Are you looking to become a nurse and trying to determine which college might be right for you? Finding the right nursing program can be confusing. Do you need an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree? Which nursing school is the best place to obtain your nursing degree?
Fortunately, the path to becoming a registered nurse (RN) is not that complicated. You can start with an ADN program to receive your associate’s degree in nursing in just two years.
Beyond the initial two-year degree, many nurses continue on to get a BSN degree through a four-year program. While you do need a bachelor’s degree to become a BSN nurse, you don’t need to complete a BSN program to become a registered nurse.
Two years in college (to obtain an associate’s degree) is sufficient to get started in the healthcare field as a nurse. However, you will need to take and pass a licensing exam in order to become an RN.
You do not even need to get an associate’s degree in nursing to begin your nursing career. A licensed practical nurse (LPN) or licensed vocational nurse (LVN) credential may only require one year of schooling or less, depending on the state. (You will still need to pass an exam, however!)
However, the most common path toward becoming a registered nurse (at least historically) is to start with a two-year associate’s degree with the goal of becoming an RN. Read on to learn more.
Types of two-year nursing degrees and certifications
If your goal is to become a registered nurse, you will need some sort of nursing degree and not just a non-degreed certification. The type of nursing program you choose will probably depend on a variety of factors: your budget, your time frame, and your ultimate goals. With many different types of nursing degrees and certifications available, you fortunately have many paths to become a nurse.
For many decades, a two-year nursing degree was all that was needed to become an RN. These days, hospitals and larger healthcare institutions are starting to favor applicants with a BSN or bachelor’s degree in nursing. But you can still get your career started with a two-year degree or even less.
Types of degrees that are available in nursing
Nursing has become a broad discipline that has various levels of educational qualifications. If you are looking for a nursing school, you should first familiarize yourself with the different educational programs available. They include but are not limited to:
Licensed Practical Nursing (LPN) or Licensed Vocational Nursing (LVN) Degree
If you are considering an LPN career, you may not even need a two-year program. One year may be enough. But you will still need to pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-PN) in order to be able to work.
Associate of Science in Nursing Degree (ASN or ADN)
An associate’s degree in nursing, which requires two years of study, used to be the standard education required for nurses.
The great thing about getting an associate’s degree in nursing is that many online nursing programs are now available, with flexible hours, so you can study from home. If you are looking for an online associate’s degree program, you can find many great programs through a simple web search.
Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing
A bachelor’s degree in nursing, also called a BSN program, is now becoming a popular option. A BSN degree is highly valued because research actually shows that patients who are cared for by BSN nurses have more positive outcomes, including less mortality. This means that you will have a better chance of getting hired at a more prestigious institution if you have a BSN degree.
That said, you can still get started with an associate’s degree in nursing—but you can expect that many healthcare employers will want you to complete your BSN degree within a five-year time span.
Master’s Degree in Nursing
An MSN program allows you to focus on learning a specialty in-depth or becoming a nurse practitioner. Nursing specialities might include healthcare areas such as cardiology, gerontology, pediatrics, neurology, or cardiology.
Becoming a nurse practitioner via a master’s degree in nursing is also a great career move. With so many healthcare organizations strapped for staff, nurse practitioners are often called upon to do the duties of a primary care physician. If you want to work with patients at a higher level, getting a master’s degree in nursing is a good idea.
The major differences between two-year degrees and certifications
The type of nursing degree you pursue depends on the type of nursing practice or job you would like. As mentioned, a nurse practitioner or family nurse practitioner is someone with a higher level of training than a regular nurse. You will need to go all the way to a master’s degree for that type of job.
Thus, the first major difference to be aware of is what level of education you will need to get the nursing job you want. You may need more than a two-year degree in the end.
On the other hand, if you want to get started in nursing right away, you could just find a fast-track nursing assistant program through a vocational school. This won’t give you a degree that will let you take the RN exam, but it will get you started in the field.
As for two-year nursing degrees, you have many options.
Even at an associate’s degree level, you can specialize in many different nursing areas. Your specialty training may come from your college, or you might receive additional training or certification through your employer or another institute to add on to your associate’s degree.
