Nursing Degree & Career Guide

What to expect from a nursing degree program

Nursing degree programs prepare students for clinical and administrative responsibilities in various healthcare settings, including hospitals, outpatient facilities, urgent care centers, private medical practices, and more. Depending on the degree level, program curriculums can cover topics ranging from basic nursing skills to advanced specialty practices.

In addition to coursework, all accredited nursing degree programs include experiential learning requirements, such as clinical rotations or internships. Even if students enroll in an online nursing degree program, they will likely have to complete these requirements in person.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), healthcare is a fast-growing field with nearly 2 million new job openings, on average, predicted annually through 2032. Employment of registered nurses (RNs), the most common career path for those with nursing degrees, is expected to grow by 6% during the same period.

Types of nursing degrees

Associate degree

Students with no college experience who want to enter the workforce as soon as possible may opt for an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN). This degree is the minimum education level required to become an RN. As such, it covers foundational nursing skills and concepts, preparing students for entry-level nursing jobs. An ADN requires a minimum of 60 credits and can usually be completed in two years of full-time study, although accelerated programs may be available. Students in associate degree programs will complete clinical hours to give them experience working directly with patients.

  • Degrees available: Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN), Associate of Science in Nursing (ASN), and Associate of Applied Science in Nursing (AAS)
  • Minimum required credits: 60
  • Average length of program: 2 years

Bachelor’s degree

A Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) is a popular educational path for aspiring nurses. This 120-credit degree program provides more in-depth training than an ADN, preparing graduates for various nursing positions. Many schools offer different options for bachelor’s degrees in nursing, including traditional BSN programs for students with no prior nursing experience and RN-to-BSN programs for current RNs who want to further their education. Students in a BSN program will complete clinical rotation requirements and may have the opportunity to specialize in a particular area of nursing, such as pediatrics, emergency care, or psychiatric nursing.

  • Degrees available: Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), RN-to-BSN, ADN-to-BSN
  • Minimum required credits: 120
  • Average program length: 4 years

Master’s degree

Several options are available for students who want a Master of Science in Nursing. Traditional MSN programs are designed for experienced nurses who have a BSN. RN-to-MSN programs allow students with their RN license to earn their BSN and MSN in one program. Direct-entry MSN programs are designed for students with bachelor’s degrees in a non-nursing field. Students can also choose from generalized MSN programs, which cover a broad array of nursing skills, or specialized programs, which focus on working in a specific setting, such as oncology, or with a particular patient population, like neonatal care. 

  • Degrees available: Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), RN-to-MSN
  • Minimum required credits: 30
  • Average program length: 2 years

Specialization options

Most nurses start with generalized education that covers core principles and skills in nursing, including anatomy, pharmacology, psychology, research, and more. Nurses can specialize by working in a specific setting or medical sub-field, with a particular patient population, or by combining nursing with a related field.

Some popular specialization options for nurses include:

  • Psychiatric/mental health nurse: These nurses work with individuals dealing with psychiatric or mental health issues in settings like psychiatric hospitals, outpatient treatment facilities, community health clinics, and more. They receive specialized training to help individuals in crisis or may cause harm to themselves or others.
  • Midwife: Students interested in working in the obstetrics field may want to consider specializing as a midwife. These nurses are trained to help expectant mothers before, during, and after labor and delivery and often work closely with OB/GYNs.
  • ER nurse: ER nurses work in fast-paced, demanding environments and treat a diverse patient population with various needs. Also called trauma nursing or critical care nursing, this specialization is best suited for individuals who can remain calm and take decisive action in high-stress situations.
  • Neonatal nurse: These nurses care for newborn babies and mothers, testing newborns’ cognitive and physical progress, monitoring vital signs, and preparing babies and parents for discharge. They may also work with newborns facing challenges like congenital disabilities, prematurity, or organ issues.
  • Nurse educator: Individuals who have experience as RNs may choose to pursue a specialization as a nurse educator, using their knowledge and experience to help train the next generation of nurses. Nurse educators work in various settings, including colleges and universities, clinical settings, and other training programs.
  • Nurse manager: Another specialization open to RNs with significant experience, nurse managers oversee the nursing staff in a hospital, healthcare facility, or doctor’s office. This role combines leadership and administrative duties with nursing practice and typically requires students to have an MSN or a BSN with several years of experience.

