Best Online DNP Programs
A doctorate in nursing can position graduates for some of the most advanced roles in the nursing field. Professionals who want to pursue a doctorate can choose between the research-based Ph.D. and the more clinical-focused doctor of nursing practice (DNP).
Both degrees give graduates access to similar career opportunities. However, the clinical emphasis in DNP programs has made these pathways popular with nurses who wish to continue working with patients. According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, more than 350 DNP programs currently enroll students nationwide. An additional 106 programs are in the planning stages.
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Here, we describe online DNP programs and what students can expect during and after their studies.
What Is a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) Program?
The terminal degree for practice-focused nurses, a DNP may qualify graduates for advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) positions and leadership roles. In fact, in 2018, the National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties suggested replacing the MSN degree with the DNP as the minimum educational requirement for entry-level nurse practitioners by 2025.
In addition to providing students with more practical training, DNP programs also usually differ from Ph.D. programs in length. DNP programs can take 1-4 years to complete compared to 3-5 years for a Ph.D.
Online learners may have access to accelerated options and be able to save money on travel and additional fees. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average cost of tuition and fees for graduate school during the 2018-2019 academic year was $19,314.
Why Earn a DNP?
An MSN degree qualifies nurses for specialized APRN positions, but a DNP equips them to take on leadership and senior-level roles as well. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 45% growth for nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, and nurse practitioners between 2020 and 2030 — much faster than the 8% average growth projected across all occupations. As of May 2020, these professionals earned an average median salary of $117,670.
Compared to DNPs, MSN degrees are often more affordable and graduates enjoy access to many APRN careers. However, DNP graduates often have better career prospects and higher earning potential. The top 10% of nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, and nurse practitioners earn over $190,900 annually.
Why Get a DNP Online?
- Accessibility: With fewer distance-related restrictions, online learners can enroll in programs based anywhere.
- Flexibility: Online students can often study during the hours that suit them best.
- Affordability: Online programs may allow students to save money on fees related to travel and on-campus expenses.
- Ability to Continue Working: Working students can more easily maintain their professional schedules with online training.
- Comfort: Studying from the comfort of home can lead to greater success for many online students.
How Do I Get an Online DNP Degree?
Prospective students have access to a variety of DNP programs, each with their own length and curriculum requirements.
While the following examples are the most popular pathways available, the descriptions and details may still vary depending on the school and program.
Types of Online DNP Programs
The length of BSN-DNP programs varies by school and specialty, but learners typically earn their degrees in 3-5 years. These programs usually cover master's-level coursework, advanced practice specialty training, and doctoral-level clinical practice.
Available to current APRNs or MSN graduates, an MSN-DNP degree typically takes 1-3 years of full-time study to complete. These programs may feature leadership, technology, and health policy training, plus clinical experience requirements. DNP programs may also offer more in-depth specialty training.
RN-DNP programs are less common. They allow RNs without a bachelor's degree to pursue a doctorate. These programs vary in length, but typically take students 5-8 years to complete. The curriculum accelerates bachelor's- and master's-level training and features extensive clinical experience components to the individual requirements for each degree.
What Can I Expect From a BSN-DNP Program?
A BSN-DNP provides master's- and doctoral-level training in one program. Students often finish these degrees in 3-5 years, earning between 60-100 credits. Learners can also choose an APRN specialty, such as a nurse practitioner, nurse midwife, or nurse anesthetist.
In addition to research and classroom study, these programs typically require significant clinical experience, often exceeding 1,000 hours in total. Prospective students should already possess a BSN degree, along with valid RN licensure in most cases. Some programs may require applicants to have prior professional experience. Students pursuing certain specialties will also need to accrue postgraduate experience for certification and licensure.
DNP program concentrations typically fall into two categories: direct and indirect care. Direct care concentrations cover specialties in which nurses work with patients in clinical settings; in these settings they may diagnose and treat illnesses. Indirect concentrations emphasize more administrative and system-focused roles. Below are some examples of these two types of concentrations.
