Nurse practitioners have experienced a surge in demand in recent years. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that job outlook should increase by 31% through 2026, which is significantly faster than other occupations. This is partially due to cost efficiency for both students and employers. Professionals who earn an online nurse practitioner degree gain nearly the same skills as a family practitioner for a fraction of the tuition cost and time commitment. Nurse practitioners also have access to high-paying jobs that cost employers less money than family practitioners, making nurse practitioners a more appealing choice.
This guide to online nurse practitioner programs includes detailed descriptions of potential coursework, specializations, career paths, financial aid resources, and links to professional organizations.
What are the Best Online Nurse Practitioner Master’s Programs?
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 factors
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
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.
A dash in our Rankings Tool indicates IPEDS data was not available.
Tuition displayed in in-state and per year unless stated otherwise.
Identifying programs that offer pertinent coursework and skill development opportunities remains a challenge for students. The list below includes some of the best online nurse practitioner programs that have been vetted through the the U.S. Department of Education and the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. Factors considered for these rankings include admission policies; graduation and retention rates; tuition costs; and financial and educational resources for distance learners. The ranking process also includes university publications and materials. All universities listed below are accredited.
What Can I Learn in an Online Nurse Practitioner Master’s Program?
Online nurse practitioner programs remain ideal for working students who already have their bachelor’s degree. Nurse practitioner courses emphasize communication, interpersonal, and critical-thinking skills that can be used to diagnose and treat patients. Students can also pursue specializations to develop niche skills to serve specific populations. Additionally, nurse practitioner programs foster leadership skills that can lead to higher earning potential.
Online nurse practitioner program lengths vary. Students with a nursing-related master’s degree could complete programs in as little as five months. Students with a bachelor’s can earn their degree in 1-3 years. Specialty tracks and program structure affect time commitments. Programs for students with a bachelor’s degree typically require 45-55 credits and can be completed in 2-4 years depending on enrollment status. Online programs offer more flexibility and accelerated options that can shorten program lengths.
What Common Courses are Offered in a Nurse Practitioner Master’s Program?
Online nurse practitioner programs address foundational knowledge and theories despite their curriculum standards. However, programs differ because universities develop their own program structure. For instance, highly developed programs offer several electives or require additional courses than programs lacking resources. See below for sample courses:
This course covers basic principles of pharmacology, including drug distribution, pharmacokinetics, receptor mechanisms, and metabolism. Students learn how to apply pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamic principles to drug administration. They also learn how to identify major drug classes.
Advanced Assessment and Diagnostic
This course emphasizes comprehensive psychosocial, physical, and cultural assessment data across the lifespan for nursing care, including specialty areas. Students practice using a diagnostic reasoning process to establish patient-centered care plans. This course includes technology and system information. Students learn how to accurately communicate and document patient data.
Pathophysiology examines the manifestations of disease, principles of pathology behind illness or injury, disease risk factors, and therapeutic nursing interventions. This course devotes attention to health and illness factors. Students learn how to describe current public health issues. They also study the influence of basic pathological conditions and suggest treatment based on clinical case studies.
Students cover material outlined by the Department of Health Policy and Management. Economics; financing; need and demand; ethics; law; and effectiveness stand out as substantive areas. Students explore major issues such as medical care, injury, and the extent of preparation in healthcare.
Clinical practicums prepare students for licensure. This course ensures students can integrate evidence and clinical judgment when designing and evaluating care outcomes. Students must also display exemplary collaborative and communication skills with care team members. Students should be able to resolve practice discrepancies by using inter- and intra-professional mechanisms.
What Exams or Projects Should I Expect?
While programs differ, almost all online nurse practitioner programs require students to complete a clinical practicum to satisfy state licensure requirements. In fact, clinical placement is an essential element of a nurse practitioner’s education. This field experience allows students to apply all the concepts and care principles learned throughout their program. Clinical practicums also remain influential networking opportunities that can lead to permanent positions.
While on-campus students may receive placement, online students often must secure their own practicum placement. Students must proactively consider what locations could provide the most benefits and allow them to build relationships.
What Specializations are Available in an Online Nurse Practitioner Program?
Online nurse practitioner programs usually offer specialization tracks, which help students develop skills associated with a niche area. Specializations and course offerings vary depending on the university’s curriculum and resources. Keep reading for potential specialization options for nurse practitioner students:
These nurse practitioners spearhead care plans for patients who remain critically ill, physiologically unstable, highly vulnerable to complications, technologically dependent, or face complex illnesses. Practitioners work in multiple settings, including the patient’s home. This specialization requires innovative approaches, critical thinking, and the ability to make timely decisions despite the illness’ complexity.
Students with an affinity for elderly patients can specialize in gerontology to become a certified gerontological nurse practitioner. This specialization prepares students to handle challenges associated with aging, which include diagnosing illnesses, prescribing medication, and conducting exams. This specialization focuses on preventative care.
Nurse practitioners can specialize in anesthesiology, allowing them to become certified registered nurse anesthetists. This remains a high-paying speciality due to the skill level required for this role. Students interested in this speciality must pass an additional licensure exam through the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists.
What Can I Do With a Nurse Practitioner Master’s Degree?
Nurse practitioners possess skills that remain valuable to virtually every specialty field. An online nurse practitioner program offers many possible career paths for graduates, including pediatric, neonatal, midwifery, family, oncology, geriatric, psychiatric, clinical, and pain nurse practitioning. Graduates who are not interested in applied practice might also consider research and educator positions. Read below for five common positions.
