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  1. Luckowski, Amy PhD, RN, CCRN

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HAVE YOU CONSIDERED returning to school online to earn a bachelor's of science in nursing (BSN) degree? BSN programs include content not covered in diploma and associate degree programs, such as management, research, community health, and nursing theories.


This article describes types of online RN-to-BSN programs, how to prepare to return to school online, and steps to success. First, consider the importance of the BSN.


Value of the BSN degree

The Institute of Medicine in 2010 released a landmark report, The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health, that advocated for increased education for nurses and specifically for an 80% increase in baccalaureate-prepared nurses.1 That same year, the Tri-Council for Nursing issued a statement calling for all RNs to advance their education in the interest of enhancing quality and safety across healthcare settings. The Tri-Council is an alliance composed of the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, the American Nurses Association, the American Organization of Nurse Executives, and the National League for Nursing. These organizations came together to promote nursing interests in education, practice, and research.2 The Tri-Council stated that a BSN-prepared workforce is critical for delivering safe and effective patient care.3


A research study by Aiken and colleagues identified a clear link between higher levels of nursing education and better patient outcomes.4 They found that surgical patients have a "substantial survival advantage" if treated in hospitals with higher proportions of nurses educated at the baccalaureate or higher degree level.4 A 10% increase in the proportion of nurses holding BSN degrees decreased the risk of patient death and failure to rescue by 5%.


As a result, hospitals and especially those with Magnet(C) status are increasingly requiring clinical RNs to have a BSN degree. Many hospitals are hiring only BSN-prepared graduates or are requiring their managers to have at least a BSN. Earning a BSN degree can help you get a job, keep your job, or advance in your job. If you'd like to pursue a BSN degree online, take a closer look at what's involved.


Considering a format

The advantages of online learning are many. If the course is asynchronous, you can do the work anytime it fits into your schedule. It's easy to access journal articles needed to complete assignments by going online through your school library. You don't have to travel to the school and spend certain days and times of the week in the classroom or library. You can even work at home in your pajamas.


Some schools with RN-to-BSN programs have changed their format from classroom teaching to online. Currently, of the 692 RN-to-BSN programs, 400 are offered at least partially online.5 Some programs provide a combination of online learning and classroom time called a hybrid program. (See Comparing online asynchronous and synchronous learning and hybrid e-learning.) Other programs may offer classes onsite at healthcare facilities.


Investigate the programs in your area. Decide what format works best for you. Factor in the tuition and time needed for traveling and doing the work. Many facilities offer tuition reimbursement, so find out how that works.


If you're new to online learning, the key to success is preparation. First, contact the school you've chosen and find out what prerequisite courses are needed for admission to the RN-to-BSN portion of the program. Polish your skills in Word and PowerPoint. Contact your school's writing center to update your expertise in the basics of writing and American Psychological Association or APA style. This style is used in scientific and social scientific disciplines, including nursing, and standardizes research and citation formats.


Getting oriented

Once you've registered, you may be asked to come to campus for an orientation day. Make every effort to attend so you can learn about the course management system as well as how to use the library. You might meet some online instructors at the orientation day. Some schools may provide orientation online instead. Don't be afraid to e-mail the instructor if you have any questions or concerns.


Establishing an online presence is important. Many online instructors post a picture of themselves and a short biography in the course. They may ask that you post a picture of yourself and share a little about your career and personal life if you feel comfortable doing so. Only those taking the course would be able to access this information.


The pool of RN-to-BSN students may include both newly graduated associate-degree or diploma nurses as well as nurses with many years of experience. Everyone brings different perspectives that can enrich the online discussions and assignments.


Steps to online success

You need to commit to logging into the course every day and reading the message boards, which replace classroom discussions. To participate in the message boards, you must first do the readings and review other resource articles. Then compose your response carefully. Be sure to use correct spelling and grammar because everyone in the class can see the post. Cite references in the text and provide the complete citation at the end of the post. Write your response in a Word document and copy and paste it into the course. That way it's easy to check for grammatical and spelling errors and you won't lose the work.


Read the course syllabus to make sure you're following the requirements for posting. Most instructors want you to respond at least once and then also to a classmate's discussion.


Instructors may post a PowerPoint presentation with audio attached so you can listen to their lecture. You also must schedule time to complete other assignments, such as writing research papers, participating in group activities, taking quizzes, and creating PowerPoint presentations.


All signs point to yes

Although going back to school can be a big challenge, it can be achieved. With your BSN degree, you'll have more career opportunities in the future. And if you're interested in becoming a nurse educator, researcher, manager, or an advanced practice nurse, you can even continue your education and earn your master of science in nursing, or MSN, degree.




1. Institute of Medicine. The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health. Washington, DC: National Academies Press; 2010. [Context Link]


2. Tri-Council for Nursing. Home page. http://tricouncilfornursing.org. [Context Link]


3. Tri-Council for Nursing. Tri-Council for Nursing issues new consensus policy statement on the educational advancement of registered nurses. 2010. http://www.aacn.nche.edu/education-resources/TricouncilEdStatement.pdf. [Context Link]


4. Aiken LH, Clarke SP, Cheung RB, Sloane DM, Silber JH. Educational levels of hospital nurses and surgical patient mortality. JAMA. 2003;290(12):1617-1623. [Context Link]


5. American Association of Colleges of Nursing. Degree completion programs for registered nurses: RN to master's degree and RN to baccalaureate programs. 2014. http://www.aacn.nche.edu/media-relations/fact-sheets/degree-completion-programs. [Context Link]