requirements) you'll be a licensed RN and ready to pursue a career.

Bachelor's Degree in Nursing

Since the associate's the bachelor's degree programs prepare you to complete the licensure process on the way to becoming an RN, the obvious question is, 'Why pursue a bachelor's?' It can take up to twice as long and be correspondingly more expensive. The answer lies in your career plans and goals.

While graduates of either level of degree program will both start out as RNs, bachelor's degree holders will likely face more advancement opportunities. This is because the 4-year program allows the student to explore management and leadership techniques and best practices along with the medical courses. Another reason to pursue the 4-year degree is that you plan on continuing your studies at some point in pursuit of a master's degree. You'll need to pursue a graduate degree if your plan is to be a nurse practitioner or a senior administrator at a large hospital or other healthcare facility.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • You'll likely face more career opportunities than nurses who have associate's degrees
  • Once your bachelor's degree is completed, you'll be in a position to pursue a graduate degree in nursing science
  • A program such as this will provide you with a more balanced, nuanced liberal arts education

Cons

  • At the beginning of your career, you'll most likely be working alongside and earning the same wage as RNs who only have an associate's degree
  • You'll be in school up to twice as long as some of your fellow nurses
  • Admission to this type of program can be competitive and challenging

Courses and Requirements

The core nursing courses required for the bachelor's degree are roughly the same as the courses required for the associate's degree. The educational goal of both programs is the same: to provide a comprehensive understanding of the nursing fundamentals you'll need to pass the NCLEX-RN and become a licensed registered nurse.

The key difference between the two programs when it comes to required courses is the number of electives you'll face with the bachelor's degree program. With the bachelor's degree, you'll enroll in the normal 4-year program level of liberal arts, humanities, and social science electives. In addition to the liberal arts electives, you'll probably also enroll in leadership and management courses.

Online Degree and Course Info

Bachelor's degree programs in nursing that are entirely online do exist. Most of these programs are designed for working healthcare professionals who have already spent the time in a classroom-based nursing program. For those approaching nursing academically for the first time, you should still be able to find programs that offer a hybrid approach, mixing online courses with classroom courses.

Getting Ahead With This Degree

The licensing procedure for becoming an RN is the same for either degree, with the exact requirements depending on the state you reside and work in. As stated earlier, you'll need to pass the NCLEX-RN exam and satisfy whatever other requirements your state requests.

Certification offered through a professional nursing organization is one way for you to stand out with your degree. Professional organizations offer certification in nursing specialty areas such as pediatrics or acute care. Since these certifications are voluntary, they can serve to show your enthusiasm and dedication to a nursing subfield.

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