Common specializations for RNs with an associate’s degree include:
- Cardiac nurse
- Critical care nurse
- ER nurse
- Geriatric nurse
- Perioperative or operating room (OR) nurse (also known as a surgical nurse)
- Nurse midwife
- Oncology nurse
- Pediatric nurse
- Public health nurse
- Travel nurse
Thus, you may have a number of options in your career path. You might start out with a general associate’s degree in nursing and then add on an additional certification program (as continuing education) to gain credentials in a specialty area. Your nursing school may also offer specialties or areas of focus in their programs, so check out different schools to find out what options are available.
Qualifications you need for a two-year nursing degree
Of course, you need to have some basic qualifications to apply for a two-year nursing degree. Requirements to enter a nursing degree program will vary depending on the school and the type of degree you are getting.
Pretty much any nursing program you will apply to will require a high school diploma or a GED equivalent. Good grades will help you get into the nursing school of your choice.
Additionally, many nursing schools have a vaccination requirement, typically a Hepatitis B vaccination at least. (In the future, perhaps a coronavirus vaccination will also be mandated.)
You may also need to have taken some prerequisite courses in math and biology and successfully complete the HESI-A2 (Health Education Systems Incorporated Admission Assessment Exam). Also, some programs may require a background check.
Students with a high school diploma or GED will be able to enter an associate’s or bachelor’s degree program in nursing. For a master’s degree and beyond, successful completion of a bachelor’s degree in nursing will be required.
Furthermore, the master’s degree candidate should typically have an active nursing license. (However, for nurses who are re-entering the workforce, such as after raising children, exceptions may be made, so make sure you talk to an admissions counselor.)
Once again, individual nursing schools will have their own specific requirements for applicants, so research each school and contact an admissions counselor if you have any questions.
Positions that require two-year nursing degrees
If you are looking for a nursing job, you will have many options to choose from. There are many positions that require two-year nursing degrees. You do not need a bachelor’s degree or above, unless you want to rise in the ranks or eventually become a nurse practitioner.
Jobs in nursing you can get with a two-year degree (or less)
The jobs in nursing are many and varied, and as mentioned above, there are many specializations, from ER nurse to pediatric nurse. Here are some of the broader job categories in nursing, starting from ones that need the least amount of education up to a two-year associate’s degree:
A nursing assistant basically does almost everything a nurse does in the course of the day, except for administering medicines. While you don’t actually need a two-year degree to become a nursing assistant (some training programs can take just months), you could certainly apply to become a nursing assistant even if you had a two-year degree.
With some nursing assistant training programs, you may be able to get the designation “certified nursing assistant” or CNA The average CNA salary is $12.98 per hour.
Licensed practical nurse (LPN) or licensed vocational nurse (LVN)
To become a licensed practical nurse (LPN) or licensed vocational nurse (LVN), you need to take a state-approved non-degree program that typically takes about one year. You will need to pass an exam to become an LPN or LVN.
The most common job you can get with a two-year nursing degree is as a registered nurse, provided you pass the licensure examination.
An associate’s degree in nursing is the minimum amount of education you will need in order to be able to sit for the registered nurse exam. Once you have finished this exam successfully, you will be able to work as a full RN.
In-demand nursing specialties
Once you have a two-year nursing degree, you can work in several different specialty areas. Some of these may require additional training or certification (but not a full bachelor’s degree). Here are five nursing specialties that are particularly in high demand:
Perioperative or operating room (OR) nurse: All you need is an RN designation to become an OR nurse, and probably some training from the hospital you work at.
Medical-surgical/telemetry (MedSurg/TELE) nurse: This specialty requires the nurse to be an RN with an additional progressive care certified nurse (PCCN) credential.
Emergency room (ER) nurse: You can work in the ER with a two-year nursing degree. Some hospitals may want you to have emergency room continuing education credits.
Intensive care unit (ICU) nurse: While many hospitals prefer a BSN (bachelor’s degree in nursing), you may still be able to become an ICU nurse with a certified critical care nurse (CCRN) designation.
Neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) nurse: If you love helping babies, you might want to obtain your NICU credential through the American Association of Critical Care Nursing to take this very important nursing job. Otherwise, you will simply need a two-year degree along with your RN license.
Types of facilities you can work in with a two-year degree
Once you have completed your nursing program, you can get a job as a nurse in many facilities, including hospitals, HMO health centers, and doctors’ offices. Other places you might consider looking for a job include nursing homes as well as places you might not originally think of, such as university health clinics, government agencies, and home healthcare providers.
Within a hospital you will have many different options for where you might work, including emergency rooms, operating rooms, critical care units, and hospital recuperation areas.
Nurses may also be needed in mental health care facilities, prison facilities, and juvenile detention centers. While these may be challenging places to work, they also may be quite rewarding.
How to specialize in nursing with a two-year degree
If you do an online search for “associate’s degree nursing,” many different associate’s degree programs will probably pop up. As you explore each nursing school, you may find that different schools offer different specializations for the dedicated nursing student. Some nursing schools may be well known for their ICU training while others are known more for pediatrics.
In assessing the best degrees, you will want to consider what your goals are and where your passion lies.
The good news is that you don’t need to decide right away when you pursue a two-year nursing degree. You can start off with a general degree and then pursue a specialization through continuing education.
What is continuing education? Continuing education is the course credits you will be required to take to maintain your nursing license in most states. These credits are called CEUs (which stands for “continuing education units”). Many CEU programs will offer certifications in different specialty areas, such as neurology or gastroenterology.
Pros and cons of a two-year nursing degree
Before you choose your nursing school and nursing program, you should review the pros and cons of a two-year nursing degree.
The pros of a two-year nursing degree
If you want to complete a nursing degree quickly and become a staff nurse as soon as possible, getting a two-year nursing degree may be the right choice. An associate’s degree in nursing is a great way to start your career in nursing. You will be able to sit for the RN exam and get started with a job two years sooner than if you went for a full four-year BSN program.
The cons of a two-year nursing degree
For some people, two years is actually too long to wait to start a job. If you want to start working in nursing right away, consider becoming a nursing assistant, which can take a few months.
What if you aren’t sure about nursing at all? If so, you might consider a different program, such as one that can prepare you to become a medical assistant.
But the bigger issue with getting a two-year nursing degree these days is that more and more hospitals and healthcare providers want a BSN nurse.
And more and more people are pursuing a bachelor’s degree in nursing. Why? Being a BSN nurse means more opportunities for advancement.
If your ultimate goal is to become a clinical nurse specialist or a nurse practitioner, you will need to get that BSN degree and continue on with advanced education.
There are many reasons to go for the “full monty” and get an MSN degree. Not only can you get paid more, you might have more job opportunities. For example, it is estimated by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) that the demand for advanced practice nurses may grow twenty-six percent by 2028.
If you want to be a leader in nursing, such as being an educator, mentor, or administrator, you will want to eventually pursue an advanced nursing degree.
All that said, starting off with an associate degree really isn’t a “con” so much as just that—a starting place. There is no harm in starting off with a two-year program and then returning to school after you start work and have some experience. This can sometimes be better.
With your real-world healthcare experience as an RN, you will have a much better idea of what specialization or leadership role you might want to pursue in obtaining a bachelor’s and/or master’s degree in nursing.
Overcoming the challenges of earning a two-year nursing degree
Probably one of the most challenging parts of getting your associate’s degree in nursing is after you graduate. It is the national licensing exam you need to take to become a registered nurse. Just finishing the degree does not make you a nurse. You only get a full “RN diploma” once you pass the national board exam.
The full title of the RN exam is the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (or NCLEX-RN) exam. It is a very tough exam, and you will need to memorize a lot of anatomy and physiology to pass. So the most important aspect of getting your associate’s degree in nursing is to pay attention and study hard!
On the positive side, you can find many great online programs that are designed to prepare you to become a registered nurse and pass this exam.
Best two-year nursing degree programs
If you want to become a great nurse, start with the best two-year nursing degree programs. If you are looking for an associate’s degree in nursing (ADN program), many affordable options are available.
