Nursing Degrees: A Comprehensive Overview

There are over 2,000 nursing programs in the United States to choose from for those who are planning to earn a degree in nursing.1 Nursing degree types include an associate degree in nursing, a bachelor’s degree in nursing, a master’s degree in nursing, and a doctoral degree in nursing. Many programs include at least some on-campus components, but online nursing degrees do exist for those applicants who are working their way through school and need a more flexible schedule. The right degree type to pursue depends on your personal and professional goals, as well as the area of nursing that you want to specialize in. This guide provides essential information and resources for researching nursing degree levels and degree types.

What Can You Do with a Nursing Degree?

Graduates who have earned a degree in nursing have several options to practice nursing in the job that is a good fit for them. See our nursing careers page for information on specific nursing jobs. Besides the hospital setting, nurses may work in private practices, senior living facilities, nursing agencies, schools, churches, and community organizations.

Student Guide for Nursing Majors

Process for Majoring in Nursing

Many nursing degree programs at colleges and universities require applicants to meet specific requirements to be accepted including prerequisite courses in biology and chemistry. The required prerequisite courses vary at different schools. Speak with an advisor at the school to learn exactly what courses are required before you can start the nursing program. Admission is competitive due to the limited number of seats available at many colleges and universities. According to the American Association of Colleges, more than 75,000 qualified applicants were rejected from nursing schools due to limited space in 2011.2 Evaluation of your application is based on multiple factors which can include grade point average, nursing prerequisites, work experience, writing ability, and personal recommendations.

Factors to Consider When Choosing a Nursing Degree


It is essential to make sure that the nursing program possesses the necessary accreditation that is required for licensure in your state. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) offers accreditation by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) and the National League of Nursing (NLN) offers accreditation by the Commission for Nursing Education Accreditation (CNEA). It is important that the nursing degree you choose is accredited by one of these bodies, which will allow you to become licensed and practice nursing in your state after you receive your degree.

Reputation of the School

The reputation or prestige of the school will not only indicate the quality of education provided but will also send a signal to employers. A degree from a highly regarded institution can help your resume stand out and will create a more positive perception about your nursing abilities. A more highly regarded school may also provide a more rigorous education, better preparing you for your career in nursing.

Flexibility of the Program

If you intend to keep your job while attending school, you will want to research the program’s schedule for classes and clinical rotations. Some programs offer online coursework that may save time and fit better with your schedule. Some nursing degrees can be obtained entirely or mostly online. Master’s degrees in nursing are the most common online nursing degrees, as undergraduate programs usually require more on-campus time as well as clinicals.

Feedback from Former Students

Graduates from the program you are considering can share their experience and what they liked or disliked about their nursing degree. You can find former students in your area on social networks like Twitter or LinkedIn and ask them to meet you for coffee. You can also read student reviews on college and professor review websites to get a broad range of perspectives.

Nursing Degree Levels

While it is common for registered nurses to hold an associate’s degree in nursing, higher levels of education can lead to greater opportunities for getting hired and promoted to positions of leadership at a hospital. While someone with an associate degree in nursing may be able to hold the same position as a person with a bachelor’s degree in nursing, the bachelor’s level nurse will most likely be paid more and have more opportunities for advancement when promotions arise. If you are interested in becoming a nurse practitioner, nurse midwife, or nurse anesthetist, then you will need to pursue a master’s degree that will prepare you for these occupations. According to O*NET Online, about 66% of registered nurses hold an associate’s degree, 23% hold a bachelor’s degree, and 11% have some college but no degree.

Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN)

An associate degree in nursing typically requires one to three years of coursework that results in a student being qualified to take the NCLEX exam and acquire their license to work as a licensed practical nurse (LPN) or licensed vocational nurse (LVN) or in some cases as a registered nurse (RN), depending on the program. This degree can help you get into the job market quickly while also giving you the opportunity to earn additional education while you work.

Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)

A bachelor’s in nursing degree prepares students to take the NCLEX exam and work as registered nurses in multiple settings or areas of specialization. Most graduates go on to work in the hospital setting as a staff nurse and can attain more advanced degrees if they desire to move into leadership or administrative positions at the hospital or expand their scope of practice. A bachelor of science in nursing will equip you for a solid career in the field, qualified to be a registered nurse and be promoted into managerial positions if you so desire.

Master’s in Nursing (MSN)

A master’s in nursing degree provides a graduate level education to prepare nurses to advance into leadership positions at their hospital, go into nursing education, or expand their scope of practice as a nurse practitioner. Master’s degrees in nursing offer a higher degree of specialization for those nurses who want to focus on one area of the field.

Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)

A doctor of nursing practice prepares graduates for advanced roles as a leader, clinician, or educator and researcher. A doctorate in nursing is intended to be a terminal degree that has parity with other healthcare disciplines like doctorates in dentistry, medicine, and psychology.

Nursing Degree Types

LPN or LVN Degree Programs

Practical nurse programs typically require 12 to 18 months of coursework and clinical practicums at a community or technical college. The training prepares students to pass the NCLEX exam and start working in the nursing field in as little as a year. An LPN degree can be a good stepping stone to higher levels of nursing education.

