Types of Nursing Degrees - Best Value Schools

Types of Nursing Degrees

February 16, 2021 | Staff Writers

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Nursing can be an extremely fulfilling career for people who feel passionate about caring for others and supporting the health and wellbeing of the greater community. Every healthcare facility needs high-quality nursing professionals who have completed the required nursing program and are committed to empowering the health care industry for may years to come. From a nursing assistant to a nurse educator, all of these healthcare professionals are extremely important and valued in the health sector.

Nursing students can prepare for a lifetime of rewarding work in public health nursing. There are opportunities for nurses to work in hospitals, clinics, and many other healthcare settings, and their diplomas and degrees determine what responsibilities they can take on. Vocational nursing and registered nursing require certain certifications to work in the industry, and a college education prepares each nursing student for their future contributions to the industry.

Becoming a nurse assistant or an advanced practice nurse are exciting possibilities for nursing students. There are several educational tracks for aspiring nurses to consider when taking the next steps to fulfill their nursing ambitions.

LPN/LVN certificate or diploma

Nursing school is a great opportunity to obtain an LPN (licensed practical nurse) or LVN (licensed vocational nurse) certificate or diploma. As a non-degree diploma, the LPN/LVN certification is typically the first step in many nurses’ careers. California and Texas use LVN certificates while the rest of the U.S. uses the LPN terminology. The job responsibilities may vary slightly depending on the state.

LPN/LVN exam

LPN/LVN students throughout the country must take and pass the NCLEX-PN exam to finalize their certification and begin working in residential care facilities, hospitals, rehab centers, or doctor’s offices. With their license, practical and vocational nurses are allowed to monitor the health of patients, perform certain healthcare duties, and report to the registered nurse (RN) or doctor on duty. A certified nursing assistant (CNA) can challenge the LVN exam requirements after fulfilling the upgrade prerequisites including active experience in the nursing field.

While an LPN/LVM is not the same as a bachelor’s degree in the healthcare field, it’s seen as a good choice for those who may like to obtain a four-year undergraduate degree later on. An LPN/LVM associate degree program will require more credit hours than a certificate. Practical nurses with an associate degree may have more job options and potentially higher pay. 

LPN/LVN experience

For LPN/LVN students, their education includes supervised clinical hours as well as biology, chemistry, anatomy, and psychology courses. They will also need to complete coursework in first aid, child development, physical education, and nutrition. The goal is to cover the basics of nursing and ensure these students can pass the LPN/LVN exam and provide an adequate level of patient care and support to the nurses and doctors they work with.

Future opportunities for LPN/LVN students include in-home health care, clinics, schools, doctor’s offices, outpatient treatment centers, and hospitals. With a practical nursing degree, LPNs can get into the workforce much quicker than a traditional four-year degree. Students can finish their coursework and sit the NCLEX-PN exam in as little as one year. This pathway is preferred by many students who are looking to save time and money while still preparing for their future in registered nursing. 

CNA certificate or diploma

Certified nursing assistants work under the guidance of LPNs and RNs. A CNA certificate or diploma does not require a college degree, but it does require the completion of a CNA program with training in basic healthcare and nursing. As a technical diploma, CNA programs are often offered at community colleges, trade schools, and even the Red Cross. There are both in-person and online options for CNA students through hundreds of educational providers nationwide.

Students without a high school diploma can enroll in CNA programs but will need their GED if they want to obtain further education on the LPN or RN track. To be hired as a CNA, employers will ask for proof of the CNA diploma in order to ensure the patients are in safe, qualified hands. That’s a big reason why CNA certificates and other technical diplomas are worthwhile because they open up doors for entry-level nursing assistant positions. Each state issues CNA credentials and sanctions training programs, so students should check for the state’s approval before enrolling. 

Nursing assistant program curriculum

Some of the main lessons for those in a CNA program include patient hygiene, vital signs, mental health, and mobility. They need to learn how to keep patients clean and comfortable in a variety of locations, whether it be in a physician’s office for a routine checkup or in a nursing home for long-term hospice care. General personal care such as bathing, wound dressing, and fingernail grooming is also covered in the CNA curriculum. 

