Most Affordable Online Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) Programs
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A master of science in nursing (MSN) program can help registered nurses (RNs) advance in their careers. These programs typically take two years to finish. Some MSN programs have concentrations that can prepare RNs to work as advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs). Other programs can help learners pursue administrative roles such as nurse administrator or nurse educator.
According to a 2021 report from the National Center for Education Statistics, the average cost of in-state tuition at a four-year public college or university was $9,349 per year. The average cost of out-of-state tuition was around $27,023 per year. However, depending on your field of study, location, and other factors, costs can vary. For example, some schools may offer all online students in-state tuition rates.
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Registered nurses who become APRNs can earn very lucrative wages. For example, these professionals earned a median salary of $117,670 per year, as of May 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Additionally, the BLS projects 45% job growth for these professionals from 2020-30, which is much faster than average .
Most Affordable Online Master's in Nursing Programs
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What Can I Expect From an Online MSN Program?
A traditional MSN program usually requires around 36-42 credits and takes full-time students about two years to complete. Requirements typically include a bachelor of science degree in nursing (BSN) and at least one year of work experience as an RN.
MSN candidates should have strong communication and problem-solving skills, as well as compassion and empathy for the patients they treat. Critical thinking and good time-management skills also can be helpful.
Most schools offer multiple concentrations for their MSN programs. Some common concentrations include:
- Acute Care Nurse Practitioner
- Adult Gerontology Nurse Practitioner
- Clinical Nurse Specialist
- Family Nurse Practitioner
- Nurse Administrator
- Nurse Educator
- Nursing Informatics
- Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner
When considering an online master's degree in nursing, you may have to decide between taking synchronous and asynchronous courses. You should choose the delivery format that best matches with your learning style and schedule.
Distance learners should also look into a program's in-person requirements, such as labs, clinical hours, practicums, or internships.
Types of MSN Programs
Candidates must have either an associate degree in nursing (ADN) or be an RN to enroll. Students earn their BSN and then continue on through to complete their MSN. This type of program may or may not be accelerated.
This program is the traditional route to an MSN. Students earn their BSN degree first, then continue on to earn their master's degree in nursing. Many students work as RNs for a year or more in between their BSN and MSN programs.
Direct-Entry/Accelerated MSN Program
Direct-entry programs target students with a non-nursing bachelor's degree who want to become nurses. As with the RN-to-MSN program, students can earn a BSN on the way to earning their MSN. After completing undergraduate coursework, students usually need to pass the NCLEX-RN exam before beginning master's level coursework. In an accelerated direct-entry program, a student may be able to earn both their BSN and MSN in as little as 18 months.
Nursing Programs That Might Interest You
Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.
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How Much Does an Online MSN Cost?
The true cost of online MSN programs can vary widely. However, students at most schools can expect to pay between $300 and $1,200 per credit, although some programs may charge upwards of $2,000 per credit.
Many schools charge the same tuition for online and on-campus programs. However, some may include an additional technology fee for online programs, while other schools may charge online learners a reduced rate. Some programs may also charge in-state rates to out-of-state students attending online. If you are pursuing an online master's degree in nursing, you should compare programs and tuition rates. Students should also look out for other expenses, such as fees related to clinicals.
What Courses Will I Take in an Online Master's in Nursing Program?
Introduction to Advanced Nursing Roles
This course examines the evolution of APRN roles. It also explores current issues related to clinical practice and advanced practice registered nursing.
Organizational and Systems Leadership
This course goes over the role nurses take in the development of organizational and systems leadership.
Healthcare Systems, Policy, and Advocacy
During this course, students discuss different health policy issues. They also learn about the legislative process for creating healthcare policies.
This course teaches students about evidence-based practice and how it relates to the field of nursing.
Clinical Prevention and Population Health
Students in this course cover the foundations of population health, clinical practice and population health, clinical preventive services and health promotion, health systems, and health policy.
What Are the Admission Requirements for an MSN Program?
While graduate admission requirements vary from one school to another, the requirements for online and on-campus programs at the same institution are usually the same. For traditional MSN programs, you must have a BSN in order to be accepted. However, RN-to-MSN programs and direct-entry MSN programs have different requirements.
For RN-to-MSN programs, you must be a registered nurse and have an ADN. For direct-entry MSN programs, you'll need a bachelor's degree, but it doesn't need to be in nursing.
Some schools ask applicants to submit scores from the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) or Miller Analogies Test (MAT). Although requirements vary, a minimum score of 300 on the GRE or scoring in the 40th or higher percentile on the MAT are common requirements for schools that ask for these test results. Be sure to prepare for the GRE ahead of time if you plan to take it.
