Discover What Online Nursing Bridge Program Is Best for You

When seeking to become a nurse, there are multiple degree options. From associate degrees to a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), a nursing bridge program may help entry level nurses pursue different levels of licensure more quickly than pursing individual nursing degrees. 

What Is a Nursing Bridge Program?

A nursing bridge program is a degree pathway for entry level and advanced nurses to take the next step in their career. These programs exist at all levels, may be pursued while continuing to work, and may also be completed more quickly than it would take to return to traditional nursing programs.

For example, students who have received an RN license through an associate or lesser degree program may be able to earn their Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) via an RN-to-MSN program in about 24 months. If those same students went the more traditional degree route, getting a Bachelor of Science in Nursing then an MSN, they could take at least four years.

Nursing bridge programs may have been developed to meet the increase in health care careers and to improve diversity in nursing candidates. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) encourages employers to place value on nurses to seek further education, such as a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree, to become “well-prepared to meet the demands placed on today’s nurse”.1

Types of Nursing Bridge Programs

Regardless of the level you’re at now, there may be a bridge program designed to help you advance your education and career. Here is an overview of nursing bridge programs. It’s important to check your state’s nursing licensure requirements and preferred university for more specific information.

Licensed Practical Nurse LPN/Licensed Vocational Nurse LVN Bridge Programs

There are bridge programs for nursing and medical assistants seeking to become a licensed practical nurse (LPN), sometimes also referred to as licensed vocational nurses (LVNs). Acknowledging the work you’ve already done and the knowledge you have, LPN bridge programs may be the next step for your nursing career.

CNA-to-LPN Programs

A certified nursing assistant (CNA) supports nurses and doctors by checking and recording vital signs, talking with patients about how they’re doing, helping patients with daily tasks like eating and getting dressed, and communicating with the care team. An LPN can do all these duties and also administer medicine (except for IV medicines), help with wound care, maintain patient charts, collect blood or urine specimens, care for patients on ventilators, and monitor patients in multiple ways. An LPN answers to an RN and assists the RN with these duties. LPN nursing degree programs may take 12 to 24 months.

While there are no CNA-to-LPN bridge programs, LPN programs may consider your CNA experience, but may not give you college credit. These programs may facilitate CNAs who want to take a step up in career and salary (nursing assistants earn about $30,850 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics as of May 2020, while LPNs and LVNs earn about $48,820), preparing a student to pass the NCLEX-PN exam and become a licensed practical nurse.

MA-to-LPN Programs

Medical assistants (MA) work in doctors’ offices and outpatient facilities handling administrative tasks and assisting with patients. Becoming an MA tends to take nine months to complete a certificate program and two years to complete an associate degree, followed by studying for and taking the medical assistant exam. 

MA-to-LPN programs are for medical assistants who want to work more hands-on with patients. These programs are likely to prepare nursing students to apply for the NCLEX-PN exam to become licensed practical nurses. General admission requirements include an active certified medical assistant status with a specified amount of experience, employment verification, and GPA.

Registered Nurse (RN) Bridge Programs

Depending on your nursing status, there are a few bridge programs for those who want to become registered nurses (RNs). For prospective students who have some nursing education, bridge programs may provide a quicker pathway to RN state licensure.

LPN-to-RN Program

LPNs provide basic nursing care and typically work under the supervision of RNs. Registered nurses do all these duties and perform more tests and procedures, put in intravenous (IV) lines and administer IV medicines, and communicate directly with the patient’s doctors. One type of RN program, an associate degree in nursing, may take about two years of full-time study.

LPN-to-RN programs build on the LPN’s knowledge, focusing more on clinical skills and decision-making. Because most students continue to work, it can take two to four years to complete the program, which may prepare you to apply for the NCLEX-RN exam. While admission requirements depend on the specific school, generally they include your active LPN certification, completion of nursing school prerequisites, proof of LPN credit hours, transcripts from previous schools, minimum GPA, and ACT or SAT scores.

