January 22, 2020

Top 10 Best Nursing Schools of 2021

When you plan to become a registered nurse (RN), the nursing school and degree program you choose will play a role in your future career. 

The United States has a pressing need for qualified nurses. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects the number of nursing jobs to grow by 12% from 2018-2028 -- much faster than the national average. 

According to the American Association of College of Nursing (AACN), as of 2020, there were almost 1,000 bachelor’s degree nursing education programs in the United States. 

With so many nursing schools, how do you pick the best option?

In this guide, we explore the top 10 nursing schools in the nation as well as how to research nursing schools, how to find the qualities most important to you, and how to select programs that match your wants and needs.

Top 10 Best Nursing Schools in 2021

With nearly 1,000 baccalaureate programs and plenty of ADN programs, picking the best of the best is no simple task. When selecting the top 10 nursing programs in the U.S., we considered factors including:

  • Program outcomes
  • NCLEX pass rate
  • Tuition
  • Program quality
  • Accreditation (all ranked schools have ACEN or CCNE accreditation)

Based on this methodology, these are the top 10 nursing programs in the nation:

1.) Duke University

Annual Tuition: $60,408 | NCLEX Pass Rate: 98.39%

Traditional: Yes

Online: Yes

Accelerated: Yes

Bridge: No

Recognized as one of the best research schools in the world, Duke University offers some of the top nursing programs. The School of Nursing at Duke only offers only one degree choice for undergraduate nurses: an accelerated BSN.

To enroll in this program, applicants first need to complete a non-nursing bachelor's degree. However, the program requires only 58 credits to complete, and students gain 800 hours of clinical experience before graduating. Outcomes for the program are highly positive, too.

Duke is perhaps best known for its graduate programs, including multiple MSN and doctoral programs. Nurses interested in becoming nurse anesthetists would be interested in knowing that Duke boasts one of the top programs for nurse anesthesia in the nation

2.) Georgetown University

Annual Tuition: $58,503 | NCLEX Pass Rate: 100%

Traditional: Yes

Online: Yes

Accelerated: No

Bridge: No

As one of the oldest private institutions in the nation, Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. has an established, well-respected nursing program.

The BSN uses direct entry, meaning current high school students find out if they've been accepted into the BSN program before enrolling at Georgetown. By graduation, BSN students will have earned over 850 hours of clinical experience at locations across Washington, D.C., and the surrounding area. Georgetown also offers an honors program for BSN students.

Graduate students also have plenty of nursing options at Georgetown. The university has an excellent nurse-midwifery/women's health nurse practitioner MSN that takes just over two years to complete. Those wanting to earn a DNP can skip a master's degree with the BSN-DNP program, available in both a part-time and full-time format.

3.) Johns Hopkins University

Annual Tuition: $55,350 | NCLEX Pass Rate: 92.31%

Traditional: No

Online: Yes

Accelerated: No

Bridge: No

Graduate nursing programs sometimes come with heavy amounts of research, and John Hopkins University is perhaps the best research university in the world. The highly-esteemed school doesn't offer any undergraduate nursing programs, though it does have an MSN for non-nursing majors.

Anyone who earned a bachelor's degree in a non-nursing field can enroll in the MSN, and graduates excel on the NCLEX.

After completing the MSN and getting some professional experience in clinical settings, many nurses continue on to earn a DNP at John Hopkins. The university has 13 different DNP options, each of which leads to a specific career outcome. 

4.) New York University

Annual Tuition: $53,308 | NCLEX Pass Rate: 89.8%

Traditional: Yes

Online: No

Accelerated: Yes

Bridge: No

Based in New York City, New York University is truly a global university with students coming from 133 different countries and campuses in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai. Students come from around the world to earn a top-ranked education.

NYU offers nursing students plenty of undergraduate options with a traditional BSN degree, second-degree transfer BSN, RN-BSN, and accelerated 15-month BSN. All options have excellent outcomes with recent graduates enjoying a 99% NCLEX pass rate. 

Of course, a top-ranked institution also has plenty of great graduate programs. Nurses can choose from two master's programs, a DNP, or Ph.D. Students can also specialize their graduate education. 

5.) University of Pennsylvania

Annual Tuition: $57,770 | NCLEX Pass Rate: 94.83%

Traditional: Yes

Online: Yes

Accelerated: Yes

Bridge: No

Founded in 1740, the University of Pennsylvania is among the oldest universities in the nation. The school boasts an impressive 6:1 student-to-faculty ratio, excellent for nursing students looking for a personalized education.