Other aspects of CNA training include body mechanics to prevent accidents when moving injured or bedridden patients, as well as infection control and fluid intake. Reliable and fully certified nursing assistants are trusted to document patient health, inform nurses of changes to patient conditions, and collect vitals like blood pressure and temperature. CNAs may work in a healthcare setting with their certification while also attending nursing school in order to gain experience and understanding of their field, in addition to earning a living to help pay for their education and other needs. 

CNA certification exam

After the successful completion of a CNA training course, students can sign up for their certification exam, which involves two parts. The first is a 90-minute, multiple-choice test to prove students have a well-rounded knowledge of healthcare basics. They may be quizzed on nursing concepts such as nutrition, hydration, hygiene, data collection, self-care, and ethical behavior as a healthcare provider. The second component of the CNA certification exam is the clinical skills portion, where students must demonstrate their competency at four nursing skills, randomly selected by an individual test proctor. 

The National Nurse Aide Assessment Program (NNAAP) is the most common certification exam program with over 200,000 CNA exams administered each year. Once individuals pass the CNA exam and meet their state requirements, they can look for work in assisted living centers, rehab/recovery facilities, hospitals, or home healthcare organizations. It’s important to note that most CNA certifications are valid for two years and must be renewed. Continuing education is usually required if a CNA is returning to this nursing role after several years. 

Associate degree in nursing

While a lot of entry-level nurses enjoy the opportunities available to them at the LPN or CNA level, many others choose to pursue a two-year associate degree in nursing. Often considered a precursor to a bachelor’s, the Associate in Nursing (ASN) degree allows students to become RNs, thus improving their job prospects and educational avenues down the line. RNs with bachelor’s degrees typically earn more than RNs with associate degrees, but there are still more opportunities for ASN degree holders compared to entry-level nursing students. RNs with associate degrees may specialize in emergency room medicine, neonatal (NICU), or other areas of nursing. 

Associate degree nursing program 

General education courses and nursing classes in the ASM curriculum prepare students for entry-level RN positions after taking and passing the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX). Students must fulfill the general education requirements of chemistry, math, and biology, in addition to anatomy, pharmacology, and microbiology. Supervised clinical hours must meet the state’s requirements, while students are expected to demonstrate their critical thinking skills and understanding of main nursing concepts. Clinical hours must be completed in-person but many associate nursing degree programs offer online and virtual class options for the general coursework.

Why do nurses choose to complete an associate degree?

The associate degree pathway to obtaining RN certification has been popular for many years, as it requires less time and money than a full bachelor’s degree. When students are juggling family commitments, outside work, or financial obligations, this is often seen as a more logical stepping stone to get them started in their nursing career. Associate degree programs are flexible with in-person and online options at many schools, so student can choose class dates and times that work for them. While they study, they can work as a CNA to gain valuable experience and knowledge that will only help them when taking exams and treating patients in the future. 

Bachelor of Science in Nursing

The leading schools for nursing degrees offer numerous opportunities for enthusiastic nursing students, including the four-year Bachelor of Science in Nursing, written BSN. This degree has become the educational standard for registered nurses in recent years, partly in response to the Institute of Medicine’s encouragement for employers to have 80 percent of their RNs with bachelor degrees by 2020. That same Future of Nursing report called for an increase in nurse residency programs and a push for twice as many nurses to obtain doctorate degrees. 

BSN educational options

While traditionally a BSN degree was earned on-campus, the rise of the digital era has allowed for more access to students who may not be able to attend in-person classes for whatever reason. With both in-class and online BSN programs available from universities across the U.S., students have the option to choose the path that works best for them and their current setup. There are also pathways for RNs with associate degrees to earn their bachelor’s through a fast-tracked program.

For nursing students attending a traditional four-year college, their curriculum will focus on both general studies and the core nursing concepts required to pass the exam and become a registered nurse. Early classes will introduce professional nursing practice, health assessments, and health development, while later on students will gain clinical experience in local hospitals or healthcare facilities. This degree program requires a significant amount of study and exam preparation, but it still gives students the chance to participate in extracurriculars or work as a nurse aide if they are able to. 