While this remains a rapidly growing field, graduates may not qualify for all nurse practitioner programs with only a degree and license. Some roles require professional work experience and additional certifications.
Gerontology nurse practitioners focus on providing specialized care to older patients. Practitioners must demonstrate expertise on the later stages of lifespan management and evaluation. These practitioners should possess excellent communication skills as they often work with the patient’s family to ensure quality care continues at home. Practitioners typically collaborate with other specialists to address all of the patent’s needs. This role requires an advanced degree, specialization coursework, and experience with an older population.
Midwife nurse practitioners, also known as women’s health nurse practitioners, manage gynecological and obstetrical needs of their patients during fertile years. These professionals also manage prenatal, childbirth, postnatal care, and the care of the patient’s newborn. Other responsibilities include addressing diseases that disproportionately affect women. These practitioners mostly work in physician offices and hospitals. Some professionals arrange to be present for home births at the patient’s request.
Nurse anesthetists work alongside physicians to administer anesthesia before surgery. These practitioners monitor the patient during and after the surgery until the patient has fully recovered from the anesthesia. This role relies upon critical-thinking, pragmatism, and thorough knowledge of protocols. Individuals must possess an advanced degree to qualify for the National Board Certification and Recertification for Nurse Anesthetists.
Nurse practitioners who become professors focus on educating the next generation of nurses and nurse practitioners. While on-campus teaching remains an option, practitioners can also teach online. Professors teaching clinical courses may be required to visit students at their placements for evaluations. Due to shortages, nurse practitioning educators remain in high demand. Some states offer professors 100% tuition reimbursement if they agree to teach.
These professionals work with families, which requires understanding needs associated with a large portion of the human lifespan. These primary care providers perform routine check-ups, diagnose illnesses, prescribe medication, conduct exams, and focus on preventative care. Many professionals opt to operate a private practice. An advanced nurse practitioner program is mandatory for this career path.
While discussion boards and professor feedback certainly allows nurse practitioner students to develop meaningful relationships, professional organizations remain helpful because they offer access to networks of experienced professionals through forums, webinars, and conferences. Additionally, joining professional organizations also often leads to mentorship, scholarships, and continuing education.
This organization strives to empower nurse practitioners to continue developing and advancing quality healthcare. Members gain access to online resources such as journals and forums. Continuing education credits also exist to stay current on licensure.
The American Nurses Association sets standards of nursing practice and improves ethical practice. Members gain access to online journals, insurance, continuing education courses, free webinars, and career advice.
As the largest nursing specialty organization, members become part of a vast network that shares the same values, experiences the same challenges, and actively works to uncover solutions. Members also gain access to free continuing education courses and clinical toolkits.
This organization exists to further research and improve care for older patients. By joining this network, members gain access to more than 3,700 practitioners. Members enjoy access to insurance, journals, newsletters, and chapter events.
NPWH specializes in research and practice related to women’s health. This national organization provides members with ample networking opportunities, professional development workshops, and a digital database.
How Much Can I Make in a Nurse Practitioner Career?
An online nurse practitioner program prepares graduates for career opportunities in multiple industries. However, students should note that a general nurse practitioner program may not qualify graduates for all nurse practitioning roles and that the degree itself does not guarantee a specific salary. However, the BLS indicates that many opportunities for job placement and advancement exist in this field. The table below provides general expectations and projected growth.
BLS data projects that the overall demand for nurse practitioners will increase at a rapid pace through 2026. This growth level also indicates that professionals with advanced degrees and licenses may have higher earning potential. In particular, the anesthetist specialty maintains the highest median salary range, while educator roles offer the lowest median salaries. Growth rates for nursing educators are expanding much faster than other occupations, suggesting that professionals can anticipate job availability.
According to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, professionals in the nursing field boast higher earning potential with a master’s degree than professionals who only have a bachelor’s degree. The median annual salary for professionals with a graduate degree in nursing stands at $88,000, while nurses with a bachelor’s degree earn about $66,000. College nursing professors should anticipate around $48,000 with a bachelor’s degree, while graduates with a master’s degree earn $64,000 on average.
Online Nurse Practitioner Master’s Program Accreditation
Examining a university’s credentials remains important for verifying educational and professional standards. Students can vet a school or program’s accreditation. At the school level, students should determine if the university is nationally or regionally accredited. National accrediting agencies work with schools across the country. However, students experience difficulty transferring credits from universities with national accreditation unless the student wants to transfer credits to another nationally accredited program. Regional accreditation remains the gold standard. In fact, more than 85% of U.S. schools are regionally accredited, which makes credit transfers much easier. Students should familiarize themselves with the six regional accrediting agencies.
How to Pay for an Online Nurse Practitioner Degree
Students can expect to make a substantial financial investment in an online nurse practitioner program. While they should consider government financial aid, they should also explore other options. Many organizations set aside funds for students returning to school by offering fellowships, scholarships, and grants. The list below includes four possible sources.
Federal Financial Aid
Students enrolling in an online nurse practitioner program may qualify for student aid through FAFSA. Government funding at the graduate level includes Direct Unsubsidized and Direct PLUS loans, which are not based on financial need. Another program, Federal Work-Study, places students in a part-time position related to their degree.
Fellowships often exist as merit-based awards granted to master’s students. These awards may require students to complete some sort of research or project. Some fellowships require organizational membership, while others simply exist for students in the field. For instance, the American Academy of Emergency Nurse Practitioners and the AANP offer a fellowship to members.
Many employers offer tuition reimbursement as a staff benefit. Employers can cover a maximum of $5,250 each year. However, not all organizations offer the maximum amount. Employed students should contact their human resource department for requirement details.