Paramedic-to-RN Program

Paramedics provide emergency care before patients get to the hospital. They assess and treat patients, stay in contact with doctors, treat wounds, perform CPR, hook up EKGs or IVs, and stabilize patients for transport, while RNs perform these duties and more, treating patients in hospitals or doctor’s offices. Unless an RN works in the emergency room, they tend to have longer contact with each patient, sometimes for days or weeks. Basic paramedic training takes about six months and leads to a certification test; advanced certification can take up to two years. Some RN programs take about two years of full-time study.

RNs earn more money, on average, (EMTs and paramedics earn about $36,650 a year, according to the BLS in 2020, while RNs earn about $75,330) and may have more opportunities for change in work settings, advancement and specialization. Paramedic-to-RN programs may lead to an associate degree in one to two years. General admission requirements include a current EMT certification, completion of prerequisites, previous school transcripts, a current BLS/CPR certification, and proof of having passed the Health Education Systems Incorporated (HESI) exam.

Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) Bridge Programs

Bridge programs that lead to an associate degree in nursing may prepare you for a career as an RN, working in a doctor’s office, a hospital, a nursing care or rehabilitation facility, or a public health organization.

LPN-to-ADN Program

LPNs support RNs, monitoring patients and providing basic nursing care, while RNs are directly involved in clinical nursing tasks, creating patient-care plans and working with doctors. An LPN-to-ADN bridge program can take one to two years and may prepare nurses to apply for the NCLEX-RN exam. General admission requirements may include proof of your LPN status, prerequisite coursework, CPR training, and previous transcripts.

Bachelor’s in Nursing (BSN) Bridge Program

LPNs and RNs are both nurses, but earning a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree (BSN) has become an important standard since the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) recommends BSN-level educated nurses to meet today’s demands.1 There are various types of BSN bridge programs that take you from where you are and build on your skills and knowledge.

ADN-to-BSN Program

While an ADN program may take up to two years, a BSN program typically takes four years. However, ADN-to-BSN programs can help you transition between the two in about a year to 18 months of full-time study or three to four years of part-time study, depending on the school. Admission requirements typically include an associate degree in nursing with a minimum 2.0 GPA, and a current registered nurse license.

LPN-to-BSN Program

LPN-to-BSN bridge programs are for LPNs who desire career-advancement possibilities, such as pursuing licensure as a registered nurse. The programs take two to four years to complete. Depending on the school, admission requirements typically include a current LPN license, completion of prerequisites, and sometimes verification of a certain number of LPN hours.

RN-to-BSN Program

For RNs who have completed an approved state nursing program, associate degree, or other training to earn RN licensure, there are RN-to-BSN bridge programs. RN-to-BSN programs are designed to build upon previous nursing knowledge and skills. 

RNs have usually completed at least a two-year nursing-school program; BSN programs usually take four years. Pursuing an online RN-to-BSN program may take just a year to complete.

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Master’s in Nursing (MSN) Bridge Programs

As the role of nursing has evolved and expanded, nurse practitioners and other advanced nurses have become a critical part of the health care system—the fastest-growing segment of the primary-care spectrum. Bridge programs to MSN degrees, either in-person or online MSN programs, may qualify you to seek licensure as an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN), which allows for more specialization.

RN-to-MSN Program

Designed for registered nurses who desire more job opportunities as an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN), in-person or RN-to-MSN online bridge programs may allow for advanced specialization. Advanced practice registered nurses, which include nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives and nurse practitioners, earn about $117,670 a year, according to the BLS in 2020, while RNs earn about $75,330 as of July 2021. 

The programs typically take two to three years, depending on the chosen specialization and whether the student enrolls full time or part time. In general, admission requirements include a valid RN license, at least a year of RN experience, at least an ADN from an accredited school of nursing, and a cumulative GPA of at least 3.0.

BSN-to-MSN Program

Nurses who already have a bachelor’s degree in nursing may wish to pursue MSN degrees to build on their knowledge and skills, to specialize, and/or to access a higher level of practice and earning potential. Although there are no titled BSN-to-MSN programs, MSN programs may typically take about two years of full-time study, including clinical hours. Typical admission requirements include a valid RN license, official GRE scores, previous transcripts, and a cumulative GPA of 3.0 or 3.2.