Letters of Recommendation
Many schools require 1-3 letters of recommendation. These can be from professional colleagues, faculty members, or work supervisors. Some schools may have additional requirements. For example, Vanderbilt School of Nursing requires that at least one letter of recommendation come from someone with a master's degree or higher.
You may need to submit your resume as part of the application process. Include your educational history as well as any work history that is relevant to the degree you are seeking.
Depending on the program, you may need 1-2 years of work experience as an RN before you can be admitted. Neonatal nurse practitioner programs, for example, typically require applicants to have at least two years of work experience. Work experience may also need to have been completed in a particular setting, such as in an ICU.
When reading your college admission essay, admissions officers are looking to see what makes you stand out from other applicants. This is your chance to show off your personality or highlight some special accomplishment. If the school provides a prompt for the essay, make sure to stick to the topic.
You'll probably need to send official transcripts for any college credits you've earned, whether you earned a degree from that school or not. Your transcripts allow the school to evaluate your grades and check whether you've completed all of the prerequisites for the program. Your new school also may evaluate the courses you've taken for transfer credit.
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What Can I Do With an Online Master's in Nursing Degree?
The demand for jobs requiring an MSN is expected to grow dramatically. For example, the BLS projects that the number of jobs available for nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, and nurse practitioners will increase by 45% (or 121,400 jobs) from 2020-30. That is much faster than the projected average growth rate for all U.S. occupations, which is 8% during that period.
Nurse practitioners are in demand partly due to a shortage of physicians. The aging baby boomer population is another factor.
Demand and compensation also vary depending on a professional's work setting. For example, nurses who work in hospitals and outpatient care centers tend to earn more than those who work in physicians' offices or for educational services.
See where a nurse practitioner master's degree can take you. Learn more about nursing careers.
Certified nurse practitioners assess and diagnose patients, order and interpret medical tests, and collaborate with other healthcare workers to care for patients. They can prescribe medications and provide primary-care services. They also can provide urgent care.
Median Annual Salary (as of May 2020): $111,680
Certified nurse anesthetists administer pain medication to patients before, during, and after surgery. They make sure patients remain asleep or free of pain during and after surgery. They monitor the patient's vitals during surgery to make sure the anesthesia isn't interfering with the patient's biological functions.
Median Annual Salary (as of May 2020): $183,580
Certified nurse midwives help women deliver babies. They also provide women's healthcare services. Nurse midwives conduct physical exams and diagnose medical conditions. They write prescriptions and counsel pregnant women.
Median Annual Salary (as of May 2020): $111,130
Nurse/Medical Administrator and Manager
Nurse administrators manage the nursing staff at a hospital or healthcare facility. They oversee the work of other nurses and make sure patients receive the care they need. They deal with the concerns of the staff and help solve personnel issues. They focus on human resources, finance, and staff protocols.
Median Annual Salary (as of May 2020): $104,280
Nurse educators typically teach nursing in colleges and universities. They may work in classroom and clinical environments, helping develop new nurses and delivering continuing education to current nurses. Nurse educators design curricula and evaluate their students' progress to make sure they are learning what is required.
Median Annual Salary (as of May 2020): $75,470
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Licenses and Certifications
Aspiring advanced practice registered nurses must be licensed as RNs first. Then they can pursue national and state certification in the appropriate specialty to practice. Nurse informatics, nurse educator, and nurse administrator positions may not require certification. However, certification could still give you an edge when applying for these positions.
To pursue a nursing master's degree, the first step is to get your RN license. If you previously earned a bachelor's degree in nursing, you're probably already an RN. However, if you aren't, you need to pass the NCLEX-RN exam to qualify for state RN licensure. Regardless of your specialty, you need to be an RN to qualify for any nursing job that requires an MSN.
Several organizations offer APRN certification. The American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) is the largest credentialing organization for nurses. ANCC offers 18 different certifications — from family nurse practitioner to medical-surgical nursing.
To become certified through ANCC, you must take a test and send your official transcripts to ANCC so they can verify your education. You must also pay a fee. Additionally, to sit for an ANCC exam, you must have graduated from an appropriately accredited nursing program.
Once you have been nationally certified through ANCC or another certifying organization, you can apply for state certification or licensure as an APRN.
There are two advanced nursing degrees at the doctoral level: a (DNP) and a Ph.D. in nursing. A DNP focuses more on clinical skills, while a Ph.D. focuses more on research and writing. DNP graduates often work as nurse leaders or nurse practitioners. Ph.D.-holders often work as postsecondary teachers.
How Do I Choose an Online MSN Program?
