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Best Online Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) Programs

Oct 19, 2021

What is an Associate Degree in Nursing?

An associate degree in nursing (ADN) is one of three pathways open to acquire certification in nursing and become a registered nurse (RN); the other two options being a bachelor's degree in nursing (BSN) and a diploma from an approved nursing program. An increasing number of higher education institutes now offer ADN programs online and offer greater flexibility and convenience. However, it is important to note that no ADN programs are delivered completely online as there is a significant hands-on practical component that needs to be undertaken in person in a clinical environment. Online ADN programs are usually provided by community colleges, although some private higher education institutes will offer ADN programs with a distance-learning component.

ADN courses focus on the fundamentals of nursing and classes cover, at the very least, nursing care, anatomy, physiology, leadership, pharmacology and mental health. ADN titles vary but science in nursing and applied science in nursing are common titles.

Types of Online Associate Degrees in Nursing

The range of types of online ADN programs is quite small due to the specificity of the subject area and the need to prepare for the National Council of Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN). When it comes to ADN program titles, you'll find associate of science in nursing and associate of applied science in nursing being examples of common program titles.

In addition to program titles, there is a small variance in terms of who an ADN program can be tailored for. There are general online ADN programs for nursing hopefuls who are starting from scratch, and there are online LPN to ADN programs for Licensed Practical Nurses (LPNs) who wish to eventually take the NCLEX-RN and become a licensed RN. These programs can be a little shorter and are typically only offered by community colleges and vocational schools. Some ADN programs may also be structured in a way that specifically prepares students to upgrade to a BSN program shortly after completion of their ADN.

Who Should Pursue an Online Associate Degree in Nursing?

Online ADN programs are intended for aspiring RNs who have a high school diploma or a GED, although some programs may insist on previous nursing aide training. ADNs, in general, prepare students for the National Council of Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) and entry-level nursing positions, such as a nursing assistant in hospitals, clinics and other healthcare environments.

Online ADNs provide participants with a greater deal of flexibility as they can often be completed in a self-paced manner, which is a desirable feature for students with busy lives and numerous commitments, and are more economically viable as study costs can be spread over a greater period of time and they allow students more of an opportunity to work to help fund their studies. Additionally, ADNs are also more affordable than the other RN degree/diploma options and are regarded as an intermediate qualification between a high school diploma and a bachelor's degree. As such, unlike BSN graduates who will receive more hands-on training, ADN holders will typically be restricted to junior roles until they convert their ADN to a BSN (ADN holders can transfer their credits to a BSN program if they wish).

Application, Admissions, and Enrollment for Online Associate Degree in Nursing

To apply for an online ADN program, candidates must have a high school diploma or GED, and meet a GPA requirement (usually 2.0-2.5). This GPA requirement will typically also apply to prerequisite courses that need to be completed to be eligible to apply for an ADN course, typically in core subject areas, such as anatomy, physiology and psychology.

Another typical requirement for entry into an ADN program is passing an entrance exam, commonly the ATI TEAS or HESI LPN-AD. These exams test candidates on nursing fundamentals, pediatric nursing, medical-surgical issues and mental health issues.

For the applications themselves, most colleges have online application systems, and often there will be two application periods, one in the Fall (apply around August to October) and one in the Spring (around January to April). Applicants should check with their school of choice for specific application window dates. Candidates will usually need to supply transcripts of all their school/college work and submit letters of recommendation from at least three academic or professional referees.

Admission to an ADN program is also contingent on the successful completion of a background check, drug screening and proof of compulsory immunizations. Additionally, admitted students may need to supply a current CPR certification and proof of professional liability insurance.

What Are the Advantages and Disadvantages of an Online Associate Degree in Nursing Program?

Although similar in many ways, there are some differences between online and in-person ADN programs. Online ADN programs are more cost-effective and more flexible, and can therefore be a great choice for students who have numerous existing work and family commitments. However, some value associated with the regular, in-person interaction with faculty and fellow students may be lost.

