As the world of nursing evolves, you’ll want to identify the schools that can set your career on course. How do you choose the best nursing school to meet your goals? Here are a few key features to consider:
Ensure the nursing program is accredited by a national agency. This is especially important if you plan to seek financial aid because many sources are not available for non-accredited programs. It is also critical if you intend to continue your education, as you will be limited in progressing in your career if you graduate from a non-accredited program. The two national associations that accredit nursing schools are the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing, which accredits all types of nursing programs including diploma, associate, baccalaureate, and master’s; and the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education, which only accredits baccalaureate and graduate degrees.
At the end of nursing school, you will need to take the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) to be licensed as a nurse in your state. Each state determines the standards and approves schools for educating nursing students so they are eligible to take the NCLEX. Prospective applicants should check whether the program(s) they’re considering are approved by the state board. For information about licensing requirements where you plan to practice, contact your state board.
One of the benchmarks of a program’s success is the first-time NCLEX pass rate of its graduates. This is a good indicator of how prepared the students are at graduation and a good indicator of a healthy nursing program.
Although the bachelor’s in nursing degree (BSN) is becoming the accepted entry-level degree for nursing, associate’s degrees in nursing (ADN) are still widely available. There are many career paths you can pursue as a nurse. Try to determine your ultimate goal, and find the degree program best suited to meet that goal. For example, if you plan to continue your education to become a nurse practitioner, getting your BSN will give you more flexibility in pursuing master’s-level work.
Your clinical experience will be crucial to your success in nursing school, so be sure to ask the school how much assistance they provide in finding and securing these placements. Investigate the potential clinical sites to ensure you will have a well-rounded experience. Calculate the expected amount of travel, and determine if it is feasible for your current situation (e.g., do you need a car, or can you rely on public transportation?).
This is especially important if you are a “non-traditional” student who works or has a family. See if the school offers a flexible schedule, including evening or weekend classes and clinicals. Although most of the classes for pre-licensing degrees are live, many programs have blended the instruction to include online components, as well.
Tuition and fees can vary significantly from school to school, especially when you compare public and private colleges. There are also a few overlooked costs associated with starting a nursing program: uniforms, clinical tools, software, and books. Most programs can give you an estimate of any other expenses you are likely to encounter.
That said, many schools have well-funded scholarship programs and a wide range of financial aid options.
It’s also important to think beyond the expense of the program to the career path you’re choosing. While many nurses enter the field with an associate’s degree, employers are increasingly seeking bachelor’s-trained nurses. Additionally, the cost of earning your BSN may be greater, but BSN-RNs earn higher average salaries than ADN-RNs.
Ask if the school has a complete clinical lab used for learning and whether they use simulation in their instructional practice. The use of simulation devices, which has increased as technology has become more sophisticated, helps bridge the gap between the classroom and real-life experiences. Simulation use ranges from non-responsive mannequins to mannequins that breathe, blink, and change as clinical conditions shift. These tools allow instructors to gauge student responses to critical situations. Nursing is a hands-on profession — the more practice you get, the better.
Just as the size of a school can vary significantly, so can the size of your lecture classes. If you know you are intimidated by large lecture hall classes, you might want to consider a school with smaller class sizes. Keep in mind that nursing school also offers the benefit of small clinical groups, so even if you are enrolled in large lectures, you will still have intimate learning opportunities.
To close, I’ll note that nursing school is a very challenging and different experience from traditional higher education experiences. For this reason in particular, it’s important to investigate whether a nursing program provides additional support resources, such as tutors, study groups, or audiovisual aids. In addition, ask about the faculty’s availability for students who need extra support. These professors will be invaluable mentors who can help you make decisions that will advance your career.