With more than 3,000 nursing education programs in the United States, potential students are faced with tough choices. Nursing schools vary significantly in the theoretical underpinnings of their curriculums, the way they integrate classroom learning with clinical experience and their affiliations with hospitals and medical centers. Even though the average cost of a four-year baccalaureate degree in nursing (BSN) ranges from $14,000 to more than $30,000, admission to a nursing program is still highly competitive.

Choose an educational level. Today, most nurse leaders prefer to hire nurses with a bachelor's degree in nursing, which takes four years to complete. The second most popular option is an associate degree in nursing, which takes two years. Finally, there are still some diploma schools of nursing in existence but this original model for nursing education is being phased out.

Stick with an accredited program. In the United States, accreditation is voluntary but strong nursing programs typically seek that mark of approval. The National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission (NLNAC) has been chosen by the U.S. Department of Education to accredit the nation's nursing schools and programs. By choosing an NLNAC-accredited school, you know the program meets certain objective criteria for quality.

Consult guides that rank nursing schools. U.S. News & World Report publishes the best-known guide. The University of Washington in Seattle and the University of California---San Francisco are the top schools, according to a ranking done in 2007.

Find out who did the judging. For example, U.S. News & World Report sent questionnaires to educators at accredited schools of nursing. This form of judging is known as peer assessment, and the underlying assumption is that the reviewers know what they're talking about.

Review the methodology. Whenever you look at nursing school rankings, determine how those rankings were calculated. U.S. News & World Report used a five-point scale to rate the academic quality of a program. The scores were then tallied, and schools listed in descending order.

Narrow your search. Make a list of potential schools and study information on their websites. Look for qualities that are important to you, such as geographic location, amount of financial aid available and class size. Send away for information packets from your favorite schools.

Visit the schools. While statistics and website information give you an overall picture of the nursing program, you'll want to get a sense of the faculty and facilities such as classrooms and learning labs. If you have your heart set on simulated clinical learning, ask to visit the patient care simulator.

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