The best schools for nursing
When choosing a nursing program, you want to find a college that is recognized for offering a high-quality nursing education.
If you are considering pursuing a bachelor’s degree in professional nursing after you obtain your associate’s degree, you might want to find a school that offers a BSN degree or accelerated BSN so you can continue on in your studies without having to switch schools.
If you truly want to go the distance, find a school that also offers an MSN program. The plus in all this is that most colleges that offer a BSN program are likely to be respected undergraduate colleges with a bit more clout.
Many publications, such as U.S. News & World Report, offer a round up of top colleges each year. For 2021, they rank nursing schools, but only at the master’s degree level. Their top five are Johns Hopkins University, Duke University, University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill, University of Pennsylvania, and Emory University.
While you might be able to get a BSN at these top-ranked schools, they typically do not offer two-year degree programs. Your better bet for a two-year degree is to find a good community college.
Among two-year associate’s degree programs in nursing, the following schools have high rankings according to HospitalJobsInc.com:
- Chamberlain College of Nursing, Saint Louis, MO
- Ivy Tech Community College, Indianapolis, IN
- Madison Area Technical College, Madison, WI
- Excelsior College, Albany, NY
- Ohio University, Athens, OH
- Gateway Technical College, Kenosha, WI
- Harper College, Palatine, IL
The best online nursing degree programs
These days, you can get a nursing degree online. There are also many RN to BSN programs online that can help a nursing student get a bachelor’s degree in nursing after successfully becoming an RN.
With so many options, it can be hard to figure out which online degree program will best prepare you to become a registered nurse. You can find tons of lists of online nursing schools, some of which focus on BSN-level schools and others that offer top schools offering online associate’s degrees in nursing. Here is one such list of the best online associate’s degree of nursing programs from 2020:
- Barton County Community College, Great Bend, KS
- Sinclair Community College, Dayton, OH
- St. Philip’s College, San Antonio, TX
- Tulsa Community College, Tulsa, OK
- Cincinnati State Technical and Community College, Cincinnati, OH
- Columbus State Community College, Columbus, OH
- Northwest Mississippi Community College, Senatobia, MS
- Pitt Community College, Winterville, NC
- East Mississippi Community College, Scooba, MS
- Cuyahoga Community College, Cleveland, OH
Each site that reviews nursing programs will have different metrics for determining what makes a nursing school a top nursing school. By reviewing various sites and the parameters of each nursing program, you should start to get a good idea of which schools might be good for your particular needs (or the needs of your child).
What the best two-year nursing degree programs have in common
The best two-year nursing degree programs have certain elements in common. With the right nursing school, you can finally get your nursing practice started! So it is important to find the right fit when reviewing nursing schools. Look for a nursing school that offers a balance of cost versus value. The cheapest may not be the best, but the most expensive might also not be the best school either (if that makes sense).
Here are a few qualities the best two-year nursing degree programs share:
The nursing school program is accredited.
This probably goes without saying, but make sure the two-year nursing program is accredited by the state. You don’t want to go through a two-year program expecting to sit for the registered nurse exam, to find out that you can only apply to be an unlicensed nursing assistant.
The best nursing programs focus on the latest technologies.
Technology is such an important part of healthcare today that you are really not getting the best education if you aren’t learning about it. For example, your program should include some basic training in nursing information systems, which are computer programs design to keep track of patients and their treatments.
The nursing program gives you good clinical experience.
While much of a nursing program can be done online, in the end, you will need to get real, hands-on clinical experience in order to become a good nurse. The right program will give you an opportunity to get that supervised, hands-on clinical experience, perhaps locally, through travel on weekends, or in some other flexible manner in case you are studying while working.
Get a two-year degree to climb the nursing career ladder
Becoming a nurse is a great way to earn good money while helping others. It is a recession-proof profession because everyone needs healthcare no matter how the economy is doing. Furthermore, getting a two-year degree in nursing can be just the beginning. As you gain more experience, you may continue on to get a bachelor’s or master’s degree in nursing to play greater leadership roles.