Penn's BSN has students learn in a state-of-the-art simulation lab, and students enter a mentorship program to improve their experiential learning. Penn even operates several study abroad programs for undergraduate students.

Penn also offers MSN and DNP options, with popular specializations including nurse-midwifery, nurse anesthesia, two pediatric care routes. There are also administrative graduate degrees for those looking to enter leadership positions. 

6.) University of Michigan

Annual In-State Tuition: $7,779 | Annual Out-of-State Tuition: $25,600 | NCLEX Pass Rate: 98.95%

Traditional: Yes

Online: Yes

Accelerated: No

Bridge: No

Located in the college town of Ann Arbor, the University of Michigan is one of the best places to earn an undergraduate education. The BSN degree builds off over 100 years of nursing education experience, and over 13,000 U-M nursing alumni work around the world.

The school sets up two options for entry: direct entry for first-year students and a sophomore transfer program.

U-M's MSN is among the best available, with concentrations available in eight different areas. All eight specialties lead to a specific APRN position, and MSN graduates boast a near-perfect pass rate on every exam each year.

The MSN combines learning in U-M's Clinical Learning Center with different clinical sites across the region. If students want to continue their education, they can study the same subjects at the doctoral level

7.) University of California Los Angeles

Annual In-State Tuition: $13,239 | Annual Out-of-State Tuition: $42,993 | NCLEX Pass Rate: 97.73%

Traditional: Yes

Online: No

Accelerated: No

Bridge: No

Known for producing high-caliber graduates who become leaders in their fields, the University of California Los Angeles is among the best institutions of higher education in the West.

Nursing courses in the university's BSN degree program lay the foundation to either enjoy a productive nursing career or to continue on and earn a master's degree.

UCLA's MSN options are arguably the best programs in the nursing school. Each MSN degree leads to an APRN specialty while emphasizing leadership, a great combination for nurses looking to advance their careers. After choosing a population specialty, MSN students then choose a sub-specialty in the field.

UCLA also has a DNP that takes as little as two years to complete and comes in a hybrid format. 

8.) University of Washington

Annual In-State Tuition: $11,465 | Annual Out-of-State Tuition: $38,166 | NCLEX Pass Rate: 94.04%

Traditional: Yes

Online: No

Accelerated: Yes

Bridge: No

Located in Seattle, the University of Washington has several unique benefits for nursing students.

First, all students get to complete clinicals at dozens of sites across the region, including top-ranked hospitals like Seattle Children's Hospital. Second, nursing students can select innovative programs like the accelerated BSN with early DNP admission, best for non-nursing graduates who want to quickly earn their doctoral degree.

While the school does have a traditional BSN, it doesn't have an MSN option; however, UW does have 11 DNP tracks that lead to APRN roles, such as pediatric clinical nurse specialist, nurse-midwifery, and adult gerontology acute care.

Most of the DNP programs take three years to complete, and students graduate with more than enough clinical experience to sit for their certification exams. 

9.) Emory University

Annual Tuition: $53,070 | NCLEX Pass Rate: 96.26%

Traditional: Yes

Online: No

Accelerated: Yes

Bridge: No

Home to one of the world's best health care systems, Emory University of Atlanta, Georgia, is a great choice for nursing students at any level.

The renowned private school has three options for undergraduate nurses: a direct-entry BSN for current high school students, a sophomore entry for current Emory or Oxford College students, and a transfer program for those with at least 60 credits. 

Emory also has plenty of graduate -level options for current nurses and non-nursing students. The MSN-pre licensure degree leads to RN certification, though the program is still awaiting regional accreditation approval.

The other MSN programs are accredited and lead to nine different APRN roles. All MSN tracks come in full-time and part-time formats, so nurses can continue working while earning their graduate degree. 

10.) University of Maryland

Annual In-State Tuition: $10,819 | Annual Out-of-State Tuition: $38,886 | NCLEX Pass Rate: 86.67%

Traditional: Yes

Online: Yes

Accelerated: No

Bridge: No

Located in Baltimore, the University of Maryland is a leader in innovation and research.

The university teaches over 41,000 students each year, and its location near Washington, D.C. and other major cities makes it ideal for nursing students and future nurses.

