It’s the time of year when many students are getting acceptance letters to nursing schools, and I’ve seen posts on discussion boards asking for advice on choosing a nursing school. Since I lived in an area where there were many Nursing school options, I had to filter through and determine which programs were the best fit for my family and me. In this post, I offer advice on what to consider when choosing nursing schools and insight into how I chose my nursing program.
Accreditation & BRN Approval
First and foremost, ensure the programs you are applying to are accredited and approved by the Board of Registered Nursing. In the US, you can visit your state’s Board of Nursing “Education” section to search the list of approved nursing programs. The BRN divides the list of programs by pre-licensure programs (LPN, ADN, BSN, and entry-level Master’s of Nursing program) and advanced practice programs. If you’re even wondering which schools offer nursing programs, the BRN list is an excellent overview of approved programs in your state.
You do not want to spend tuition and time at an institution that the BRN hasn’t approved because you won’t be able to sit for your licensure exam (NCLEX). The BRN will list programs with full and conditional approvals. Consider how a conditional approval may affect you if, for some reason, the BRN removes their program approval before you graduate. Can you ask the school or program why they received conditional approval and what they are doing to ensure full approval? I shied away from newer programs and didn’t apply to conditionally approved ones. I sought only fully approved and established programs because I didn’t want to take my chances with enrolling in a conditionally approved program or a program that could easily dissolve.
NCLEX Pass Rates
While visiting your state’s Board of Registered Nursing website, search for NCLEX pass rates (For California, where I obtained my degree and license, the website is https://www.rn.ca.gov/education/passrates.shtml). The pass rates provide a sense if the program you’re applying to adequately prepares its students for the NCLEX, the exam required to earn a registered nurse license.
Consider on-time graduation rates for your potential schools/programs. Per the amended Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965, colleges must publish information regarding graduation rates, retention rates, and student diversity.1 Due to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) definitions, graduation rates for people with second degrees or who have already attended other postsecondary schools aren’t necessarily part of a school’s published on-time graduation rates.2 However, whether you are pursuing Nursing as a second or first degree, I think graduation rates are something to consider and request from your potential school or nursing program. If your nursing program does not readily share graduation rates, you can also view graduation rates at the following NCES website: https://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/.
Graduation rates are essential to consider to manage your expectations. If you’re choosing a nursing program because it’s shorter than others, but their on-time graduation rate is 50% or less, you run a 50% or greater chance of spending more money and extending the amount of time to earn your degree to get your nursing license. There is a private, for-profit university known for not having a waitlist for their nursing program here in Southern California, so many students apply and attend. They can start nursing school quickly instead of getting waitlisted or possibly rejected from other less expensive, competitive programs. The program is over $100,000 for the projected three years it takes to get a BSN from this for-profit, private university. The three years are appealing over traditional four-year bachelor programs despite the cost. However, the for-profit university’s on-time graduation rate is as low as 38% for their Los Angeles campus. When talking to nursing alumni from this university, many agree that it’s easy to get held back a semester and that the program can take longer than expected. However, the additional cost and time are worth it for program graduates because it was an avenue to get their nursing degree when other options were limited.
I’m not saying to shun schools with low graduation rates. Consider graduation rates, so you know what to expect. It’s better to be aware of potential costs up-front than to be surprised when you need to spend more time and money than what the program advertised.
An obvious consideration when applying to schools is tuition. How much of a student loan will you need to attend school, or can you avoid taking a loan? For what kinds of financial aid are you eligible? (Second-degree holders do not qualify for pell grants). Can you afford private schools? Public schools are far more affordable but can also be more competitive.
Do you have grades, work, or volunteer experience that make you a competitive candidate? Do you need to repeat pre-requisite courses to increase your GPA and become a more desirable applicant? The extra time to repeat pre-requisites might be worth it if it saves you tens of thousands of dollars in tuition fees. (CAUTION: Be careful with re-taking courses or exams because some schools only accept a certain amount of repeats or will only accept a repeated course or entrance exam like the TEAS if it’s after or within a specific timeframe).
