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masters degree in nursing online
Q&A
online msn programs
Choosing the best programs
msn degree online
Why online MSN?
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Spotlight schools
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Typical coursework
Best Online MSN Programs
Skills you will gain
masters in nursing online
How to pay?
online msn programs
How does careers look like?
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Best MSN programs
Affordable online MSN Programs
Affordable MSN Programs
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Accredited MSN Programs

Earning a Master’s Degree in Nursing Online

masters in nursing online

Nurses who choose to earn a master’s degree can enjoy the tremendous benefit of broadening their professional horizons. That’s one of the reasons why a master’s degree in nursing (MSN) is so popular. By earning an advanced degree, registered nurses can become advanced practice nurses, or APRNs. This allows them a high level of specialization that can lead to work as nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives or nurse practitioners. A master’s degree can also provide practicing nurses a pathway to leadership, management and teaching positions.

Most graduate nursing students will be registered nurses (RN) who already have an associate degree or bachelor’s degree in nursing. This means the typical master’s in nursing student will have a full-time job or a family. Online MSN programs offer flexibility for students like these, who can’t easily handle the time constraints of traditional on-campus programs. By pursuing the degree online, students can self-pace their learning and “attend” class when it’s best for them, whether it’s in the middle of the night, during a break at work or even while waiting on the kids to come home from school. Let’s look at what aspiring students need to know about earning the MSN degree online.

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Common Questions about the MSN Degree Online

There are many reasons why someone would choose the MSN program. Here are a few of the most common questions aspiring students have about this advanced educational pursuit.

Why does this degree matter? 

For nurses seeking professional advancement, the MSN degree is very important – it’s the gold standard for moving into greater clinical or management responsibility, which can lead to higher pay, better hours and saying goodbye to holiday or overnight shifts. It can also be a ticket out of the grind, so to speak, by allowing nurses to move into the teaching profession.

How do I get into a program?

Most online MSN programs require incoming students to hold an active registered nursing license. Nurses must have at least an associate degree as well as at least one year of work experience. Some programs may not require incoming students to be licensed nurses, but in that case, they may expect the student to have a bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing field.

How long does it take?

This depends greatly upon the program and the student – that’s because one of the beautiful things about online learning is the ability to self-pace. One student might choose to attend school on a part-time basis, another might want to go full-time, and still another might find a program that allows them to take one course at a time as their schedule allows. However, most students who are already nurses will take between one and two years to complete the 36 and 42 credits hours required to graduate. Students with a bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing field may need up to three years to finish their program through an accelerated track. Essentially, these programs are squeezing two years of undergraduate and two years of graduate instruction into three years.

What will it cost?

No MSN program will come cheap; the cost can sometimes prevent registered nurses from pursuing the higher degree. However, transfer credit can help, as can plenty of financial aid options from federal and state governments, as well as private organizations or employers. Given all those variables, we can only provide a ballpark figure on tuition: a typical online MSN student can expect to pay roughly $20,000 to $60,000 for their degree.

How will the MSN change my career?

Students who complete an online MSN program can earn a much higher salary, often an additional $10,000 per year or more. They can take on greater patient responsibility as well. For example, an APRN may obtain the ability to legally prescribe medications. In addition, the master’s degree will allow them to take on a level of specialization and organizational responsibility not otherwise possible, such as becoming a clinical care coordinator.

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Choosing the Best Online Master’s Nursing Programs

Attending the best program is what every future nursing student wants, but deciding what schools have the best online nursing MSN programs is the tricky part. After all, what’s best for one student may not be best for another, which can make it tricky to evaluate rankings of schools and programs.

Even so, there are several factors prospective nursing grad students will want to look at when choosing the best program. Here are the ones that matter most.

Accreditation

A degree without accreditation is almost useless. Accreditation confirms that a program’s curriculum meets a minimum level of academic quality; without it, a degree might not be worth the paper it’s printed on. For online MSN programs, the principal accrediting body is the Commission on the Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE).

However, some programs will be accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN). Prospective students should only consider online MSN degree programs if they are accredited by one of these organizations.

Read more about general Accreditation here

Specializations

One major reason a master’s student chooses to enroll in an online MSN program is to gain more in-depth knowledge about a particular area of nursing. That’s why most MSN programs will have several specializations or concentrations to choose from. Popular ones include public health, informatics, executive leadership and education.

One important aspect of choosing the best online master’s nursing program will be finding one that offers a preferred specialization.

Online options

There are two primary forms of delivering online coursework. Asynchronous learning allows students to listen to a lecture or complete coursework at a time of their own choosing. Synchronous learning, though it allows students to participate in class from anywhere, requires that students sign on at a specific time of the day with the rest of their classmates.

Obviously asynchronous learning will provide master’s in nursing students the most flexibility, but it may not provide the deeply collegial learning atmosphere that some might prefer.

