ONLINE MASTER’S PROGRAMS IN NURSING

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If you’re looking to expand your nursing career beyond the traditional care of patients into hospital administration or leadership, you might be considering an online master’s degree in nursing. Find out what courses and specializations are typically offered in this advanced degree and what career opportunities it can open up. Plus, discover which colleges and universities offer the best online programs.

Best Online Master’s in Nursing

Rank School Location
1 Independence University Salt Lake City, UT
2 The University of Alabama Tuscaloosa, AL
3 South Dakota State University Brookings, SD
4 University of Central Florida Orlando, FL
5 Liberty University Lynchburg, VA
6 University of Mary Bismarck, ND
7 Towson University Towson, MD
8 California State University-Chico Chico, CA
9 Midwestern State University Wichita Falls, TX
10 University of Central Missouri Warrensburg, MO
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Best Online Master’s in Nursing


  • METHODOLOGY

    Best Online Master’s in Nursing

    Deciding which college to go to is no easy task, so ACO evaluated more than 3,500 colleges to give you the information you need to make the search more manageable. Our 2018 college rankings are based on statistical data from trusted sources, eligibility criteria and various ranking factorsData Sources:

    Eligibility Criteria:

    • Each college must be accredited
    • Each college must be a not-for-profit institution
    • Each college must be located in a state (US territories and Washington DC were excluded)
    • Each college must have at least one online program 1
    • Each college must have a maximum four-year tuition of $25,000 or a maximum two-year tuition of $5,000

    Ranking Factors:

    • Affordability
    • Quality
    • Flexibility
    • Program

    Several individual data points were objectively evaluated to calculate a score for each ranking factor listed above. For affordability, the most impactful data points were tuition2 and grants; for quality, graduation and acceptance rates; for flexibility, part-time enrollment options; and for program, degrees granted in that specific program area. Each score was then weighted, with affordability being the most highly weighted factor for all ACO rankings.

    1 Best Vocational Programs included data for both online and campus programs.

    2 Both in-state and out-of-state tuition rates were used in our methodology; however, our rankings tool currently only displays in-state rates.Notes:

    • A dash in our Rankings Tool indicates IPEDS data was not available.
    • Tuition displayed in in-state and per year unless stated otherwise.


In developing these rankings for the best online master’s in nursing programs, we gathered data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), the U.S. Department of Education and published materials from the universities highlighted on the list. All schools on this list are fully accredited.

  1. Independence University
    Location

    Salt Lake City, UT

    Tuition

    $$$$$

    Independence University, a private nonprofit online institution, offers 2 Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degrees that can be earned with online coursework. Students in the MSN in Nursing Education program learn about nursing theory and current trends, teaching techniques and methods, to become educators in a range of health care settings. The MSN in Nursing Administration degree program prepares graduates for entry-level leadership, management and administrative positions throughout the health care industry. Both degree programs require 56 credit hours of coursework and are designed to be completed in 15 months. All coursework is provided online. However, students must participate in a practicum experience typically completed at an approved facility in the student's local community. To be admitted into either Independence University MSN program, an applicant must possess a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree from a CCNE- or NLN-accredited program earned with a cumulative GPA of 3.0 or better. Other requirements include a current unrestricted RN license from the state in which the student's practicum assignments will be completed, and a minimum of 1 year of nursing practice within the last 5 years. IU distance learners have access to a number of support resources, including academic assistance through the Student Success Center and career counseling services through IU's Career Services department. Additionally, all IU students are assigned an associate dean who acts as their personal learning coach.

  2. The University of Alabama
    Location

    Tuscaloosa, AL

    Tuition

    $$$$$

    The University of Alabama's fully online Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree is designed for current RNs interested in pursuing a nursing specialization while seeking to advance their careers in the healthcare field. The program offers 3 concentrations. The Clinical Nurse Leader concentration (39 credit hours of coursework) prepares nurses as decision makers in coordinating care of distinct patient groups. The Case Manager concentration (39 credit hours of coursework) is for nurses interested in the care of patients in a specific age group or those diagnosed with a particular disease. Graduates with a Nurse Administrator concentration (32 credit hours of coursework) focus on health care policy and organizational operations issues while serving in executive-level positions. All 3 programs culminate in a practicum experience, and each program offers a thesis option. Admission into UA's MSN program requires a bachelor's degree in nursing earned with a minimum 3.0 overall GPA and current unencumbered RN license. Support services for distance students include career and academic counseling, writing assistance and technical support.

