Best Online Master’s in Nursing (MSN) Programs
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A master of science in nursing (MSN) is an advanced degree that can prepare graduates for multiple nursing career paths, including clinical research nurse, advanced practice nurse, and nur2se educator. Students with an associate or bachelor's degree in nursing may earn their MSN through traditional or bridge programs.
A traditional MSN program takes about two years of full-time study to complete, with some accelerated online options leading to a degree in one year. Tuition costs vary dramatically based on the program, specialization, and school and can range from roughly $13,500-$100,000.
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Earning an MSN may lead to advancement opportunities as well as increased earning potential. According to PayScale, as of September 2021, individuals with an associate degree in nursing (ADN) earned an average yearly salary of about $71,000. In contrast, those with a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) made $87,000, and MSN degree-holders boasted an average annual wage of about $97,000.
MSN Programs That Might Interest You
Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.
What Is an Online MSN Program?
An online MSN program prepares graduates for leadership roles in various specialized areas of nursing. Students can often pursue concentrations like clinical nursing, nursing administration, advanced practice nursing, and nursing education. An MSN also provides nursing professionals with the clinical knowledge required to meet the healthcare needs of their patients.
Why Get a Graduate Nursing Degree Online?
Pursuing an online master's degree in nursing can give students greater flexibility, enabling them to set their own schedules. This option may be particularly valuable for people with family or work responsibilities. Many students continue to work full time, limiting their lost wages while pursuing their master's. Some online programs also offer accelerated tracks, leading to reduced completion times.
Additionally, online students may reduce their educational costs. For example, some schools waive campus-based student service fees and out-of-state tuition fees for distance learners.
Best Accredited Online MSN Programs
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What Can I Expect From an Online MSN Program?
An online MSN program prepares graduates for managerial roles that require leadership skills. Students seeking an MSN should possess compassion and a strong desire to care for patients. In addition, ideal candidates need strong communication and critical thinking skills and feel comfortable working in high-pressure environments.
Most programs require about 35-50 credits and take two years of full-time study to complete. Students can often choose from several concentrations, including the following:
- Nurse Practitioner: Within this track, students can choose between specializations like adult-gerontology, family, pediatrics, and psychiatric mental health.
- Nurse Executive: This concentration prepares graduates for managerial and leadership roles in nursing, including jobs in human resource management and organization building.
- Nurse Educator: This program teaches the core skills required to instruct undergraduate nurses and implement staff development programs.
- Certified Nurse Midwife: This specialization focuses on pregnancy, delivery, and caring for the mother and child postpartum.
Most programs also require clinical practicum experience, which students may acquire at their current position or a location in their area. Some programs also require on-campus weekend intensives or hands-on lab exercises once or multiple times throughout the year. Keep in mind that schools may not help online learners find practicum sites; it may be difficult to find preceptors depending on a student's speciality and location.
Types of MSN Programs
These bridge programs enable licensed registered nurses (RNs) to earn a BSN and an MSN. Degree-seekers must hold an associate degree or diploma in nursing and 1-2 years of nursing experience. These programs typically require about 95-125 credits and may take 3-5 years to complete.
This traditional MSN program requires candidates to hold a BSN and an RN license. Depending on the specialization, most applicants must possess 1-3 years of clinical work experience. These programs require 35-50 credits and can be completed in two years, with accelerated online options leading to a degree in 12-18 months.
Direct-Entry MSN/Accelerated MSN Programs
This type of program enables students with a bachelor's degree in another field to pursue an MSN. Students without a science background typically take prerequisite courses in human anatomy, microbiology, and other health topics. To be formally admitted into the program, applicants must earn an RN license first. These programs require about 70-80 credits and take 2-3 years to complete.
What Courses Will I Take in an Online Master's in Nursing (MSN) Program?
This course delves into differential diagnosis for physical and mental illnesses throughout the lifespan in primary care settings. Students may learn through case studies, building on their previous clinical experiences.
Advanced Roles in Nursing
Students learn about the nurse's clinical scope of practice in different settings. Learners also explore the historical development of the nursing profession and the ethical and social aspects of advanced nursing.
Research in Advanced Nursing
In this course, students examine the role of research and critical thinking in the diagnosis and treatment of patients. Additional covered topics include research methodologies and reasoning skills.
Primary Care Management
Students expand on their background in human anatomy and physiology, developing an understanding of disease and clinical manifestation. Learners explore common acute and chronic disorders, data assessment, and treatment protocols.
This course focuses on alternative therapies used by patients in the United States. Covered complementary therapies may include chiropractic treatments, acupuncture, yoga, and massage. Additional topics include diet, exercise, and dietary supplements.
What Are the Admission Requirements for an Online Master's in Nursing (MSN) Program?
Admission requirements vary based on the type of online MSN program. For example, a traditional MSN program requires a BSN from an accredited program, while applicants must hold an ADN or diploma in nursing for bridge programs.