Affordable tuition

Cheaper is usually better, but there comes a point where you get what you pay for. For most nursing students, the cheapest tuition will be a major factor in finding the best program, as long as the low tuition doesn’t compromise the education. In some cases, what the student is giving up may not matter as much, such as access to certain student services.

For others, paying a higher tuition for greater access to student help may be worth the money.

Excellent faculty and staff

A solid education is a team effort that requires effort and coordination from several parties, including the school’s faculty and staff. High-quality faculty and staff can make learning easier and more effective; but they can also play an indirect, yet equally important role in a student’s success.

For instance, professors who still practice nursing may have useful networking connections to future healthcare employers. And faculty members who engage in active, published research can provide additional opportunities and knowledge for students interested in academia and medical research.

A solid NCLEX passage rate

In most online MSN programs, the student will already be working as an RN. However, some programs accept non-RN students, so one way to measure the quality of these programs is to look at the NCLEX-RN passage rates. The higher the first-time passage rate, the better. If students want to become advanced practice nurses, they may need to take additional certification exams concerning their chosen specialty.

Asking about these certification exam passage rates can shed some light on the effectiveness of a particular MSN program.

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Why Earn the Master’s in Nursing Online?

There are many reasons why online master’s in nursing programs are wildly popular. Here are a few:

Self-pacingFlexible clinical requirementsStudy anytime, anywhere Evidence of supreme time management
Flexibility is perhaps the biggest reason students choose an online learning option for their MSN degree. One level of flexibility speaks to the pacing of the courses themselves; some programs allow students to choose full-time or part-time attendance, or even allow them to spread out the courses to better serve their busy schedule. Most students take about two years to complete their online MSN degree, but for those particularly motivated, it can be done in as little as one year. Those with truly hectic schedules can spread out the courses to take three or more years, if necessary.Depending on the specialization a student chooses, they can sometimes earn their MSN 100 percent online, with no need to complete clinicals or practicums. But for most MSN concentrations, clinicals will be required. The good news is that many online programs will allow students to meet their clinical hour requirements at their current job, so there will be no disruption in their working lives. Another major aspect of flexibility in pursuit of an online MSN degree is the ability to complete course requirements on the student’s own schedule. It can be listening to a course lecture while on the bus, doing a reading assignment between shifts at work or completing an assignment and turning it in at three in the morning, when the rest of the family is in bed asleep. Online learning programs allow this unparalleled measure of flexibility, which is essential for most working nursing students.Attending class online usually means working full-time as well. This is especially true in online MSN programs, where many students are full-time nurses even as they pursue education as full-time students. By completing an MSN degree online, students have tangible evidence to demonstrate their ability to stay organized and manage their time very wisely. This can be useful when negotiating for a raise and greater responsibility at work.
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The Best Online MSN Education Programs: Spotlight Schools

Below is a sampling of three MSN programs from some top schools including details on available concentration and tracks, courses, and degree completion requirements.

University of Arizona

Western Governors University

Johns Hopkins University

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Typical Courses in Online MSN Programs

There will be some similarities among accredited MSN programs, online or traditional. Most of these similarities will exist among the core curriculum. Typical core courses will cover topics such as policy, advocacy, research and evidence-based nursing practice.

However, for programs that have comparable specializations, there will be some similar courses as well. Here’s a sampling of what to expect from a few of the more common specialization tracks.

Nursing Education Executive LeaderNurse Informatics
Instructional Strategies: This course addresses learning strategies and principles typically used and applied in the nurse education setting.

Nursing Education Field Experience: Students engage in hands-on teaching experience in collaboration with academic mentors in order to demonstrate what they have previously learned in the classroom.

Curriculum Development: Students will learn how to create effective curricula for training future nurses and healthcare providers.
Building Effective Communication and Relationships: This class introduces students to addressing worker conflicts within a healthcare organization as well as the cultivation of relationships for effective teamwork.

Managing Human Resources: The role of a nurse leader in developing, retaining and managing an organization’s workforce will be explained and analyzed.

Strategic Planning in Healthcare Organization: Students will develop skills that allow them to identify, create and implement strategic plans in accordance with an organization’s mission.
Financial Management in Nursing Practice: The analysis of healthcare financing issues will be explained. Students will learn how to manage organizational budgets and evaluate organizational financial plans on a strategic level.

Informatics in Nursing and Healthcare: This course provides a foundational level of knowledge concerning the application of information analysis and processing within the nursing setting.

Capstone Synthesis Practicum: Nursing students will have the opportunity to apply their theoretical informatics knowledge to real-world settings and environments.
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Skills Gained Through the Best Online MSN Programs

While the exact skills and knowledge gleaned will depend on the chosen concentration, there are several skills that most MSN nursing students can expect to acquire. These are the most common skills master’s students will hone during their education:

Leadership:

In an undergraduate RN program, students primarily learn how to treat patients. In an MSN program, students will continue to learn how to treat patients, but in more indirect ways. This includes leading and managing other medical professionals in a manner that provides for effective, team-based medical care. This is far easier said than done – that’s why most management positions, in any industry, go to individuals with additional training and experience. The MSN degree provides some of this valuable training and experience through instruction on a variety of topics, including cultural sensitivity, financial management, communication skills and a higher-level understanding of how healthcare organizations works.