  3. South Dakota State University
    Location

    Brookings, SD

    Tuition

    $$$$$

    South Dakota State University's online Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) program is offered fully online, with 3 specializations: Clinical Nurse Leader, which prepares nurses for leadership positions throughout the health care field and qualifies them to apply for AACN Clinical Nurse Leader certification; Nurse Educator, which prepares graduates to create and evaluate nursing education programs and provides eligibility for the NLN's Certification for Nurse Educators; and Nurse Administrator, which prepares nurses for advanced practice in nursing leadership, education, clinical practice and administration. SDSU additionally offers a Family Nurse Practitioner specialization in a hybrid format for students seeking the knowledge and skills for advanced practice care of patients in all stages of life, with a particular emphasis on rural health care. Credit hour requirements and program lengths vary depending on the chosen specialization. Admission requirements include a bachelor degree in nursing earned with minimum 3.0 GPA and current RN licensure. Students must also have completed 1500 hours of RN practice prior to enrollment in the first clinical nursing course. SDSU student support resources include career and personal counseling, disability and veteran's services and tech support. Academic advising is available through Nursing Student Services.

  4. University of Central Florida
    Location

    Orlando, FL

    Tuition

    $$$$$

    The purpose of the University of Central Florida's online Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree prepares RNs for leadership positions as nurse educators, advanced practice nurses and managers in all sectors of the health care field. The degree is offered with 3 specialization tracks: Nurse Educator (35 credit hours), which prepares graduates for teaching on college and university campuses and in private settings; Leadership and Management (36 credit hours), designed to prepare nurses to take leadership positions throughout the health care industry, and; Nursing and Health Care Simulation (31 credit hours), for nurses seeking to become simulation-based educators in university and private settings. Each of these MSN tracks can be completed with online coursework, although not all elective options or program prerequisites may be available online. Students are also required to complete a 60 clinical hour practicum, which is typically completed with an approved preceptor in the student's local area. An additional 180 clinical hour internship is required for Nursing and Health Care Simulation students. Admission into UCF's online MSN program requires a BSN from an accredited institution and a current RN license. Applicants with an RN license and non-nursing bachelor's degree may also be admitted, but must complete 3 prerequisite courses with a "B" or better prior to starting their graduate coursework. An extensive array of support resources for online students can be accessed through UCF's Online Student Connect Center.

  5. Liberty University
    Location

    Lynchburg, VA

    Tuition

    $$$$$

    Liberty University, a private, Christian-affiliated institution, offers a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree with 5 specialization options: Nursing Administration, Nurse Educator, Nursing Informatics, MSN/MBA dual degree and MSN/MSHA dual degree. All specializations feature coursework that is completed 100% online in an accelerated 8-week course format. However, the Nursing Administration and Nurse Educator specializations require 200 clinical hours, typically completed as part of the student's current employment. Regular MSN tracks require 42 units of coursework, which may be completed in as little as 12 months. The 2 dual-degree programs each require completion of 60 units of coursework. Up to 50% of the required course credits may be transferred into LU's MSN degree program. Distance learners can access an array of online support services and resources through LU's Online Student Life program. Resources include counseling services, support groups, IT assistance and even prayer requests. Admission requirements into any of the 5 MSN degree programs include a BSN degree from a properly-accredited college, university or nursing school and a current and active RN license within the U.S. Applicants with a non-nursing bachelor's degree may also be admitted but must complete 5 specified bridge courses during their first year of degree study.

  6. University of Mary
    Location

    Bismarck, ND

    Tuition

    $$$$$

    The private, Catholic-affiliated University of Mary has been in the business of training nurses since its establishment in 1959. Today, UM offers 5 Master's of Science in Nursing (MSN) programs, each featuring fully online coursework. MSN options include both an ADN to MSN and BSN to MSN in Nursing Leadership and Management, a BSN to MSN Nurse Educator, an MSN in Nursing and Health Care Informatics and a dual degree MSN-MBA in Health Care Administration. While all coursework is delivered online, students are required to complete 500 hours of practical leadership experience (with the exception of the Nursing and Healthcare Informatics, which requires 360 clinical hours), normally at the student's current place of employment. Total credits needed for graduation and program completion times vary by specific program. Admission requirements for all 5 MSN programs include a BSN degree (with the exception of the ADN to MSN, which requires a nursing associate degree or diploma) earned with an overall GPA of 2.75 or better and a current unencumbered RN license. UM online students have access to a wide range of support resources, including personal counseling through the Counseling Services program and academic assistance through the Student Support Center.