Prospective students also need an unencumbered RN license and 1-3 years of clinical work experience. Before enrollment, a clear background check is required, and students undergo a committee interview. During this interview, applicants should highlight their leadership skills, nursing experience, and honors or achievements that help them stand out.
The following requirements apply to most MSN programs.
Many schools require GRE scores, with some also accepting MAT scores. While admission requirements vary, minimum GRE test scores may include qualitative and verbal scores above the 50th percentile. International students may also be asked to submit their TOEFL or IELTS test results.
Letters of Recommendation
Most schools require at least two letters of recommendation. These professional references should come from previous professors, work supervisors, and/or professionals in the industry who can highlight an applicant's achievements and strengths.
Many online MSN programs require at least one year of clinical work experience. Varying specialties may also have unique requirements, such as experience in a family care clinic or neonatal unit. Some programs may require 2-3 years of work experience. A current resume summarizes this work history.
Essays or personal statements demonstrate an applicant's goals, long-term career plans, and educational aspirations. Students can also share why they want to attend a particular school and their relevant achievements.
Schools require official transcripts from all postsecondary institutions that applicants have attended. Many online MSN programs require a minimum 3.0 cumulative GPA, and some require specific prerequisite courses in statistics and nursing research. Some programs also accept transfer credits, which can reduce the completion time and costs.
Still Looking for the Right Fit? Discover Similar Programs.
What Can I Do With an Online Master's in Nursing (MSN) Degree?
Nurse practitioners and other advanced nursing professionals should see great demand in the coming years. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 45% job growth for nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, and nurse practitioners between 2020 and 2030, with continued expansion expected due to an aging U.S. population. These professionals earned a median annual salary of $117,670 as of May 2020, with the top 10% of earners making more than $190,900 per year.
MSN programs enable students to specialize in specific areas. A master's can also serve as a stepping stone to a doctorate in nursing. Graduates of these programs can pursue careers as clinical nurse specialists and certified registered nurse anesthetists. These highly specialized pathways may require three or more years of critical care experience before entering a program.
Many graduates work in clinical practice in hospitals and primary care facilities, although others work in government agencies promoting public health or at universities performing research. While state requirements vary, professionals in many positions must pass a national exam and earn state licensure.
See where an online MSN degree can take you. Learn more about nursing careers.
Allowable nurse practitioner (NP) duties vary by state. Many provide primary patient care, including assessments, diagnosis, and treatment. They may also request laboratory tests and prescribe certain medications. Most specialize in treating specific populations, such as geriatrics, pediatrics, and patients with mental health challenges. NPs need a license to practice. Depending on their speciality, they may also need certification from various boards, including the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners Certification Board.
Median Annual Salary: $111,680 (May 2020)
Nursing anesthetists prepare and administer anesthesia to patients undergoing surgery, diagnostic procedures, and other therapies. They may provide general anesthesia that requires monitoring vital signs or local anesthesia that numbs a specific body area. These professionals must earn the certified registered nurse anesthetist credential from the National Board of Certification for Nurse Anesthetists.
Median Annual Salary: $183,580 (May 2020)
Nurse midwives provide primary maternity care for women. This care may include gynecological exams, prenatal care, performing the delivery, and repairing lacerations. They may also make dietary and lifestyle suggestions that help both babies and mothers. These professionals can qualify to practice as certified nurse midwives by passing the American Midwifery Certification Board exam.
Median Annual Salary: $111,130 (May 2020)
Nurse administrators supervise the nursing staff at clinics, hospitals, and other healthcare facilities. Additional tasks may include managing patient care, overseeing operations, budgeting finances, and meeting regulatory requirements. Although a specific certification is not required, pursuing a voluntary credential can increase job opportunities and earnings. Common certifications include the nurse executive certification and certified nurse manager and leader.
Average Annual Salary: $99,000 (September 2021)
Nurse educators train and mentor nurses at varying experience levels. Specific tasks include preparing curricula, delivering lectures, and supervising student's clinical rotations. Some educators continue to work in clinical practice, teaching 1-2 days a week. Certification is not required but may be preferred by some employers. Professionals can earn certification through the National League of Nursing.
Average Annual Salary: $78,000 (September 2021)
Nursing Not for You? Check Out These Related Careers.
Licenses and Certifications
Online nursing programs prepare graduates to take board certification exams related to their specific field. Advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) must pass a national board certification exam administered by varying national accreditation organizations, depending on the specialization. APRNs include certified nurse midwives, certified registered nurse anesthetists, clinical nurse specialists, and nurse practitioners.
Organizations that offer board certification exams that apply to different specializations include the following:
- The Pediatric Nursing Certification Board certifies pediatric nurse practitioners.
- The American Midwifery Certification Board certifies nurse midwives.
- The National Board of Certification and Recertification for Nurse Anesthetists certifies registered nurse anesthetists.
- The American Academy of Nurse Practitioners Certification Board oversees several certification exams, including the family nurse practitioner certification exam for family NPs.