UM's BSN emphasizes nursing leadership and uses state-of-the-art facilities to teach students. The program takes as little as two years to complete, though students first need to complete two years of introductory courses.

Nurses interested in becoming APRNs would enroll in one of UM's DNP programs. Each DNP comes with a specialty, with popular options including nurse anesthesia, neonatal nurse practitioner, and psychiatric mental health nursing.

The university also has plenty of other graduate-level nursing degrees great for nurses interested in leadership, research, or administrative roles. 

The Next 10: Honorable Mentions Based on Our Methodology

Considering there are nearly 1,000 baccalaureate nursing programs in the United States, picking only 10 means we’ve discussed only the top 1% of the nation’s nursing schools. 

These next 10 schools didn’t make our top 10 list, but they came close:

  • University of Illinois in Chicago
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • University of Texas (Austin, Texas)
  • Yale University (New Haven, Connecticut)
  • Boston College (Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts)
  • Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio
  • Purdue University (West Lafayette, Indiana)
  • University of Florida (Gainesville, Florida)
  • Ohio State University (Columbus, Ohio)
  • University of Pittsburgh

Choosing the Best RN Program for You

Where you complete your RN program can help shape your future career in nursing and other health sciences. Your undergraduate degree can also influence which advanced practice degrees you choose to pursue later.

First you have to choose between a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) or an associate degree in nursing (ADN) program. (More and more employers require new nurses to have a BSN, though many will also hire ADNs who agree to complete their BSNs over the next couple years.)

>>Related: ADN vs BSN: What Nursing Degree Should You Get?

Then you’ll have to decide whether to enroll in a large or small nursing school, an accelerated or four-year degree, and much more. Each factor can influence your career.

Any given program might not work for some students but could be perfect for you. Nursing schools are intentionally different to best educate specific students. 

Of course, where you’re starting from matters, too. If you already have a liberal arts degree you’d have a head start with the general education requirements of a bachelor’s degree in nursing. If you’re a practicing LPN, you can find special accelerated programs to earn your RN degree.

And, the demands of your current life will influence your choices. More and more leading universities offer online RN programs, especially in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

For many prospective students, finding the best program for you will be more important than finding the best-rated schools in the nation as measured by guides like ours or others. 

Show Me Nursing Programs

Before looking at nursing schools, ask yourself these questions:

So before applying for degrees, ask yourself:

  • Do I want to study at a large or small school?
  • Do I want a private or public education?
  • Do I prefer to study in a busy city or a small town? Am I planning on starting a nursing career in the same city or town as the college/university?
  • Nursing licenses are offered by states, so is there a specific state where I want to start my nursing career?
  • Do I want to earn a two-year ADN or a four-year BSN? Or, do I want to go even further into advanced practice by earning a master's of science in nursing (MSN)doctorate of nursing practice (DNP), or a Ph.D. in nursing?
  • Do I want to become a nurse educator after practicing in the healthcare setting for a few years?

What Are Clinicals? 

While part of a nursing degree involves sitting in classrooms (or online classes) and learning valuable information, nurses need experience before they begin saving lives. 

Clinical experience, referred to as clinicals, provides nurses with the practical experience necessary to begin a nursing care practice of their own. Each school handles clinicals differently. 

For example, some schools offer evening or weekend rotations while some others may contain student experience in clinical settings to typical 9-5 hours. Schools also use connections with local hospitals and healthcare facilities to organize clinicals, so some students end up learning in some of the best hospitals in the nation. 

Here are some questions to ask when comparing nursing program clinicals:

  • Which hospitals does my program work with?
  • What types of units can I do clinicals in?
  • How far are clinicals from the school's campus?
  • How much total clinical time is required by each program?
  • What days of the week are clinicals held on?
  • Can I do my clinical rotation hours with a part-time schedule?
  • Can I work while doing my clinical hours?
  • What is the make-up assignment if I miss a day of clinical?

Considering Nursing Program Cost 

Another factor students need to consider is the cost of their degree. Tuition rates vary by school size, the type of institution, and the degree program. For example, public schools offer in-state tuition to residents, and ADN programs cost less than BSN programs.

Aside from tuition, nursing students need to consider other costs, including:

  • School and lab fees
  • Cost of books
  • Other course materials such as uniforms and clinical supplies
  • Cost of living expenses which may include on-campus room and board. 