Benefits of a BSN degree program 

A bachelor’s degree gives registered nurses a well-rounded education in the healthcare field, with additional career and educational opportunities available. Compared to RNs without a bachelor’s, BSN diploma holders can earn a higher salary and attract more competitive job offers, especially right out of college. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the 2019 median pay for RNs was $73,300 per year. The health care and nursing field job outlook is also faster than average with a seven percent increase over the next decade, which may be accelerated due to the global pandemic.

Students wondering if they should opt for a BSN degree may look forward to additional benefits like more credibility in the workplace and more choices over the departments and healthcare facilities where they want to work. This higher level of study also prepares them for future master’s or doctorate degrees. The Bachelor of Science in Nursing specifically prepares graduates for their future nursing careers, while a standalone Bachelor of Science (BS) is more general and could be used for other roles like counseling, education, or engineering. In terms of BSc nursing or a Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS), an MBBS degree is preferred for those who are set on extending their education in the coming years. 

Where can you work after completing a BSN degree program?

Once nurses graduate with their bachelor’s and pass their the NCLEX exam, they are eligible for nursing roles in a variety of settings. Some nurses prefer the fast pace and variety of hospital work, whether it be in the emergency room, labor and delivery, or surgical unit. Others want to focus on more one-on-one care in small group settings, and in that case a home healthcare provider or residential facility may be the preferred option. Many students may continue working in the healthcare system where they completed their internship or residency.

What are the important responsibilities for registered nurses?

RNs are often the first person a patient sees when they come in for treatment. Whether it’s in a crowded hospital emergency room in the city or a local community doctor’s office, patients deserve high-quality care that puts their safety and wellbeing first. That’s exactly what RNs are certified to provide. They have proven their ability to provide adequate medical care for a wide range of conditions, covering everything from routine check-ups to evaluating more serious conditions. 

Patients can benefit significantly from a positive experience with a warm and caring nurse. It’s important for nurses to make patients feel comfortable and well-cared for even during difficult times, which is something professors focus on in BSN curriculum. The legal and ethical standards of the healthcare industry are studied and examined by BSN students to ensure they are well-prepared to care for their patients and respond to their concerns in an appropriate manner. 

RNs must be able to care for people of all ages and backgrounds, without any hesitation or judgment. That’s part of their legal and moral obligations. They may feel drawn toward caring for a particular age group, and in that case specializing in pediatric or geriatric care may be a good option. For example, children who are sick with debilitating diseases may feel much more comfortable and at home with a friendly, professional nurse who walks them through each step of their evaluation. The same goes for senior living residents who may be suffering from a range of health issues. 

During school, RNs learn about the transition to professional registered nursing and the overall healthcare systems around the world. This overarching foundation of study gives RNs the chance to provide excellent care for their patients and support doctors and other healthcare professionals in their roles.

Master of Science in Nursing

Students can further their nursing education, experience, and qualifications with a master’s degree. Nurses may work in the industry for a few years to gain more experience before returning to school for their master’s, with several options available. The Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) includes the following specialties: family nurse practitioner (FNP), nurse educator (NE), and clinical nurse specialist (CNS). That’s not all, as nurses who feel passionate about a certain area of nursing, whether it be family care or teaching other nurses, may want to specialize to improve their job prospects and demonstrate their high level of skills.

Advanced practice nursing 

There are many advantages to MSN programs, especially for those interested in nursing leadership. As an advanced postgraduate degree for RNs, an MSN degree means these nurses are eligible for managerial and educational roles. Nurses who wish to move up in their workplace and eventually supervise RNs, LPNs, and CNAs often pursue these educational pathways. For example, an MSN with a concentration in nurse education enables nurses to work as nursing faculty members, instructors, and professors. 

An online MSN degree in nursing informatics is gaining popularity as it combines analytics and data science. Nurses learn how to better communicate data, identify trends in healthcare, and make informed decisions in the workplace. This specialty is in high demand with the rise of complex computerized healthcare management systems. 

Another popular option is the MSN in nursing administration, which opens up new opportunities for a chief nursing officer, nurse manager, nurse administrator, clinical nurse researcher, or legal nurse consultant. These MSN classes will cover advanced coursework in health assessment, pharmacology, physiology, and pathophysiology. 