- The American Nurses Credentialing Center offers board certifications for several NPs, including those specializing in psychiatric mental health.
- The American Association of Critical-Care Nurses offers certification for critical and acute-care nurse practitioners.
Many boards require candidates to complete a certain number of clinical hours before sitting for the exam. For example, the acute-care nurse practitioner certification requires 1,000 clinical hours.
To practice in a specific state, APRNs must pursue state licensure, which is usually awarded through the state's board of nursing. Specific requirements vary by state.
After earning an MSN, some students pursue a doctor of nursing practice (DNP) or a Ph.D. in nursing. Both represent the highest level of education for the profession.
A DNP focuses on advanced clinical practice and is suited for advanced practice nurse practitioners. A Ph.D. prepares graduates for careers in research, education, and administration.
Many practicing nurses also need to complete regular continuing education units to maintain their licenses. Requirements vary depending on the state and speciality.
How Do I Choose an Online Master's in Nursing Program?
Tuition costs for online MSN programs range from from as little as $13,500 to more than $100,000. Public schools in the state where a student resides may offer the lowest tuition rates, while prestigious private schools tend to charge the highest tuition rates. Keep in mind that some online MSN programs do not charge non-resident tuition fees.
Online MSN programs may offer asynchronous, synchronous, and hybrid learning formats. Asynchronous learning offers the greatest flexibility by eliminating set class times. Synchronous learning usually requires scheduled weekly virtual class sessions. Hybrid formats require some on-campus participation every term or at the beginning of the program. Additionally, some programs offer part-time enrollment or accelerated tracks.
It may seem counterintuitive, but distance learners should also consider geographic location when choosing an online program. As mentioned, some online programs offer significantly reduced tuition rates for in-state students. Additionally, because nursing requirements vary by state, out-of-state learners should make sure that their degree will be recognized in the state where they intend to practice.
Nursing programs accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting body ensure the highest educational standards. Additionally, most colleges and universities only accept transfer credits from other accredited schools, and some employers only consider candidates who graduated from an accredited institution and program. To sit for certification exams, nursing students must also hold an accredited degree. Two premier accrediting agencies for nursing programs are the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education and the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing.
All programs require participants to complete at least 500 clinical hours, although some may require more. Schools may help online students find these opportunities within their state or with their current employer. Students should check on their school's requirements, as some only support clinical experience in certain states.
School Certification Exam Pass Rates
Many programs list their graduates' first-time exam pass rates for certification. This passing percentage is an indicator of a nursing program's quality and signals how well it prepares students for board certification.
Make sure to research the student support services schools offer online students. Top considerations may include academic advising and career counseling services. Online networking programs can also provide students the chance to connect with peers, mentors, and alumni, providing a sense of community and helping learners establish important professional connections.
Frequently Asked Questions About Online Master's in Nursing Programs
Is an online MSN degree worth it?
An online master's degree in nursing allows students to focus their education on their career goals, leading to advanced nursing positions and increased earning potential. Graduates can pursue various careers, including nurse practitioner, nurse midwife, and clinical nurse specialist.
How long is an online MSN program?
Earning an online MSN degree in nursing can take 1-5 years. Completion times vary widely because of the breadth of MSN programs and specializations.
How much does an online MSN program cost?
Tuition costs for an online master's degree in nursing range from roughly $13,500-$100,000. Students may find that public schools in their state offer the lowest tuition rates, while private universities tend to charge the highest rates.
Are nurses in high demand?
Nurses are in high demand. The BLS projects 45% job growth for nurse practitioners and other nursing specialists between 2020 and 2030, which is much faster than the average projected growth rate for all occupations (8%).
How much money can I make with an MSN?
Salaries vary based on position, employer, location, and experience. However, many nursing professionals with a master's degree earn six-figure salaries. For example, nurse practitioners earned a median annual salary of $111,680 in May 2020. In California, these practitioners earned an average annual wage of $145,970.
What are the highest-paying jobs I can get with a master's in nursing?
One of the highest-paying careers for those with an online master's degree in nursing is nurse anesthetist. According to the BLS, these professionals took home a median annual salary of $183,580 (as of May 2020).
Find the Tools You Need to Get Started on Your Degree
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 well-being of students and healthcare professionals.
Brandy Gleason is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education freelance review network.
Elizabeth M. Clarke, MSN, FNP, RN, MSSW
Elizabeth Clarke (Poon) is a board-certified family nurse practitioner. A Boston native, Clarke tired of the cold and snowy winters and moved to Coral Gables, Florida, to complete her undergraduate degree in nursing at the University of Miami (UM). After working for several years in the cardiac and ER units at the UHealth and Jackson Memorial Medical Systems, Clarke returned to UM to complete her master of science in nursing (MSN). Since completing her MSN degree, Clarke has worked providing primary and urgent care to pediatric populations.
Elizabeth Clarke is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education freelance review network.