Paying For Nursing School 

While costs may seem steep, most nursing students end up paying much less thanks to financial aid.

Some forms of financial aid for nursing students include:

Students worried about the cost of programs can always begin by getting their ADN. ADNs can be completed at community colleges, which typically charge much lower tuition rates than four-year colleges and universities. Doing this can save students thousands (if not tens of thousands) of dollars.

BSN programs, on the other hand, typically cost more than ADN programs and take twice as long to complete. However, BSN programs help nurses find higher-paying positions. Students with enough financial aid would have a hard time justifying an ADN program over a BSN program. 

Which choice is a better financial decision? That depends on the student. Talk with a financial advisor to decide the best choice, and let each school's financial aid office know you're looking for help with the cost of your nursing degree. 

If you couldn’t possibly afford to stay in school for four years, you could go for an ADN and then complete your BSN after starting your career in patient care. 

A lot of employers offer tuition assistance for ADN nurses working toward their BSN degrees. In exchange for helping pay tuition, the employer may require you to commit to staying on the job for a few years.

Show Me Nursing Programs

What is the NCLEX?

If you enroll in an ADN or BSN program, you'll take the NCLEX-RN exam around the time of your graduation. The NCLEX certifies nurses, and no state or hospital will license or employ a nurse that hasn't passed the NCLEX. Fortunately, all accredited nursing programs satisfy the prerequisites to sit for the NCLEX and should prepare you to pass the exam on your first try. 

You're not alone, though. Colleges and universities care about their students' outcomes and want to see as many students pass the NCLEX as possible. Through a combination of coursework, lab courses, and clinicals, schools do all they can to prepare you to take and pass the NCLEX. Some nursing schools do this better than others, and that's a factor worth considering when picking a college or university. 

Evaluating Nursing Schools? Ask These 4 Questions First

Once you know what type of program (BSN or ADN) you're looking for, the next step is to start evaluating nursing schools. There are four questions you should ask as you’re deciding on your nursing school.

1.) Where do you want to study, live, and work?

As previously mentioned, nurses obtain a license for the state where they completed their program. If there's a specific state, county, or city you want to work in, consider finding a school in the area. If you're unsure, you can always obtain a multi-state license after you complete the program.

2.) What housing situation do you want?

Depending on where you study, housing can end up being a significant cost. If you decide to move away from home to earn your degree, you'll need to figure out where to live. Fortunately, you have a few options.

University housing, such as dorms or apartments, provides a location close to your courses. However, university housing is often more expensive than off-campus housing.

Off-campus housing lets you live nearly anywhere you want. You may be further from campus, but this could place you closer to clinicals.

If you live off-campus, you'll need to pick the best neighborhood for your situation. Busy cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles can be expensive, and living in the suburbs could be the most affordable option. 

College towns like Chapel Hill in North Carolina and Ann Arbor in Michigan tend to have the most choices for student housing off-campus. 

3.) What do I need to get admitted into nursing school?

Nursing programs require you to get admitted to the college/university and the nursing school. Nursing schools often have stricter requirements for entry.

4.) Is the nursing program I'm interested in good?

Just because a school offers a nursing degree doesn't mean it's a quality nursing degree. 

First, make sure every school and nursing program you apply to is accredited. Any nursing program you apply to should be accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) or the Commission on Collegiate Nursing and Education (CCNE). If you don't choose an accredited nursing program, you CANNOT sit for the NCLEX and earn an RN license. You'll likely have difficulty finding a nursing job after graduation. 

Second, check out student outcomes. A nursing school may have a low tuition rate and be accredited, but the NCLEX pass rates could leave something to be desired. In 2019, the US saw a total NCLEX first time pass rate of 88.18%. A pass rate below this would be below the national average. 

How To Choose The Best Nursing School For You

While we thought these were the top nursing schools of 2021 the best nursing school for you may not be on this list. Spend time researching various nursing schools to make sure that you're making the best decision for your personal situation. 

Create a list of potential schools and, using factors mentioned on this page, rank your set of schools to find the best option.

If you’re looking for a specific career path such as public health or informatics, make sure the schools you’re considering can address these needs.

And, of course, find a school that works within the limits of your current life. You may not be able to move across the country to enroll at a Duke, Emory, or Georgetown.

Chances are good you can find a great program with caring faculty and great clinical experiences in your region.

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