For most people, cost is one of the biggest factors to consider when choosing an online master's degree in nursing program. Typically, public colleges and universities cost less than private schools. And in-state tuition is often less than out-of-state tuition. However, some schools charge in-state tuition rates to all online students.
Another thing to consider is whether the program is synchronous or asynchronous. Asynchronous programs allow flexibility to fit into the student's schedule. Synchronous programs have set meeting times. You also must consider part-time or full-time program options. Choosing a part-time program may allow you to continue working while you earn your degree.
A school's location can affect the cost of tuition. Additionally, some online programs may require participants to complete occasional in-person requirements.
Accreditation gives students the peace of mind of knowing that a third party has evaluated and approved the program's curriculum. The most important accreditation at the institutional level is regional accreditation. Many schools will not approve transfer credits from a school that is not regionally accredited.
In addition to regional accreditation, nursing programs are approved by either the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing. To sit for licensure and certification exams, individuals must have graduated from an accredited program.
Make sure you know what the clinical requirements are when taking an MSN program online, especially if you live far from the school. Find out whether you can complete any clinical requirements locally before you enroll. Some online programs do not help students find clinical placements — depending on where they live and their speciality, it can be difficult to find appropriate clinical rotations.
Certification Exam Pass Rates
The National Council of State Boards of Nursing publishes pass rates for the NCLEX-PN and NCLEX-RN exams. You can download this report to find out how graduates from different schools fared. This will give you an idea of how well a program prepares its students for licensure exams. Even if you already have your RN license, high NCLEX-RN pass rates may indicate that a program effectively prepares students for their jobs.
Most schools offer the same support services to online students as they offer to in-person students. Check with each school you're considering to find out whether they offer career services, mentorship opportunities, advising, tutoring, or internships. Also ask whether there is an active alumni network.
How Do I Pay for an Online MSN?
Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)
Filling out the FAFSA is the first step to applying for many forms of financial aid. Information from the FAFSA is used to determine eligibility for government-issued scholarships, grants, and loans, as well as for many school-issued and private scholarships.
Students should exhaust all other sources of financial aid before taking out loans for nursing programs. Then, they should first consider federal student loans, including the federal Grad PLUS loan. Private student loans typically have higher interest rates and should be considered as a last resort.
Grants are a type of funding given to a person to achieve a specific goal. There are federal education grants, such as the Pell Grant, that finance education. Nurses who are willing to work in critical shortage facilities or at eligible nursing schools can apply to the Nurse Corp Loan Repayment Program. This grant helps nurses pay off their student loans.
Federal Work-Study is a government program that allows college students to work part time — usually on or near campus — while earning their degrees. Students receive direct payments and can use the money to pay for whatever they want, including food, books, and school supplies.
There are many nursing scholarships available, such as the Nurse Corps Scholarship Program. This program offers scholarships in exchange for a full-time service commitment. Eligibility requirements vary. Nursing scholarships do not need to be repaid.
Tuition Remission or Reimbursement
Some hospitals or other employers may provide tuition remission or tuition reimbursement for working nurses who want to return to school and earn a BSN or MSN. Typically, this aid is capped at $5,000-10,000 per calendar year. Individuals interested in this type of program typically need to sign a contract, agreeing to work for their employer for a certain amount of time after they graduate.
Frequently Asked Questions About MSN Programs
Can I get an MSN fully online?
Yes, there are fully online MSN programs. However, online programs may still have on-campus or in-person requirements. Always check with the school before you enroll to find out whether the program can be completed entirely online.
Is a person with an MSN a nurse practitioner?
A person with an MSN is not necessarily a nurse practitioner. However, nurse practitioner is one of the most common MSN specialties offered. In order to become a nurse practitioner, you must complete an MSN program with a nurse practitioner concentration. You then must take a test to become certified.
How long does it take to go from an RN to a nurse practitioner?
If you have a bachelor's degree in nursing, it usually takes about two years to go from an RN role to nurse practitioner. If you have an ADN, it could take about four years. If you are an RN but don't have an ADN, it may take longer. Taking full-time, part-time, or accelerated programs also can determine how long it will take.
Can you go straight from an RN to an MSN?
Yes, there are RN-to-MSN programs. You can start with an ADN and earn both your BSN and MSN as part of the same program. Depending on your background and experience, some schools offer accelerated RN-to-MSN programs that allow you to earn both degrees in as little as three semesters.
Do MSN graduates get paid more than BSN graduates?
Many BSN graduates work as registered nurses. Registered nurses earned a median annual salary of $75,330, as of May 2020, according to BLS. However, MSN graduates who become certified nurse practitioners can earn much more. For example, nurse practitioners made a median annual salary of $111,680.