LPN to RN Degree Programs

LPN to RN degree programs are designed for licensed practical nurses who are interested in advancing their careers by becoming a registered nurse. These programs usually take about 18 months to two years to complete, and they provide flexible schedules for working students. Graduates leave the program with an associate degree in nursing.

RN to BSN Degree Programs

The RN to BSN degree program is designed for registered nurses who would like to earn their bachelor’s degree in nursing. These programs often provide flexibility and online courses to accommodate working nurses. Clinical experience at local medical facilities is required with some RN to BSN programs. Graduates leave the program with a bachelor of science in nursing degree.

RN to MSN Degree Programs

The RN to MSN graduate program provides nurses with advanced education that can provide new career options such as leadership roles or nursing education. Depending on the school, multiple areas of specialization may be available to align with specific career goals. Successful graduates leave with a master’s in nursing degree.

Advanced Practice Nursing Degree Programs

Advanced practice nursing graduate programs prepare students for advanced practice registered nursing (APRN) through part-time or full-time study. Nurse practitioners, nurse midwives, nurse anesthetists, and clinical nurse specialists are included under the broader APRN umbrella. They are registered nurses with advanced training who can perform highly specialized tasks, many of which are the same tasks as physicians. Graduates leave the program with a specialized master’s in nursing degree.

Advice for Getting a Nursing Degree from Nursing Association Leaders

“Choose a university that offers an accredited BSN nursing program. Many employers, including hospitals, are starting to require a bachelor’s degree for entry into the nursing profession. A BSN degree also provides a nurse with more diverse career opportunities.”
-Judi Yaworsky, RN is the Vice President of the Utah School Nurse Association

“With the trend towards only hiring BSNs, individuals going into nursing should give serious consideration to attending programs that lead them towards a BSN. These can be two-year programs that have an agreement with a local university to continue on to get their BSN or starting at a four-year college.”
-Linda Kimel, RN, BSN, MS, PEL-CSN is President of the Illinois Association of School Nurses.

Read more advice for getting hired as a nurse from 28 leaders in the nursing field.

Finding Accredited Nursing Degrees

Accreditation can apply to an entire school or a specific degree program. Entire schools can be accredited by a national or regional accreditation body. The US Department of Education recognizes a select few accreditation bodies to evaluate the quality of a school. You can find out if a school is accredited by searching the US Department of Education’s database on their website. School accreditation is important because it is required for federal financial aid and for transferring credits to a different school. Additionally, accreditation provides assurance that a school is legitimate and meets a minimum level of quality.

Nursing programs at the bachelor’s and graduate level are accredited by The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education. You can find a nursing program’s CCNE accreditation status by searching the CCNE’s database. Another nursing accreditation body is The Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing which accredits nursing programs at all levels. You can find a program’s ACEN accreditation status by searching their database. For nurse anesthesia programs and nurse midwife programs the accreditation bodies are The Council on Accreditation of Nurse Anesthesia Educational Programs (COA) and The American College of Nurse-Midwives Division of Accreditation’s (ACNM) Accreditation Commission for Midwifery Education (ACME) respectively.

Nursing Scholarships, Grants, Awards, and Fellowships

There are hundreds of nursing scholarships available for nursing students to help pay for the costs of school. Here is a small selection of the nursing scholarships currently available:

Frequently Asked Questions

Question: How long does it take to get a nursing degree?

Answer: The time it takes to complete a nursing degree varies according to many factors. The level of degree you pursue (associate, bachelor’s, master’s, etc.), the school and program, and your time commitment will factor into the time it will take to get your nursing degree. For example, an associate degree in nursing can take one year if studying full-time, but it may take two or three years if you can only attend school on a part-time basis. Make sure you thoroughly research the program(s) you are interested in before enrolling to ensure you can put forth the time and effort that will be involved.

Question: How much does a nursing degree cost?

Answer: Again, the answer to this question depends heavily on a variety of factors. Factors affecting cost may include the type of school you attend, whether your degree program is on-campus or online, and the level of degree you are seeking. Community and vocational schools will typically cost less than four-year colleges and universities, online programs will typically cost less than on-campus programs, and an associate’s degree in nursing will typically cost less than a master’s in nursing degree. Check with a few degree programs you are considering to find out more about the costs associated with them before committing to a program.

Question: What can I do with a nursing degree?

Answer: A nursing degree is an extremely valuable investment, especially with the current state of the healthcare industry in our nation. As baby boomers are getting older and requiring more care, and as the healthcare industry as a whole is facing reform, the need for nurses is increasing to the point that future shortages are expected. Because of these factors, nurses can expect to have their pick of jobs. With relatively high salaries, flexible schedules, and job security, people who have a degree in nursing and are good at their jobs should be able to choose from multiple nursing jobs in different work environments.

1. Discover Nursing: https://www.discovernursing.com/schools#no-filters
2. American Association of Colleges of Nursing: http://www.aacnnursing.org/News-Information/Fact-Sheets/Nursing-Shortage