Additionally, the remoteness of the student will also mean they have less access to on-campus resources. The lack of contact time with fellow students may also be an issue for some students considering an online ADN program, as students can often help each other learn, and many in-person program students greatly value the relationships they form during a study program.

Fortunately, this loss of in-person contact time is reduced somewhat with online ADN programs as they are not 100% online; the practical component is highly significant and requires in-person attendance. Given this, many prospective RNs may consider that online ADN programs provide an ideal balance with regard to the overall study experience.

How Long Does It Take to Earn an Online Associate Degree in Nursing?

ADN programs can take as little as 18 months to two years to complete, although online programs can be either be completed in a part-time fashion to accommodate an existing work or personal schedule, thus extending the program length. Completion in around 18 months is possible with online programs that allow accelerated learning. This time period is similar to that of a diploma in a nursing program but considerably shorter than a BSN, which usually takes four years to complete.

How Much Does an Online Associate Degree in Nursing Cost?

The cost of tuition, fees and supplies with ADN programs is variable (depending on the institute and state). It ranges from approximately $6,000 to $40,000, which is similar to the costs incurred when completing a diploma of nursing program in a hospital or clinic, but cheaper than the longer college-based BSN programs, which have in-state costs estimated to be between $40,000 and $200,000. The cost of tuition on its own can be as low as $2,250 for in-state tuition.

The flexibility of online ADN programs means these costs can be spread over a longer period. It can also reduce costs typically associated with undertaking an in-person associate degree program, such as commuting and accommodation costs.

Online Associate Degree in Nursing Coursework

ADN programs typically consist of a general coursework component and more specialized nursing courses. In the vast majority of online ADN programs the general coursework component will, at the very least, include the following courses:

  • Anatomy
  • Physiology
  • Microbiology
  • Psychology

The general coursework component will also typically have a humanities requirement (e.g. American history, English, math), and many programs will feature a nutrition course.

The more specialized nursing courses will commonly include classes on the following topics:

  • Adult health nursing
  • Pediatric nursing
  • Pharmacology
  • Pathophysiology
  • Reproductive health

What Can I Do With an Online Associate Degree in Nursing?

ADN holders will have several nursing career roles potentially available to them, particularly once they have obtained RN licensure. The most common of these will be that of a general RN. RNs provide generalized healthcare, usually in hospitals, clinics and community health centers.

However, many ADN holders may wish to pursue more specialized RN roles, such as emergency room nurse, critical care nurse, nephrology nurse, cardiovascular nurse, oncology nurse or pediatric nurse. These roles are once again typically fulfilled in various departments within hospitals and clinics. ADN holders who would like to have a more mobile and independent role might consider becoming a home care nurse. Home care nurses visit and work in the homes of chronically ill patients, providing both basic care and more specialized care related to the patient's condition.

Begin a Career as a Registered Nurse

RNs are key workers in the healthcare sector and are highly respected by society for the important job they perform. The role of an RN requires a great deal of training so that they can effectively and efficiently assist doctors with tasks such as administering medication, setting up patient care plans, recording patient medical data, performing medical tests and operating and monitoring a range of medical equipment.

These duties can vary depending on which department an RN works in. For example, RNs that have taken critical care nursing courses and classes can work in intensive care units with patients of all ages that have serious health conditions and injuries, whereas nurses trained in neonatal care can provide care to newborn babies with medical complications.

As the role of an RN is demanding, varied and sometimes a matter of life and death, RNs must be able to handle stress and remain calm while being empathetic. Additionally, with the fast-moving situations and cases RNs deal with, they must be able to process detailed information quickly and have strong critical thinking skills, as well as being physically fit.

Given the type of role it is, RNs are typically found in hospitals and clinics. In fact, as of 2019, 60% of RNs worked in these environments, with the remaining 40% mostly distributed among government, ambulatory health services, residential care home and educational services, some of which are often considered the least stressful nursing jobs.

In addition to obtaining an ADN, candidates must pass the NCLEX-RN to become eligible be to apply for their nursing license from the Board of Nursing in their particular state. The NCLEX-RN lasts six hours and features questions on core topics, such as preventative treatment, health promotion, basic care and care management. The licensure application will also require candidates to pass a criminal background check. Some states may have additional license application requirements.

