Becoming a nurse takes an average of four years, but that time frame could be longer or shorter depending on the type of program you pursue. For instance, you could choose a part-time program that extends your schooling or enroll in an advanced nursing program that adds years to the process but leads to higher pay. Ultimately, how long nursing school lasts depends on you and your goals.

Regardless of the level of education you decide to pursue, nursing school programs include supervised clinical experience alongside classroom training. Nursing students spend some of their time hitting the books and the rest of the time in a lab or completing hands-on training at a hospital or medical center.

How long are nursing programs?

The length of nursing school depends on the type of career you’d like to pursue. The most common path to a nursing degree involves earning a four-year Bachelor of Science in nursing (BSN) to become a registered nurse. Becoming an RN is also possible with a two-year associate degree in nursing (ADN) or a nursing diploma, but it could be tougher to find employment without a full BSN.

In some cases, however, nurses decide to pursue advanced certification or additional credentials. Nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives and nurse practitioners, also referred to as advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs), typically spend an additional year or more earning a master’s degree or a doctoral degree after their BSN.

Some nursing students may also choose to become a licensed practical nurse (LPN) or licensed vocational nurse (LVN), typically through community colleges or technical schools. LPN and LVN programs usually take around one year to complete, but they may take longer.

Type of nursing program How long is nursing school? Career
Licensed practical nurse (LPN) or licensed vocational nurse (LVN) program 1 year, but potentially longer Licensed practical or vocational nurse
Nursing diploma 2 to 3 years Registered nurse
Associate degree in nursing (ADN) 2 to 3 years Registered nurse
Bachelor of Science in nursing (BSN) 4 to 5 years Registered nurse
Master of Science in nursing (MSN) 5 to 6 years Advanced practice registered nurse
Doctorate of nursing practice (DNP) 5+ years Advanced practice registered nurse

How long does it take to become an RN?

You can take several paths to become a registered nurse. Your path affects how long it will take you to achieve this goal. In general, you can become an RN in anywhere from 16 months to four years, depending on how you choose to approach it.

Some states require only an associate degree in nursing — which usually takes two years to complete — before you can earn licensure. Some states require and some employers prefer a BSN, and some employers prefer one. If you already have a bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing field, you may qualify for an accelerated nursing program that takes as little as 16 months.

Regardless, once you earn a nursing degree, you must pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN). Then, you will have to apply for licensure in your state — a process that can take several weeks to complete.

Can you get a nursing degree online?

You can pursue a nursing degree online, although you’ll need to complete the clinical component of your studies in person. Students spend the bulk of their nursing degree program learning at home on their own computers. Their school will help them coordinate with a lab or medical center for experiential, hands-on training.

While the cost of nursing degrees varies widely, you may find that pursuing a nursing degree online is considerably more affordable. As you decide how long to spend in nursing school and which type of nursing program you want to try out, compare the costs involved for tuition and fees, and potentially even room and board if you plan to live on campus.

Online nursing programs can fast-track your degree or let you space classes out. Some online nursing degree programs can be completed in just one year (though most of these require a prior bachelor degree). But with the flexibility of online educational options, you may choose to study part-time rather than cram it all in a short period.

How to pay for nursing school

According to recent numbers from CollegeBoard, public two-year in-state degrees set students back an average of $3,800 per year in tuition and fees during the 2021-22 school year. Meanwhile, students at public in-state four-year schools paid $10,740 per year on average in tuition and fees.

For advanced degrees, NurseJournal estimates average total costs of $35,000 to $70,000 for a MSN and $40,000 to $70,000 for a DNP. Between a four-year bachelor’s program and the additional two-plus years of graduate school, nursing school could total well over $100,000.

But you have options that can make nursing school more affordable. Start the process by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This form helps federal and state governments determine how much aid you may be eligible for.

The FAFSA form also helps the government determine eligibility for federal student loans. Federal student loans come with benefits like income-driven repayment plans, deferment and forbearance. Federal loans can also help students qualify for loan forgiveness plans like Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF), which is commonly used by nurses who work in public service positions.

When federal student loans aren’t enough to pay for nursing school, some students also use private student loans. While student loans from private lenders do not come with federal student loan benefits, they can come with low interest rates and excellent terms that make them an attractive option.

In addition to loans and federal aid programs, many nursing students also apply for scholarships and grants that help pay for school.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, LVNs and LPNs can expect to make around $48,070 per year, while registered nurses earn $77,600 on average. Nurse anesthetists, nurse practitioners and nurse midwives each average over $110,000 per year.

If your salary doesn’t cover your student loan bills, there are many student loan forgiveness programs for nurses outside of PSLF. These include the Nurse Corps Loan Repayment Program, the National Health Service Corps Loan Repayment Program, military loan forgiveness for nurses and more.

The bottom line

There are many paths to becoming a nurse, depending on your level of education and experience. Consider what career you would like to have in the field and plan out your path as best you can. Nursing can be a rewarding profession, and nurses are in demand: The World Health Organization warns that there could be a worldwide shortage of as many as 5.7 million nurses by 2030.

NurseJournal is owned by Bankrate’s parent company, Red Ventures.