The Best Nursing Degree Programs

This list features some of the best nursing degree programs in the U.S. The schools on this list are non-profit, accredited institutions, either public or private, with high-quality standards for post-secondary education.

We evaluated each degree program on tuition costs, faculty, reputation, student resources, and admission, retention, and graduation rates. We also compared our picks to a list of aggregated college rankings from reputable publications like the U.S. News & World Report, among others. Using this data, we calculated an Intelligent Score for each program on a scale of 0 to 100. Read more about our ranking methodology.

What Can I Do With a Degree in Nursing?

The answer depends on your degree level, as different nursing roles require different types of education.

An ADN prepares students for RN licensure, allowing them to qualify for entry-level nursing positions. Students who earn a BSN will also be able to get their RN license, but they may qualify for a broader range of positions, such as nurse educator, informatics nurse, or geriatric nurse,  thanks to the additional training they receive in their program. An MSN prepares students for advanced nursing roles and leadership and administrative positions.

Students currently working as RNs should inquire with their employer if they offer tuition assistance benefits to help them obtain additional education and training.

Overall, the job outlook for the healthcare industry is good. Employment in this field is expected to grow much faster than average through 2032. According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, the U.S. is expected to experience a shortage of RNs as its population ages, meaning demand will be high for trained nurses. The median annual salary for healthcare professionals is $77,760.

Common career paths for those with nursing degrees include:

Registered nurse

Median annual salary: $81,220
Job outlook: 6% increase through 2032

The majority of students earn undergraduate degrees in nursing intending to earn their RN license, which is a requirement for most professional nursing positions. RNs work in a variety of different healthcare settings and specialties. Responsibilities generally include assessing patients’ conditions and needs, recording and reviewing patient histories, consulting with physicians and other specialists to coordinate care, performing diagnostic tests, and more.

Surgical assistant

Median annual salary: $56,350
Job outlook: 5% increase through 2032

Students who earn an ADN can also pursue roles assisting surgical teams in hospitals and other medical settings. Surgical assistants sterilize operating rooms and equipment for surgery, prepare patients, and help surgeons during operations with tasks such as making incisions and placing clamps.

Nurse practitioner

Median annual salary: $125,900
Job outlook: 38% increase through 2032

One of the highest-level jobs available to nurses, nurse practitioners fulfill many of the same responsibilities as physicians, including performing physical exams and diagnostic tests, prescribing medications and treatments for patients, and working in collaboration with specialists to provide patient care. They can provide primary care to a general patient population or focus on a specialty like psychiatric care, obstetrics, or geriatric care. Students must have a master’s degree to become a nurse practitioner.

Nursing Scholarships Directory

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"A Helping Hand" Scholarship

Award Amount: $500

Due Date: January 31, 2025

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"Follow Your Own Path" Essay Scholarship

Award Amount: $500

Due Date: January 31, 2025

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"Tuition Solution" Scholarship for STEM Students

Award Amount: $500

Due Date: January 31, 2025

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$25k "Be Bold" No-Essay Scholarship

Award Amount: $25,000

Due Date: Closed for 2024

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(ISC) Graduate Cybersecurity Scholarship

Award Amount: $5,000

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(ISC) Women in Information Security Scholarship

Award Amount: $5,000

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A.C. "Kate" & Leo Joseph Merlone St. Dominic Catholic Church of Saginaw Member Scholarship

Award Amount: Varies

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A.C. "Kate" & Leo Joseph Merlone Teaching Scholarship

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a/e ProNet David W. Lakamp Scholarship

Award Amount: $5,000

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AAAE Native American Scholarship

Award Amount: $1,500

Due Date: March 15, 2025

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Student Resources and Organizations

If you have additional questions about nursing degrees and how to choose the program that’s right for you, these resources may be helpful:

Students considering nursing education and wanting to learn more about the field before enrolling in a degree program can join the Health Occupations Students Association (HOSA). This student-led organization is designed to empower future health professionals and promote opportunities within the healthcare field. Students can also inquire with their local hospital or healthcare system if there are any opportunities for job shadowing or internships.

