Advanced Practice Nursing

How to Find the Best Online MSN Programs

How to Find the Best Online MSN Programs
The top advanced degree programs for nurses offer flexibility but don't sacrifice quality, and can set you up for career success. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry May 20, 2020

Earning a Master of Science in Nursing while working can be a challenge. Online MSN programs make it easier to pursue this degree, but you need to be sure you choose a high-quality program.

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Many nurses have long, well-paying careers with no more than a bachelor’s degree (or even associate’s degree). An experienced RN with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing, for example, can earn $84,000 annually. That’s significantly more than the nationwide average income for all workers (app. $49,000), and not that far from what nurse practitioners, clinical nurse specialists, and nurse managers—who need an advanced degree to practice—earn each year.

Clearly, it is possible to make a decent living in nursing without earning a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN). Going to grad school for a nursing degree isn’t just about the pay hike. In fact, many who pursue this advanced degree do so primarily to qualify for more advanced positions in the nursing field, specialize in a specific area of medicine, or move into management.

With an MSN, you can become an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) and begin diagnosing and treating patients. You can also teach, conduct research, and manage teams of healthcare providers. A Master of Science of Nursing opens a lot of doors, whether your long-term goals involve treating patients, joining the ranks of healthcare administrators, or working with a particular group of patients.

Earning an MSN is no small feat, however. If like many RNs, you can’t afford to take time off from work to study, you’ll have to balance school with your other obligations. And what do you do if there aren’t any top nursing programs in your area?

That’s where online MSN programs come in. The top advanced degree programs for nurses offer flexibility but don’t sacrifice quality, and can set you up for career success.

In this article, we answer the question “what are the best online MSN programs?” We’ll cover the following:

  • What can you do with an MSN degree?
  • Do online MSN programs cover the same topics as on-campus programs?
  • Are online MSN students required to complete internships or practicums?
  • Which schools have the best online MSN programs?
  • What makes the best online MSN programs different?
  • Do online MSN programs cost less than traditional programs?
  • Are there accelerated online MSN programs?
  • What else do I need to know about online MSN programs?

What can you do with an MSN degree?

The quick answer is a lot. MSN programs, whether hosted on campus or online, provide RNs the skills and knowledge they need to step into upper-level positions in both patient care and management.

Some nurses pursue this graduate degree because they want to work in advanced practice nursing. Certified nurse practitioners, clinical nurse specialists, certified nurse midwives, or certified nurse anesthetists—all of whom are APRNs—can legally prescribe medication, diagnose patients, develop treatment plans, and, in the case of certified nurse anesthetists, administer powerful anesthetic agents. They are the highest-paid clinical nurses because they do specialized work that’s closer in scope to the work done by MDs.

MSN program graduates also go on to work in non-clinical and administrative roles like:

How can one degree serve so many professions? Both on-campus and online MSN programs typically offer concentration or specialty tracks. You might pursue an MSN in health policy, specialize in gerontology, or choose a concentration designed for aspiring family nurse practitioners.

When you’re choosing from among online MSN programs, your career goals should be one of the most important factors driving your decision. Before applying to any MSN program, be sure the concentration options support your aspirations. Not all programs offer all concentrations. In fact, most do not.

Do online MSN programs cover the same topics as on-campus programs?

Accredited online MSN programs do cover the same topics as on-campus programs. These programs have to if they want to maintain accreditation by either the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing—both of which serve to ensure the quality and integrity of nursing programs. All MSN students study topics like:

  • Advanced practice nursing
  • Biostatistics
  • Epidemiology
  • Evidence-based nursing
  • Healthcare systems and policy
  • Leadership in nursing
  • Pharmacology
  • Physical assessment
  • Physiology
  • Public health

MSN students who specialize in nursing administration or nursing leadership also take classes like:

  • Economics in healthcare
  • Financial management
  • Healthcare administration
  • Healthcare human resources management
  • Healthcare quality and safety
  • Leadership development in healthcare
  • Nursing informatics
  • Translating research to practice

The most significant difference between on-campus Master of Science in Nursing programs and online MSN programs is the format. On-campus programs meet on campus at fixed times. Some distance learning programs also hold live class sessions at scheduled times, but others deliver content asynchronously, meaning students can access it any time, 24/7.