  7. Towson University
    Location

    Towson, MD

    Tuition

    $$$$$

    The Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree offered by Maryland's public Towson University employs a "population-based" approach that teaches nurses the knowledge and skills needed to help patients navigate the complexities of today's health care system. The program is available with 2 concentrations: Nursing Education, which prepares graduates for teaching at nursing schools and for education and staff development positions at health care agencies; and Clinician-Administrator Transition, which prepares graduates for leadership positions throughout the health care field. TU's online MSN program is open to holders of a bachelor's degree in nursing (with a minimum 3.0 GPA) who are licensed or eligible for licensing as an RN in the State of Maryland. Students must complete 36 units of coursework. The program is offered in a hybrid format that alternates weekly online coursework and weekday evening on-site classroom instruction. Student support resources include career and academic counseling, childcare services from the University Child Care Center, financial aid assistance and much more.

  8. California State University-Chico
    Location

    Chico, CA

    Tuition

    $$$$$

    California State University Chico's online Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree is designed to meet the needs of rural area nurses. The program prepares its graduates to be educators and leaders in health advisory positions at state agencies and private nursing facilities, as well as on nursing education faculties. The degree is offered with 2 concentration options: Nurse Educator and Nursing Leadership. Both options require completion of 30 units of coursework and feature theoretical course content that is presented entirely online. However, both concentrations include a 4-unit practicum requirement that must be completed in person working closely with an approved experienced nurse mentor (nurse educator or nurse leader) typically residing in the student's local community. The practicum requires 180 hours of student time with the nurse mentor. Admission requirements for CSUC's online MSN program include an bachelor's degree in nursing, 3.0 minimum GPA on the last 60 units of undergraduate nursing coursework, and a minimum GRE writing analytics score of 4.0. Support services for online students are available from the Office of Graduate Studies, Student Computing Services and the Advising and Financial Aid Offices, all of which can be accessed through the CSU Chico Home Page. IT assistance is available through IT Support Services.

  9. Midwestern State University
    Location

    Wichita Falls, TX

    Tuition

    $$$$$

    Midwestern State University offers online graduate nursing programs through its Wilson School of Nursing. Degree seekers can pursue a Master of Science in Nursing in 1 of 3 majors: Family Nurse Practitioner, Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner or Nurse Educator. Students at Midwestern State learn advanced nursing practices in patient care, as well as academic research skills. Applicants should have a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree from a nationally accredited program and a current RN license to practice in Texas and the student's state of residence. Competitive applicants have an undergraduate GPA of 3.0 or higher. Prospective students must also submit their official transcripts and answers to the supplied essay questions. Students who pass the first round of the admissions process will participate in a personal interview with the graduate program coordinator. This is a competitive program and incoming learners are expected to have documented work experience in the field. Online students at Midwestern State have access to counseling services, student leadership and involvement opportunities, financial aid support, tutoring and career planning services.

  10. University of Central Missouri
    Location

    Warrensburg, MO

    Tuition

    $$$$$

    Online students can pursue a Master of Science in Nursing degree entirely online at the University of Central Missouri. Degree seekers in this program develop advanced nursing and healthcare practices and learn to conduct original academic research. Students choose between 2 emphasis areas: Nurse Educator and Family Nurse Practitioner. Core courses include Methods of Research in Nursing, Organizational Leadership in Complex Health Systems and Health Care Policy and Advocacy. Students in both tracks must complete a final capstone clinical experience for graduation. Those pursuing the Family Nurse Practitioner track complete a series of practicum experiences to be eligible for graduation. Incoming students must have a bachelor's degree in nursing from a program accredited by the National League for Nursing or the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education. Competitive applicants have an undergraduate GPA of 3.25 or higher and at least 1 year of work experience in the field as registered nurses. UCM subscribes to a rolling admission policy and reviews applications throughout the year. Students must earn a "C" or higher in each class to remain in good standing. Student services available at UCM consist of career services, academic advising, tech support and the Center for Multiculturalism and Inclusivity.

What Can I learn in an Online Master’s in Nursing Program?