The duration of the program is an important consideration. If you’re not working while going to school, that extra time in school is potential income lost. It is ACTUAL income lost for people with a prior career like me. Like most people looking to switch careers, I wanted an accelerated program to work as quickly as possible in my newly chosen profession. I didn’t want to be in school for four years to switch careers. Since I already had a bachelor’s degree, I was eligible to apply to accelerated Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing (ABSN) programs. In my area, these ABSN programs range from 12-24 months.
Consider the location of your nursing school. Are the programs to which you’re applying local? Will you need to spend an hour or more commuting to school? Some of my classmates moved from one part of Los Angeles to another part of Los Angeles to avoid traffic that would add to their commute. Can you carpool with someone to allow you to take the carpool lanes and make your commute more bearable? Other cohort mates moved across the country to attend our ABSN program. All the nursing schools I applied to were within a reasonable drive from my home.
The school I chose happened to be the farthest from my house. When I started nursing school, I was lucky enough to discover one of my cohort-mates lived in my neighborhood, so we agreed to carpool. She became one of my best friends, and we used the carpool time to study and quiz each other (or vent about our lives as the only moms in the program).
If you can, try to find out where the schools do their clinicals. You can ask the program staff or alumni. Doing clinicals at hospitals or areas you wish to work offers excellent exposure to potential employers. The pandemic limited clinical rotations, so the recent years’ clinicals may not represent what is typically provided in a nursing program. However, you know a program is decent if they were able to send their students to good clinical locations amidst a pandemic. Also, keep in mind the places of clinicals may add time to your usual commute to school, and some may occur during the evening or night shift. Knowing this information upfront helps manage expectations.
Impressions of Alumni & Working Nurses
Talk to alumni about the programs you’re considering. Some questions you could ask:
- Do they recommend going there?
- Did alumni feel adequately prepared by their program?
- How long did it take to graduate?
- How much did it cost them vs. the advertised tuition?
- What attracted them to their program?
- What do they feel were the pros and cons of their program?
Talk to working nurses you trust and respect. How is working with new grads from particular schools or programs? Do some nurses seem better prepared than others? What are working nurses’ impressions of students from that school/program when they do clinicals? Do they have program recommendations? Would they recommend their alma mater?
As I shared in a prior post, I networked with others before I applied to ABSN programs and before I accepted the offer to attend my school. Talking to others about the various schools assured me that the schools I applied to were a good fit for me. My top choice school would change from time to time, but all schools I applied to were great options for my family and me.
After working hard to make sure I’d be a competitive nursing school applicant and getting straight A’s on all my pre-requisites, I got accepted into three ABSN programs lasting 12 months, 15 months, and 24 months. The cheapest program was the 15-month program from a public university, while the 12-month program at a private university was more than twice the cost of the 15-month program and the most expensive, by far. The 24-month program tuition was slightly higher than the 15-month program but had the longest duration. I chose the 15-month program to save money and time and figured the additional three months it would take to earn my degree over the 12-month program would be worth my sanity. Additionally, the 12-month program had much lower NCLEX pass rates, making my choice even more straightforward.
Although this post was prompted by someone considering nursing school offers, ideally, all the above considerations would be made BEFORE applying to nursing programs. Whether you’re sifting through nursing school offers or selecting which schools to send applications to, I hope this post helped. Please share in the comments below if you have other considerations or advice to contribute when selecting a nursing program. Thank you for reading, and good luck on your journey!
- Per the National Center for Education Statistics, “The overall graduation rate is also known as the “Student Right to Know” or IPEDS graduation rate. It tracks the progress of students who began their studies as full-time, first-time degree- or certificate-seeking students to see if they completed a degree or received a certificate within 150% of “normal time” for completing the program.”
- The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) notes that “students who have already attended another postsecondary institution, or who began their studies on a part-time basis, are not tracked for this rate.”