Get the facts to ensure you make the right choice.
If you’re contemplating a return to school for a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN), you have a lot to consider. Should you even do it? Is now the right time for you, your family, and your job? Will you ever be ready? Can you afford it? Do you have the time? Are you capable, even if you wanted to? You’re not sure what to do, but one thing is definite: Whatever you choose to do, the decision will affect many aspects of your life. You need to know the facts and understand the challenges you may face so you can make the best decision possible. (See Facts and figures.)
Why a BSN?
Several factors motivate RNs to return to school. What’s your motivation? Does your place of employment require that you earn a BSN within a particular time frame (for example, within 5 years of your hire date)? Will a BSN help you take advantage of a job opportunity? Does your current role require a BSN? Maybe the degree will provide you with a salary increase or a more flexible schedule. Or maybe your employer offers tuition reimbursement. Any of these factors may prompt you to earn a BSN.
Healthcare continues to evolve and become more complex. As an RN, you’re responsible for keeping up with those changes. The broad focus of BSN programs, as opposed to associate degree programs, can help you develop and fine-tune your critical thinking, communication, and leadership skills. In addition, as patient care moves from acute care to outpatient settings, hospitals will serve sicker and more acutely ill clients and more complicated patients will require care at home. A BSN will help prepare you to care for these patients in all settings.
If you’re working toward a leadership or managerial role, a BSN can enhance your professional development by providing a necessary bridge to stronger clinical reasoning and analytical skills. Many organizations, including academic hospitals and those that have achieved Magnet® designation, require a BSN for specific nursing or leadership roles. If you want to advance your practice in the future and become a nurse executive, nurse educator, or an advanced practice RN, you’ll need a graduate nursing degree, which requires a BSN.
Magnet and a BSN
Magnet-recognized hospitals have achieved the gold standard in nursing excellence. These hospitals strive to meet the highest standards of patient care, as well as business growth and financial success. They also have staff who feel motivated and valued. This type of environment empowers nurses and encourages interdisciplinary teamwork that supports the autonomous practice of nursing. It’s a culture that focuses on improving patient outcomes. As you might expect, this type of environment encourages informed decision making at the bedside and recognizes and rewards competence. Magnet hospitals have high job satisfaction rates and a low nurse turnover.
These organizations encourage education, but they don’t mandate that RNs earn BSNs. However, they do provide ongoing learning and support for those who choose that path. Hospitals with Magnet designation do require that all nurse managers and leaders have a BSN or higher. A BSN serves as an introduction to early leadership positions, but more advanced roles typically require a masters in nursing.
Challenges and barriers
When deciding whether to pursue a BSN, you may face some challenges when it comes to choosing a program. To best meet the needs of working RNs, maximize enrollment opportunities and graduation rates, and increase the number of highly educated nurses, 650 RN-to-BSN programs are offered online. Blended or hybrid programs allow students to combine online classes with hands-on clinical experiences. When selecting a program, you’ll want to consider accreditation, program length, prerequisites and articulation agreements, and costs. You’ll also want to think about how returning to school will impact your work–life balance.
To ensure a high-quality education, both the school and the nursing program should be accredited. The primary accrediting bodies for RN-to-BSN nursing programs are the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education and the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing. Attending an unaccredited school or program may affect your qualification for jobs, your ability to transfer credits to other schools, and your prospects for attending graduate school. It also may impact your eligibility for financial aid and your nursing license and certifications.
Length and flexibility
Most RN-to-BSN programs are designed with the working nurse in mind. You’ll need to decide how much time you can devote to your studies. Some online programs offer synchronous courses (for example, every Monday and Wednesday from 6 to 9 pm), whereas others offer asynchronous courses (classes don’t occur at a specific time and you work at your own pace within a specific time frame), which allow you to complete coursework at odd hours and whenever you have the time. Investigate whether clinical hours are required and if they’ll conflict with your work schedule. Ask if your job can count toward clinical hours.
Some schools have classes that last a full semester (13 to 15 weeks), while others have half-semester classes (6 to 8 weeks). Also find out if the program you’re interested in is accelerated. Some programs allow RNs to attend classes year-round so they can earn their BSN in as little as 12 months. Others offer classes from September through May and may take 3 years or more to complete.
Prerequisites and articulation agreements
Research any prerequisites for your chosen RN-to-BSN program. Some courses you’ve already completed may transfer to the program to fulfill these prerequisites, so discuss this with the registrar or student success counselor. For any missing credits, investigate taking these courses at your local community college, but make sure they’ll transfer to your chosen BSN program.
Hundreds of articulation agreements exist among associate degree and diploma programs and 4-year nursing schools. Many states have enacted statewide articulation agreements to simplify the process. Start by contacting the program you graduated from to find out if they have articulation agreements with any 4-year programs. Alternatively, ask your chosen RN-to-BSN program if they have an agreement with the school you graduated from. You can request an appointment to review your transcripts and gain further information about your transfer credits and other important information.
Costs for RN-to-BSN programs vary, but any tuition is a major expense. Keep in mind, however, that the cost of the program isn’t necessarily what you’ll ultimately pay. (See A question of cost.)
Several financial aid options exits. Many states offer Board of Governors loans for nursing students. Students then have two options, depending on the state: Work in the state for a specified period of time or pay off the loan within 10 years. Several nursing organizations (for example, the American Nurses Association, American Association of Colleges of Nursing, and the National League for Nursing), local organizations, and businesses offer financial aid and scholarships. You also may find that your employer’s benefit package includes tuition reimbursement. (See Reimbursement tips.)
Many RN-to-BSN programs require that you continue working, and of course, if you’re receiving financial support from your employer, they’ll also require that you continue working. Talk to your manager about your school schedule and the time commitment required. Ask if they’ll consider some flexibility in your work schedule.
Set realistic expectations about the amount of time you’ll need to dedicate to schoolwork. Most 3-credit courses require 15 to 18 hours of dedicated time per week, including readings and assignments. You want to feel engaged in the learning and not feel rushed. Research indicates that family and peer support aids academic success for adults who return to school, so establish a support system and cheering squad.
Deciding to return to school to pursue your BSN is a huge decision that will benefit you for the rest of your life. You’ll encounter challenges, but they’re not insurmountable. If you’re realistic about yourself, as well as your resources, family, job, and support system, you’ll ably manage any challenges you face. Focus on your goal and the degree you’ll earn. BSN graduates play an important and needed role in the delivery of safe patient care, and you’ll soon join their ranks.
Debra A. Hrelic is a clinical associate professor of nursing at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington.
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