Advanced coursework in nursing covers varied topics including healthcare resource management, pharmacology, acute and chronic illnesses and medical ethics. Programs that emphasize administration or leadership may also include courses in business and management. Students enrolled in a master’s in nursing program can expect to obtain the following skills:

  • The best practices for leadership in healthcare settings
  • The latest federal and state rules and regulations guiding nursing and healthcare
  • Operational skills for the planning and management of nursing departments in a hospital or clinical setting
  • Best practices for keeping patient information safe and storing patient data securely

What common courses are offered in a master’s in nursing program?

Below is a list of common courses found in online nursing master’s programs. While courses vary by institution, most schools cover similar or overlapping topics.

Theoretical Foundations and Instructional Strategies in Teaching and Learning

Covers best practices and topics for teaching nursing as a profession. This course examines pedagogies, adult learning theories, learning styles, learning environments and the evaluation and testing methods in nursing education.

Nursing Leadership in Healthcare Organizations

An examination of effective leadership skills in a healthcare setting, managing staff and developing talent. Business and leadership models are examined from various viewpoints, with special focus on improving leadership in healthcare organizations.

Healthcare Operational Planning and Management

Covers the need for strategic goals in a healthcare setting, how to optimize resources and staff and effective management for achieving goals. Explores the ways in which healthcare delivery is evolving, with greater emphasis on patient value and less on volume, while evaluating ways medical facilities are working to meet these challenges.

Population Health, Epidemiology & Statistical Principles

A math-intensive course on studying health patterns across populations, including the statistical prevalence of illness and disease. Professionals planning a career in research or clinical practice in infectious diseases learn how to manage and evaluate large volumes of data to understand health trends and recognize patterns.

Information Workflow in Healthcare

An overview of systems for data storage and retrieval of healthcare information, including patient records and treatment. The course examines how workflow is an important part of designing usable information systems. Students learn that, in healthcare, poorly designed or ineffective workflow systems can create problems both for the medical facility and the patients it treats.

What exams or projects should I expect?

Coursework for the master’s degree in nursing usually includes a final exam for each class, as well as periodic testing. Lab work may be an additional part of courses covering clinical subjects such as blood testing and tissue sampling.

To graduate, students may have the option of completing either a master’s thesis or a capstone project. The master’s thesis is an independent research project that includes designing a study of some aspect of the nursing field and performing all aspects of the research process. The thesis examines a theory or knowledge gap, and delivers results in original, clearly defined new knowledge. A capstone project is a scholarly process that addresses a clinical problem in nursing practice. The project gathers and examines evidence and applies it to a clinical situation. The final product of the capstone project demonstrates mastery of work accomplished throughout the program and must be presented as a manuscript of publishable quality.

What specializations are available in a master’s in nursing program?

Here is a sampling of specialties open to the graduate with a master’s degree in nursing.

Nurse Anesthetist

Assists the anesthesiologist during surgery and surgery preparation. Requires a master’s degree in nurse anesthesia as well as experience in a hospital setting. The nurse anesthetist attends to the patient before, during and after surgery in a hospital setting or dental practice.

Critical Care

Nurses with this specialization often hold a leadership role in emergency facilities and oversight of intensive care units. Professionals in this specialization care for patients who have experienced invasive surgery, life-threatening accidents, trauma and organ failure.

Family Practitioner

May work in the community as part of a public healthcare organization, helping families with children lead healthy lives. Nurses in this profession may serve as the face of a public healthcare organization by managing a community health facility, soliciting state and local governments for budget funding and ensuring patient care meets accepted standards.

Pain Management

Focuses on the care and comfort of patients facing prolonged recovery from injury or illness. Emphasis on pharmaceutical knowledge. These nurses specialize in the care of patients with chronic or debilitating pain. They are experts on pain management interventions and techniques, whether through prescription narcotics, chiropractic medicine, nerve stimulation and exercise or diet consultation.

What Can I do with a Master’s in Nursing Degree?

A master’s degree in nursing prepares graduates for leadership and administrative roles in a healthcare setting. Here are a few possibilities:

Nurse Administrator

Supervise and manage nursing staff in a healthcare clinic or hospital. Nurse administrators plan staffing needs for various operating shifts, develop talent on their team and consult regularly with physicians on the operating performance of the nursing unit.

Research Nurse

Work for pharmaceutical companies in the evaluation and testing of new drugs, assist physicians at teaching hospitals and universities with their research or work for government agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control. This career path requires a strong foundation in statistical analysis.

