According to the latest data, more than 80 percent of hospitals and other health care settings now strongly prefer to hire new registered nurses (RNs) with at least a baccalaureate degree.

Why raise the bar?

Interest in raising the education level of the RN workforce shifted into high gear in 2010 with the release of the Institute of Medicine’s report on The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health. The expert panel that produced this work reviewed the research related to nursing education and patient outcomes, and recommended that at least 80 percent of the RN workforce hold a bachelor’s degree by 2020.

The federal government, the military, nurse executives, health care foundations and most national nursing organizations all advocate for an increase in the number of baccalaureate-prepared nurses across clinical settings.

Ample opportunity

Fortunately, individuals interested in nursing careers and RNs considering a return to school have multiple options for continuing their education. Professionals with a bachelor’s degree in another field who are seeking to transition into nursing should consider an accelerated program. These programs build on previous learning, which frees students from having to repeat college course work. Instruction in these programs can be intense, with courses typically offered full-time with no breaks between sessions.

Accelerated baccalaureate programs may be completed in as little as 12-18 months, including prerequisites and accelerated or entry-level master’s programs usually require between 30 and 36 months of study. Accelerated nursing programs are available in 48 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. In 2015, there were 265 accelerated baccalaureate programs and 65 accelerated (or entry-level) master’s programs available at nursing schools nationwide.

“Online programs provide the flexibility to allow nursing students to work and take classes at the same time.”

Finding your path

Nurses looking to take the next step in their professional formation should consider which type of program best fits their needs. Degree completion programs provide additional education to RNs with a diploma or associate degree program who wish to complete an undergraduate or graduate degree.

RN to baccalaureate programs are offered for nurses who wish to develop stronger clinical reasoning and analytical skills beyond the entry level. These programs build on initial nursing preparation with course work to enhance professional development, prepare for a broader scope of practice and provide a better understanding of the cultural, political, economic and social issues that affect patients and influence care delivery.

For nurses seeking a graduate degree, an RN to master’s program may be the most efficient option.

The baccalaureate level content missing from diploma and associate degree programs is efficiently built into the front-end of these programs. Mastery of this upper level basic nursing content is necessary for students to move on to graduate study. Upon completion, many programs award both the baccalaureate and master’s degree.

Scaling progress, per student

According to one survey, 641 nursing schools currently offer the RN to baccalaureate program, with many of these programs offered fully or largely online. The number of RN to master’s programs has more than tripled in the past 20 years, from 70 programs in 1994 to 219 programs today.

Online programs provide the flexibility to allow nursing students to work and take classes at the same time. Since these programs are generally directed toward individuals who are already licensed RNs, most students are working and trying to juggle life’s many demands. Online programs make that possible. Distance education may be particularly useful in rural areas and in places where access to baccalaureate and graduate degree nursing programs is scarce.

Though many studies show no significant differences in learning outcomes of adults taught in the classroom versus those taught online, students must do a thorough self-assessment to determine which instructional format is right for them. Some learners thrive in the classroom setting surrounded by other students. They learn better through the live group dynamic and face-to-face student-teacher exchanges. Others are more comfortable with technology-facilitated interactions and prefer to spend more time focused on individual learning.

Those considering a program are encouraged to speak with program administrators to find out more about what skill sets and strategies are most useful to student success in an online environment.