Although students must have a degree to get their RN license, certificate programs can be another way for current RNs to expand their skills and prepare for career advancement. Many certificate programs are designed to provide specialized training and can be completed in a shorter time than a full degree program.

Frequently Asked Questions: Nursing Degrees

Should I get a nursing degree in person or online?

Online and in-person programs each have their advantages and disadvantages. The best learning format for you will depend on your needs and preferences.

Students who learn best by engaging with classmates and faculty and participating in hands-on learning experiences may want to pursue an in-person program. This learning format may also be a better option for students who need more structure and support to keep them accountable.

Online classes are ideal for students who need flexibility and convenience to complete their degree program. Online nursing degree programs typically use the same curriculums as in-person programs, so students can gain all the skills and knowledge they need without adhering to a pre-designated schedule. Students enrolling in an online nursing program should ensure they have the time management and self-motivation capabilities to keep themselves on track. They should also note that they will most likely have clinical requirements to attend in person.

Is a nursing degree worth it?

There are several ways to measure whether a nursing degree is worth it.

The demand for nurses will be high in the coming decade, due to a rapidly aging population in the U.S. Those with more education will be particularly in demand. The projected employment growth for nurse practitioners is 38% through 2032, compared to 6% for registered nurses.

From a financial perspective, the median annual salary for registered nurses is $81,220, nearly double the median yearly wage for all occupations. However, salaries for nurses can vary widely based on their specialization, the type of facility where they work, and where they’re located. In recent years, nurses and healthcare workers throughout the U.S. have taken action, including striking, to demand better pay and working conditions amid changes in the healthcare industry.

To get the most value out of their program, students must be prepared to put in the time and effort to master the skills and concepts the program covers. Before enrolling in an online nursing degree program, students should be sure they have the energy and time to prioritize their studies.

How can I choose the right nursing degree program for me?

The first step is to clarify the type of program you seek, including the degree level. Your current educational level and educational background will determine this. For example, if you’re a first-time college student, you can pursue an ADN or a BSN. If you already have your RN license, you’re best suited to an RN-to-MSN degree. Also, determine your logistical needs, including whether you want an in-person or online program.

With parameters set, research various schools and programs that meet your criteria. Confirm that any schools you’re considering have both institutional and programmatic accreditation. Visit the school’s website, speak to admissions counselors, follow programs on social media, and attend virtual or in-person information sessions to learn more. Students should gather as much information as possible about the program’s curriculum, faculty, admissions requirements, cost, financial aid resources, and student support services. Compare schools based on how well they meet your criteria and apply to the programs that meet all or most of your needs.

How much does a nursing degree cost?

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports that for the 2021-22 academic year, the average annual tuition for undergraduate programs was $9,596 at public institutions and $37,222 at private colleges. For graduate programs, the average tuition was $12,394 at public universities and $26,621 at private institutions.

Many factors influence how much students will pay for an online nursing degree. For example, students attending a public institution should note whether the school has different tuition rates for in-state and out-of-state students or if distance learners all pay the same tuition rate. Many schools charge additional fees for virtual classroom technology, labs, background checks, or other resources, which students must factor into their budgets.

Nursing students should also consider the financial impact of clinical rotations, which may mean taking time off from your current job or budgeting for transportation expenses to your clinical site, like gas, parking, or public transportation.

Students should always consult a financial aid counselor for the most accurate information about program costs and payment options.

Read More about Online Master’s in Nursing (MSN) Degrees

Interested in a degree instead?

Learn more about online degrees, their start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.