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Nurse Practitioner (NP) Bridge Programs

Nurse practitioners can perform most of the duties traditionally reserved for family-practice doctors. They assess, diagnose and treat patients; may be authorized to prescribe medicine; create care plans for chronic conditions; and educate patients on health care. They can specialize in acute care, adult health, family health, neonatal health, pediatric/child health, women’s health, gerontology health, psychiatric/mental health, or oncology. 

NP roles and scope of practice vary by state, so check with your state of practice for more information. NP bridge programs build on the skills of an RN or a BSN, permitting nurses to pursue roles with higher levels of responsibility, higher salaries and more career opportunities.

Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) Bridge Programs

A Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree is the highest practice-based nursing degree that can be obtained from an on-campus or online DNP program. DNP holders are often leaders among their peers, working in clinical settings. They may be nurse managers, advanced nursing practitioners and leaders involved in state and national health policy. The programs typically take two to five years to complete; the time frame depends on the degree you have going in.

BSN-to-DNP Program

A nurse with a bachelor’s degree can choose their specialty upon entering a BSN-to-DNP program. Typical admission requirements include a valid RN license and proof of a bachelor’s in nursing degree from an accredited school.

MSN-to-DNP Program

Designed for nurses who already have master’s degrees, MSN-to-DNP programs—sometimes referred to as NP-to-DNP programs—allow students to focus their studies on the areas of expertise that most call to them. In 2018, the National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties (NONPF) declared its intention to move all new NP graduates to the DNP degree by 2025 (PDF, 408 KB). Typical admission requirements include a valid RN license and proof of a master’s in nursing degree from an accredited school.

Should I Enroll in a Nursing Bridge Program?

Regardless of what level of nursing you are at now, if you want to increase your knowledge and skills by earning a higher degree, a nursing bridge program could be a pathway for you. These programs build on the education you already have and often provide an accelerated path to that next degree. In addition, the ability to attend part time and/or online allows students to continue working while pursuing the next step in their careers.

Factors to Compare When Choosing a Bridge Program

How do you determine the most important factors when choosing a nursing bridge program? Some things to consider include your goals, the right accreditation and schedule for you, and a convenient place to do your clinical hours.

Goals

You wouldn’t already be in a health care profession if helping others wasn’t high on your list. But to figure out your next step, you need to know more. Are you yearning for a higher level of knowledge in a specific area of care? Doyou want the responsibility of more direct patient care? Are you hoping to increase your career opportunities and earn a higher salary? Are you interested in a leadership role? And is there a particular area of medicine that is most important to you? 

These are your long-term goals. Combine those with your practical, shorter-term goals, consider full-time or part-time enrollment, on-campus or online programs, and university career support.

Clinical Requirements

Nursing students all know the importance of “clinicals,” the term for supervised work with patients while you’re in school. While shadowing more experienced nurses, these students learn how to work with people in real health situations. 

The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) requires that all bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate programs include a certain number of clinical practice hours. When a student attends an online nursing program, the clinical hours are typically set up at a hospital close to where the student lives. Depending on the school, the degree program, and state nursing licensure requirements, 500 to 3,000 clinical hours may be required to graduate. 

Accreditation

There are two accrediting organizations for nursing schools: the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) and the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE). Through these two organizations, students and employers are assured that graduates will be held to certain academic and ethical standards. 

Students also know that educational standards are the same for accredited schools across the nation, regardless of whether the programs are online or on campus, part-time or full-time. In addition, find out if your school is approved by the Board of Nursing in your state for licensure. 

Online vs. On-Campus

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking the choice between on-campus and online nursing programs is simply a matter of convenience and scheduling. Those are two main factors, of course, and critical ones when you’re trying to balance work, home, family and school. But there are other aspects to consider. 

Online nursing programs may let you work at your pace, review lessons as you go, or even participate in live discussions with classmates from across the country. While there are more networking opportunities with in-person classes, online classes give you access to schools you’d never be able to attend if you were restricted to your home location. 

But if you need more of a traditional classroom environment in which to learn, consider on-campus programs; some people simply operate better in person than they do writing or online. Tune in to times when you’ve learned best in the past to figure out your learning style and which environment will benefit you most.

1 American Association of Colleges of Nursing. “The Impact of Education on Nursing Practice,” April 2019. Accessed July 2021.

Information on this page was last retrieved in July 2021.