Direct Care Concentrations
- Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner
- Adult-Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner
- Certified Nurse Midwife
- Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist
- Clinical Nurse Specialist
- Family Nurse Practitioner
- Neonatal Nurse Practitioner
- Pediatric Acute Care Nurse Practitioner
- Pediatric Primary Care Nurse Practitioner
- Psychiatric-Mental health Nurse Practitioner
- Women's Health Nurse Practitioner
Indirect Care Concentrations
- Clinical Research Management
- Healthcare Systems
- Nursing Administration
- Nursing Informatics
- Public or Community Health Nursing
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What Can I Expect From an MSN-DNP Program?
An MSN-DNP program provides students with administration, leadership, policy, and advanced practice training. Learners usually complete 30-45 credits in 1-3 years of full-time study and over 500 hours of clinical experience (in most cases). While not as research-heavy as Ph.D. programs, learners may be assigned research and scholarly projects.
Some programs offer tracks for various specialties, along with clinical practice, leadership, and advanced systems specializations. For admission, prospective students need an MSN. They may also need valid APRN licensure, depending on their program. Some programs may require professional experience, and postgraduate experience may be required for certification and licensure.
What Can I Expect From an RN-DNP Program?
RN-DNP programs provide a pathway for nurses to earn a doctorate via undergraduate- and graduate-level study. Depending on a student's previous academic experience these programs can take 5-8 years to complete. Students must often earn more than 110 credits and 1,000 hours of clinical experience to graduate. Many of these programs offer concentration options in areas such as executive leadership, administration, and APRN specialities.
For admission, prospective students need valid RN licensure and a diploma or associate degree in nursing.
What Will I Learn in an Online DNP Program?
To qualify for accreditation with the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education, online DNP programs must cover eight essentials. DNP programs must also teach students about appropriate content and provide experiential components for the specializations they offer. The next section describes each of these program essentials.
Essential One: Scientific Underpinnings for Practice
The training must provide students with a solid academic and theoretical foundation for nursing practice. The program should teach students to apply nursing science and science-based concepts to their work to improve care delivery and outcomes.
Essential Two: Organizational and Systems Leadership for Quality Improvement and Systems Thinking
Training should prepare graduates to develop and evaluate processes, systems, and strategies based on nursing science, the needs of their patients, and the quality standards of the profession.
Essential Three: Clinical Scholarship and Analytical Methods for Evidence-Based Practice
Graduates must gain the skills needed to analyze research, literature, and evidence to implement improved practices and processes. They should also be able to disseminate information and develop and evaluate patient-centered care approaches based on their findings.
Essential Four: Information Systems/Technology and Patient Care Technology for the Improvement and Transformation of Healthcare
Graduates should be taught to use technology to monitor and evaluate health outcomes and health information sources. They must also learn to oversee healthcare information systems and handle any potential legal and ethical concerns that may come up.
Essential Five: Healthcare Policy for Advocacy in Healthcare
The training must equip graduates to analyze healthcare policies and work toward improving them for the benefit of the profession. This may include offering education, leadership, and advocacy on the topic.
Essential Six: Interprofessional Collaboration for Improving Patient and Population Health Outcomes
Graduates need to be equipped with leadership skills to establish and oversee interprofessional teams that can improve care systems and processes. They require the communication and teamwork skills needed to create positive team-based outcomes.
Essential Seven: Clinical Prevention and Population Health for Improving the Nation's Health
The training must prepare graduates to analyze scientific data on population health in order to improve health promotion and disease prevention initiatives. Students also need to learn how to critique, evaluate, and improve current models and programs.
Essential Eight: Advanced Nursing Practice
Programs need to equip students with the skills necessary to improve patient outcomes and interventions by using nursing science, clinical judgement, and evidence-based care. Learners should also be able to lead and educate other nurses and healthcare professionals through various situations.
What Are the Admission Requirements for Online DNP Programs?
Graduate admission requirements vary depending on the school and program. In addition to unique grade and test score requirements, the different DNP program pathways require different educational backgrounds and experience levels. Certain concentrations and APRN specialties may also feature specific course prerequisites.
In general, however, DNP programs require prospective students to possess an MSN degree. Some programs may require applicants to complete additional components, such as participating in interviews or submitting essays. The admission requirements rarely differ between on-campus and online DNP programs.