Nurse Consultant

A nurse consultant works with medical facilities to improve efficiency, streamline operations and enhance healthcare as delivered by the nursing staff. Identify inefficiencies and areas for improvement. Nurse consultants are independent contractors who set their own hours and fees.

Joining professional nursing organizations is a good way to stay current in the field while enjoying networking opportunities with others. Membership is a great way to learn about new trends in place at other medical centers and find out about career opportunities. There are dozens of professional nursing groups. Here is a sampling:

National Academy of Dermatology Nurse Practitioners

Supports and develops dermatology nurse practitioners, while assisting all NPs with leadership and guidance in the field of dermatology.

National Association Directors of Nursing Administration/Long Term Care

The mission of NADONA is to be the leading professional organization for current and aspiring nursing leaders thru professional development, board certification, and clinical expertise related to the promotion of health and wellness of individuals in long-term care and post-acute care.

National Association of Bariatric Nurses

The association’s mission is to advance the health and quality of life of individuals and families experiencing obesity, and to promote best practices of holistic nursing care for bariatric patients.

National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists

The mission of the NACNS is to advance the unique expertise and value the clinical nurse specialist contributes to health care.

National Association of Licensed Practical Nurses

The NALPN’s mission is to foster high standards of nursing care and promote continued competence through education/certification and lifelong learning, with a focus on public protection.

How Much Can I Make with a Career in Nursing?

There are a variety of careers available in the field of nursing, especially for those with a master’s degree. Here is a small selection of potential careers to pursue, but students should keep in mind that additional certification, licensure and experience may be necessary in addition to a master’s degree.

CAREERLOWEST 10% EARNED ANNUALLYMEDIAN ANNUAL SALARYHIGHEST 10% EARNED ANNUALLYJOB GROWTH 2016-2026
Nurse AdministratorLess than $60,000$98,350More than $120,000+20%
Advanced Nurse PractitionerLess than $74,000$110,930More than $120,000+31%
Clinical Nurse SpecialistLess than $64,000$70,000More than $110,000+15%
Research NurseLess than $52,000$70,000More than $89,000+15%
Nurse Instructor, Post-secondaryLess than $45,000$71,260More than $81,000+15%
Nurse ConsultantLess than $54,000$70,000More than $120,000+15%

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018

According to data from Nurse Journal, the average salary of a graduate with a bachelor’s degree in nursing ranges from $42,343 and $81,768. With a master’s degree in nursing, the earnings potential increases to $62,281 and up to $195,743 over the course of the graduate’s career.

Additionally, there are many job opportunities open to nurses with a master’s degree that go beyond typical bedside nursing. These alternative career paths allow nurses to work within the healthcare field but often in unexpected or highly advanced ways. A nurse with a master’s degree has an increased potential for career advancement over a nurse without a master’s degree.

Accreditation for Online Master’s in Nursing Programs

When evaluating a program, look for schools that are accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) or by the National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission (NLNAC). These are the two accreditation organizations that certify a program meets the requirements for a master’s degree in nursing. Between them, the commissions certify curricula for the Master of science in nursing, master of nursing, master of science degree with a focus in nursing and the master of arts degree with a focus in nursing.

Accreditation provides the assurance that a master’s degree in nursing program does, in fact, deliver the necessary skills and knowledge accepted in the field. The value of a master’s degree also depends on the respect employers have for schools. The graduate of an unaccredited nursing program is not going to be viewed as favorably by prospective employers as the graduate from an accredited and widely respected program. Look for accreditation status on the website of any considered program or school. If none is listed, contact the program and ask.

How to Pay for a Master’s in Nursing Degree

Although online programs tend to be less expensive than their brick and mortar counterparts. Here are some options for funding a master’s degree in nursing:

Scholarships

Nursing scholarships for graduate students are highly competitive and tend to be school specific, so one approach is to look at available scholarships within the program you select. Look for scholarships for nursing graduate degrees from the American Association of Nurse Practitioners and Nurse Education Funds.

Grants

Competition for grant dollars is no less fierce than for scholarships. Amounts vary by organization, but typically range from $1,000 to $10,000. Look for top grants awarded by Walden University and Nursing@Simmons.

Student Loans

A variety of financial packages are available for nursing students seeking to borrow for tuition costs while pursuing graduate studies in nursing. As a first step, fill out a federal FAFSA form to determine eligibility.

US Public Health Services Corps

The USHSC will pay for some or even all of your tuition in exchange for of 2 to 4 years of employment in a rural area that is medically understaffed.

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