Family nurse practitioner

Many healthcare organizations are eager to hire family nurse practitioners, due to their extensive knowledge and expertise in the field. The extra years of studying are often worth it for nurses who want to be recognized at a higher level for their experience and dedication to the role. They can provide advanced care such as disease management, diagnosis, wellness, health prevention, and health promotion. 

In larger healthcare organizations, family nurse practitioners are often in charge of a team of RNs and nurse aids to offer the highest standard of healthcare. They may be brought in to handle complex cases and work with patients to understand their options. Doctors across all specialties rely on family nurse practitioners to communicate with and adequately care for patients, particularly in overwhelming circumstances. 

With the added education and experience, family nurse practitioners can generally seek more money for their nursing job. Other perks of obtaining this degree include having more decision-making and input in the workplace and participating in educational and leadership roles. Full-time students can complete a family nurse practitioner master’s degree in as little as two years, while part-time students may need three to four years to wrap up their studies. 

Joint master’s degrees in nursing

Some students prefer to look for joint master’s nursing degrees that can help them take a different career path. This is especially true for those interesting in healthcare administration and management. There are several joint degrees available with a Master of Science in Nursing, including the Master of Public Administration (MPA), Master of Public Health (MPH), Master of Health Administration (MHA), and Master of Business Administration (MBA). A dual MSN degree gives nurses more flexibility and freedom with what they want to do in the future. 

Why choose a nursing dual degree program?

Some students opt for the dual degree option because they want to make the most of their education and enhance their career prospects while making a difference in the healthcare industry. A master’s in nursing may prepare graduates for administrative roles while further training and coursework are required for a nurse practitioner master’s program. While not many hospitals pay for a nurse practitioner program, there are some institutions that offer tuition assistance or reimbursement for higher education courses.

If a nurse is working in the healthcare field and has the opportunity to go back to school with their employer’s support, it’s often an attractive opportunity they want to take advantage of. 

Students with an interest in business and running a nursing facility may enjoy the MBA route, while those who are particularly passionate about public health and protecting the wider population can embrace higher education with the MPH degree. These dual degrees are especially attractive to employers who appreciate the versatility and wide range of knowledge these graduates bring to the table. While nursing can be a very rewarding and fulfilling career path, it can also be demanding and time-consuming, so some students like having another option if they wish to take a break and try something different for a while. 

Graduates who have spent several years working as nurses in hospitals or doctor’s offices and are ready for the next challenge may opt for a dual degree program that allows for more opportunities and greater freedom in what they want to do next. With a master’s degree, they can earn more money while still working in a field they love, and potentially take on more leadership roles as they continue working. 

Doctoral degrees in nursing

Nursing degrees do not stop at the master’s level. There are two options for doctoral nursing degrees: a doctor of philosophy in nursing (Ph.D.) and a doctor of nursing practice (DNP). The Ph.D. is primarily researched-based while the DNP is focused on clinical practice. Highly educated and experienced nurses with doctoral degrees are at the top of their field in terms of pay and opportunities, although a DNP is generally preferred due to the practical experience and desire to work in hands-on healthcare environments. 

What to expect from a DNP program

Out of all the types of nursing degrees, a DNP program is considered the most high-level and challenging, although there are many benefits to pursuing this course of study. Nurse anesthetists, clinical nurse specialists, and other doctoral degree holders are at the high end of the pay scale and given the opportunity to manage large healthcare teams as well as direct public and private healthcare systems along with doctors and other health professionals. Students undertaking a doctoral nursing program need to decide whether they want to focus on theory and research or clinical practice. Either way, their degree program will require significant coursework, study, and interaction with others in the field. 

A Ph.D. is technically the highest level of a doctoral degree, although both of the doctoral nursing degrees are held in extremely high regard. Graduates pursuing these degrees will be exposed to extensive education in interdisciplinary care, health care policy, population health, and clinical intervention. In most cases, these doctoral degrees take between three and five years to complete. Once finished, a Ph.D. in family counseling allows for careers as a clinical therapist, professor, researcher, department director, or agency administrator. 

Once out of nursing school for the final time, a DNP degree holder can look for jobs as a health care lobbyist, advanced practice registered nurse (APRN), clinical researcher, or nursing faculty. 

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