In general, online MSN programs come in three formats:

  • 100 percent online MSN programs require no campus visits. These are ideal for RNs who need maximum flexibility or live far away from the nearest accredited nursing school. Some 100 percent online MSN programs still require students to log into classes at set times and to participate in real-time class discussions, but others allow students to view lectures and complete classwork on their own schedules.
  • Online MSN programs with residencies require students to attend a certain number of on-campus intensives and networking events to graduate. The majority of learning in these programs still occurs online, but students have the opportunity to connect with faculty and peers in person.
  • Hybrid MSN programs are designed for students who live close to campus but need more flexibility. In hybrid programs, some classes are held online while others are held on campus on evenings and weekends for the convenience of working professionals.

Are online MSN students required to complete internships or practicums?

The vast majority of graduate-level nursing programs require RNs to complete an internship or practicum in a clinical, research, or administrative setting (depending on concentration). Almost all programs have similar clinical practicum hours requirements whether students study on campus or online. The required hands-on experiences and rotations typically occur during the academic semester for liability reasons and are completed under the supervision of advanced practice nurses and doctors.

While some MSN programs expect students to find their own placements, the best online MSN programs offer the same kinds of internship placement assistance as high-quality on-campus programs. You’ll work with an advisor to identify a suitable facility and preceptor, or your program will handle the placement process for you.

Which schools have the best online MSN programs?

US News & World Report looks at what are the best online MSN programs each year. According to its rankings, the top online master’s degree programs can be found at the following schools:

What makes the best online MSN programs different?

First, look for accreditation. While accreditation isn’t everything, the fact that a college or university made the list demonstrates that it meets specific curriculum standards, has expert faculty, and offers high-quality student resources.

Next, consider student-instructor access. Some online MSN programs offer students more opportunities to connect with professors and advisors, and the best ones make it easy to ask questions and get guidance.

You should also consider graduation rates and post-graduation job placement rates. Some of the top MSN programs publish these statistics right on program websites. If you can’t find these stats, you may be able to get them by calling or emailing the admissions office to request them.

Finally, the best online MSN programs offer the same kinds of student support as traditional programs. Distance learners have opportunities to connect with their peers and with members of the alumni network. They also have access to high-quality internship placements through the school’s hospital and healthcare organization affiliations. After graduation, online program graduates can access the school’s job placement assistance.

The bottom line is that the top online degree programs for nurses aren’t that different from the best on-campus MSN programs. The overall experience of studying advanced nursing and nursing administration online should be very similar to studying on campus.

Do online MSN programs cost less than traditional programs?

Unfortunately, no. While there are plenty of affordable online MSN programs, you won’t find them at the top nursing schools. At Duke University, MSN students pay $1,838 per credit, and keep in mind that the total cost of a degree can also include a lot of different extras, such as mandatory health insurance and books and materials. Earning an MSN online can cost anywhere between $35,000 to more than $60,000 in total tuition and fees, which is about what you’ll pay for an on-campus MSN program. You may still save money by choosing an online program, however, because you won’t have commuting costs, be paying for meals, or have to take time off work.

Are there accelerated online MSN programs?

Best is subjective, and sometimes the best online MSN program will be the fastest one. Most online MSN programs last two to three years, though many factors can influence how long it takes students to graduate, from concentration to the year-by-year availability of online courses. There are accelerated online MSN programs that can be completed in 16 months or less at the following colleges and universities:

What else do I need to know about online MSN programs?

Throughout this article, we’ve referred to MSN programs as a single degree pathway, but the reality is that there are many different ways to earn an MSN online. There are standalone MSN programs designed for experienced working nurses who have previously earned a Bachelor of Science in Nursing. Then there are RN to MSN programs that let registered nurses working with associate’s degrees earn both a BSN and MSN in less time than it would take to earn both. There are also MSN programs designed for non-nurses who have earned bachelor’s degrees in other disciplines but want to transition into nursing and bridge programs for working RNs with bachelor’s degrees in non-nursing subjects.

In other words, the online MSN landscape is vast, with many options. Be aware that there are no universally agreed-upon naming conventions when it comes to these different degree pathways, so you can’t rely on program names when you’re searching for the right MSN program for you. Always look very closely at the curriculum and admissions requirements and the specializations offered before sending out applications. The best online MSN program will be the one that you qualify for and that supports your career aspirations.

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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