In terms of salary expectations and job prospects for RNs, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) suggested in 2020 that the median salary for an RN was $75,330. California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Oregon and Alaska pay RNs the most, with mean salaries in these five states ranging from $95,000 to $120,000. The BLS has also forecasted that between 2019 and 2029 we will see a 7% increase in jobs for RNs. This growth rate is faster than overall job growth. This promising job outlook is mainly driven by an aging population, which by nature has more medical issues than the population as a whole.

Accreditation for Online Associate Degree in Nursing Programs

Owing to the increasing number of for-profit colleges offering ADN programs, prospective students must check whether the program they are applying to is properly accredited. Choosing an accreditated program is important for licensure, credibility and eligibility for grants, scholarships and loans. Common accrediting bodies for online ADN programs are the Accreditation Commission for Nursing, the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education and the National League for Nursing Commission for Nursing Education Accreditation. These bodies are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and ensure the quality of nursing programs.

Transfer Options After Completing an Online Associate Degree in Nursing

Although an online ADN equips students with the necessary scientific and technical knowledge and can be a passport to entry-level RN positions, such as a nursing assistant or nursing technician, holders of a BSN are in a better position for transitioning into more advanced nursing roles as the longer BSN program covers much more content with regards to practical hands-on training and leadership.

Given this, ADN holders can apply their credits to a BSN program should they wish to 'top-up' their nursing qualifications by acquiring a bachelor's degree. A BSN is likely to open up a greater number of opportunities in administration or management, and therefore, BSN holders may become certified nursing administrators, consultant, teacher, or a range of other positions. BSN programs are also offered online by several colleges and universities and are a prerequisite for entry onto graduate nursing programs.

What Are Other Nursing Degree Paths/Options?

As mentioned above, an ADN program is just one of a few pathways to becoming a nurse, or is the first academic step towards obtaining more advanced nursing qualifications, such as a master's degree in nursing, or a graduate certificate that equips students with additional nursing skills across a range of nursing competencies. Several colleges offer these options online or at least in a hybrid format, and these courses can be a great way to become eligible for more senior roles.

Online Master's Programs in Nursing

A master's degree in nursing is often seen as an ideal way to obtain the necessary knowledge and training needed to prepare students for management (see how to become a nursing director), or for preparing them to become a certified nursing administrator.

Master's programs will commonly take around two years to complete and will cover the skills and critical thinking required to transform the delivery of care and improve patient health outcomes. Many universities now offer nursing master's degrees online, and although the programs are often in the form of a general master's degree in nursing, others may other different specialty tracks, such as healthcare organizational leadership.

Online Certificate Programs in Nursing

Once an RN gains experience in a role, they have the option of acquiring more skills by way of completing a graduate certificate program. There is a wide range of these programs covering several nursing specialties, including nursing education, holistic nursing, dementia care and pain management. Certificate programs are quite short in length, typically ranging from 9 to 12 credit hours, and many course providers will offer them online. Although short in length, a graduate certificate can greatly enhance job and career advancement opportunities for RNs.

Scholarships and Financial Aid for an Online Associate Degree in Nursing

Funding a higher education course is always a concern for many students. Fortunately, some students may be eligible for financial aid through a range of sources. Perhaps the first source of potential funding to check is the federal government by way of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Through this application, the federal government offers a variety of grants, loans and scholarships. To be eligible, students must demonstrate a financial need, be a U.S. citizen or eligible non-citizen, be accepted to an eligible degree or certificate program, remain in good standing on any federal student loans, and maintain satisfactory academic progress.

In addition to federal government funding, some state government departments may offer scholarships specifically for nursing programs. For example, the California state government Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development awards an ADN scholarship of up to $8000 per school year, and can be awarded up to three times.

Privately funded scholarships are also available from a range of commercial organizations, particularly from pharmaceutical and other healthcare companies. For example, Johnson & Johnson offers hundreds of national and state nursing scholarships.

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