Most programs require applicants to have a valid RN license. This demonstrates that they possess the appropriate background, have passed the certification exam, and meet state licensure requirements. Many MSN-DNP programs require prospective learners to have APRN licensure, as well.
Resumes and cover letters are standard application requirements. These documents showcase a prospective student's professional experience and qualifications. Aspiring DNP students may find value in a resume writing guide, which can help them best outline their work history. Some DNP programs require applicants to possess a specific level of nursing experience.
Letters of Recommendation
Letters of recommendation give schools more personal insight on prospective students' experience. Often written by former teachers and employers, these letters may address applicants' preparedness for the program based on their past experiences. Many applications require at least three letters of recommendation.
All programs require official transcripts from prospective students. These documents provide information about the applicant's completed credits, including when and where previous classes were taken and how well the student performed. Official transcripts also provide information about the applicant's GPA, their prerequisites, and any transfer credits they may qualify for.
Application essays can cover various topics. At the undergraduate level, these essays tend to feature information about a student's personal journey, whereas graduate essays focus more on research interests. DNP applicants may need to answer specific application questions in their essays or address how their educational and career interests align with the program they're applying to
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What Can I Do With an Online DNP Degree?
An online DNP degree can lead to many different careers. Though some employers and organizations prefer this level of training, a DNP degree is not an employment requirement for most nursing positions. However, it can lead to higher wages and more career opportunities in the field. Additionally, academic settings may prefer candidates with a Ph.D., but applicants with DNPs can still qualify for employment at some institutions.
Nurse practitioners provide primary and specialized care to patients, assessing their condition and offering treatment strategies to improve their health. Depending on their state, they may prescribe medications. These professionals typically need an MSN at minimum, along with state licensure and certification from an approved national organization.
Median Annual Salary (May 2020): $111,680
Clinical nurse researchers conduct and study healthcare and nursing research to improve healthcare outcomes, processes, and policies. They perform clinical trials and publish or present their findings for translational practice purposes. Depending on their employers and workplace settings, these researchers may need a DNP or Ph.D.
Average Annual Salary (September 2021): $72,450
Nurse midwives work with people who give birth — typically before, during, and after pregnancies. They provide information, examinations, and planning strategies, along with assistance during the birthing or cesarean section procedures. A nurse midwife needs an MSN at minimum, along with the nurse-midwife credential and appropriate state licensure.
Median Annual Salary (May 2020): $111,130
Nurse anesthetists provide anesthesia and pain management services during medical procedures. They also offer information about the process and monitor the patient's progress after receiving the anesthesia. A nurse anesthetist needs at least an MSN, plus the certified registered nurse anesthetists credential and state licensure.
Median Annual Salary (May 2020): $183,580
Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner
Psychiatric nurse practitioners work with patients managing mental health concerns. They can give diagnoses, provide medical treatments, and prescribe medications in most states. They often provide more generalized services than psychiatrists. Psychiatric nurse practitioners usually must have an MSN at minimum to practice.
Average Annual Salary (September 2021): $111,570
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Licensure and Certifications
While teaching and research careers do not usually require licensure or certification, clinical nursing professionals typically need both. Certification comes from national third-party organizations and verifies that the credential-holder meets the industry's professional standards. Licensure comes from the state's nursing board and verifies the candidate meets the state's requirements.
MSN and DNP degree-holders often pursue various APRN certifications, which require them to pass corresponding certification exams. Exam eligibility typically includes a graduate nursing degree, RN licensure, and professional experience. For example, the National Board of Certification and Recertification for Nurse Anesthetists and the American Midwifery Certification Board offer certifications for nurse anesthetists and nurse midwives.
Nurse practitioners have more certification options available to them. Many national organizations offer certification in a variety of specialties. NPs may pursue credentials to practice as acute care nurse practitioners, cardiac nurse practitioners, or family nurse practitioners. While state licensure is mandatory for nurse practitioners, certification for specialties are not. However, they may improve employment opportunities.
How Do I Choose an Online DNP Program?
Most prospective students place cost high on their list of considerations when choosing a program. They should make sure to evaluate the true program cost by factoring in the price room and board, materials, and loss of working income. They should also compare in-state vs. out-of-state tuition, public vs. private education, and online vs. on-campus costs.
Program Format and Curriculum
Prospective students should review the program curriculum and format to ensure it meets their needs. Nursing students also need to ensure the program satisfies the certification and licensure requirements for their state. They can look at programs with part-time vs. full-time schedules and synchronous vs. asynchronous delivery methods to find the best balance of study, work, and home life.
Before choosing a school location, prospective students need to choose between online vs. on-campus programs. Studying close to home can help students avoid out-of-state tuition costs, though some online programs offer in-state tuition rates to all online learners. Many online programs allow students to study from great distances, but on-campus or in-person requirements may create challenges.
Prospective nursing students should look at a school's regional and programmatic accreditation when choosing a program. Without the proper accreditation, students cannot obtain federal aid, certification, or state licensure. Regional accreditation depends on the school location. Programmatic accreditation should come from the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing.
Candidates must complete a significant amount of clinical experience to qualify for most types of APRN nursing certification and licensure. Most DNP programs feature a minimum of 500 supervised direct care clinical hours, plus various other practical sessions, such as lab simulations. Online students often complete these requirements at locations near to them.
Traditional or Integrated Capstone Projects
While the format varies by school, all DNP programs include capstone projects or something similar. Traditionally, students complete final projects that demonstrate their ability to translate their studies into practical application. Some schools build the capstone into an entire course, and some allow learners to satisfy the requirement on the job.
School Certification Exam Pass Rates
An effective way to measure a DNP program's effectiveness is by looking at the nursing school's certification exam pass rates. MSN graduates likely already completed the exam and will not need to retake it after completing their DNP degree. But these pass rates can still provide insight into how well a nursing school or program prepares graduates for success.
Low Attrition Rates
Attrition rates identify how many students complete the program after joining it. Schools and programs with lower attrition rates typically have more effective curricula, better support programs, and stronger retention processes. Prospective students can learn a lot about a program's quality based on these numbers.
Prospective learners should always evaluate a school's student support services to ensure they can get the type of help they want and need. Student support services may include tutoring, wellness services, and alumni network connections, along with internship programs and career services. Online learners in particular should verify that remote career services and academic support are available.
Best Accredited Online DNP Programs
Rankings compiled by the the BestColleges Ranking Team
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How We Ranked the Best Online DNP Programs
We are committed to helping students find the program that best fits their needs, and we know that looks different for every student. To help students start their search, we feature the top 10 nursing DNP programs by search demand. This short list introduces students to some of the most popular online DNP offerings in the country.
Frequently Asked Questions About Online DNP Programs
Are DNP programs worth it?
DNP programs can prepare graduates for some of the most in-demand and financially rewarding careers in healthcare. Not only can graduates pursue APRN positions, which the BLS projects will grow 45% between 2020 and 2030, but they also have access to leadership positions within those fields.
Can you get a DNP in two years?
Maybe. Many DNP programs offer two-year pathways for MSN degree-holders. In fact, some programs even offer accelerated, one-year pathways. However, learners may need to hold an MSN degree, possess a valid APRN licensure, and study full time to complete the DNP degree in this amount of time.
Do DNP graduates get paid more than NPs?
Completing a DNP degree can help qualify graduates for nurse practitioner (NP) certification and licensure. Depending on their program, DNP graduates can pursue other APRN careers as well, such as nurse midwife and nurse anesthetist positions. According to PayScale, as of September 2021, the average salary for an APRN was $96,690, while DNP-holders made about $105,000 annually.
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Brandy Gleason, MSN, MHA, BC-NC
As an assistant professor of nursing and entrepreneur with nearly 20 years of varied nursing experience, Brandy Gleason offers a unique perspective. She currently teaches in a prelicensure nursing program and coaches master's students through their culminating projects. Gleason brings additional expertise as a bedside nurse and nurse leader, having held past roles at the supervisory, managerial, and senior leadership levels. Her passion and area of research centers around coaching nurses and nursing students to build resilience and avoid burnout. Gleason is also an avid change agent when it comes to creating environments and systems that contribute to the wellbeing of students and healthcare professionals.
Brandy Gleason is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education freelance review network.
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BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.
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