Critical Thinking:

Registered nurses must have the ability to think critically, including taking information about a patient and using that information in a logical and objective manner to make a treatment decision. MSN trained nurses will further develop those skills and apply them to not just tactical-level decisions in a patient’s room, but at a more strategic level when implementing department or organizational changes.

Policymaking:

Due to the direct level of care registered nurses provide, there is an emphasis on the “how” when it comes to treating a patient. But at the leadership and management levels, as well as providing more advanced medical care that approaches the level of what doctors provide, MSN prepared nurses need to understand the “why.” For example, MSN students will learn how to determine, from a policy perspective, why one treatment or procedure is recommended over another despite them producing identical results.

Evidence-Based Practice:

Medicine is a science; the treatments and care patients receive should be based on scientific principles. In any accredited MSN program, students will learn about the process of compiling and understanding research findings that can eventually lead to new or altered medical care for patients.

Advocacy:

In leadership and management, it is important for those in charge to influence and guide teams including getting buy-in to certain strategies. But another aspect of leadership is working on behalf of constituents, such as coworkers or patients. Nurse leaders and advanced practitioners wield significant power; a graduate nursing education will help nurses understand the significance of that power and how to effectively wield it to help others by advocating on their behalf.

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Paying for an MSN Online Degree

Let’s be honest: an MSN degree doesn’t come cheap. Finding ways to help pay for school might be as much of an important decision as deciding whether to even apply. Luckily, there are several options available that can help cover or at least lessen the cost of attendance.

Scholarships

Scholarships are a form of gift-based financial aid that doesn’t need to be paid back. Scholarships will sometimes be referred to as fellowships by some organizations or donors. Even though scholarships can be highly competitive, there are many places to find them, including professional and charitable organizations, major corporations, small businesses and the schools offering the MSN degree. The Internet has a number of sources to start looking for scholarships, including scholarships.com, fastweb.com, unigo.com and cappex.com.

Grants

Grants are like scholarships in that they don’t need to be paid back. However, they are usually granted based on a student’s financial need rather than skills, ability or membership in a group. Many grants are available from the federal and state government. Interested students will usually need to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.

best online msn

Loans

For most students, loans will be the primary source of financial aid. This means the money they receive will need to be paid back, usually with interest. The federal government and Sallie Mae are the top lenders for student loans.

masters in nursing online

Employer pay

Another great source for funding a graduate education is through employer tuition reimbursement programs. This employer-funded tuition assistance is a benefit some employers provide to encourage employees to gain additional education. In return for this financial assistance, many employers will expect the employee to agree to stay with the employer for a set period, usually two or more years.

Most forms of financial aid will be available only for students who attend an accredited school. So unless a student attends an MSN program that’s accredited by the Commission on the Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN), it will be extremely difficult to obtain any financial aid. And what’s available will probably only be offered by the school itself.

Interested students can independently verify if a school is accredited by checking the CCNE or ACEN’s website as well as the Department of Education’s Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs.

We have created a page that shows you all the information needed about Financial Aid here

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What Does an Advanced Nursing Career Look Like?

Nursing graduate students may wonder what their career and life will look like post-graduation: “What kind of job can I do with my MSN?” and “Will I need additional certifications?” The following points showcase what an MSN grad can expect.

Licensure and Certification

For many advanced nursing careers, licensure or certification will be required. At the very least, an RN license will be necessary. Even for MSN graduates who don’t expect to practice nursing, an active license is strongly recommended as a way of demonstrating a requisite level of knowledge and competence in the nursing field. For those who intend to practice as an advanced practice registered nurse, such as nurse midwifes, nurse practitioners and nurse anesthetists, certification and/or an advanced practice registered nursing license will usually be necessary, depending on state or employer requirements.
Once a certification or licensure is obtained, nurses will usually need to it by taking a certain number of continuing education courses each year. There may also be an exam the nurse must take after several years, depending on the certification or license.

Where do MSN Graduates Work?

Nurses who obtain their master’s degree in nursing online will have several options for choosing where to work. One of the most common will be in a healthcare setting, either as an advanced practice nurse or nurse practitioner. These jobs are often found in hospitals, clinics and doctor’s offices. They are in high demand, with many job openings staying unfilled due to a shortage of qualified applicants. The following chart reflects the anticipated job growth and median salaries of some of the more common nursing positions that usually require an MSN degree.

Job Title 2016-2026 Growth Rate Median Salary (50th percentile)
Nurse Practitioner36% $103,880
Nurse Anesthetist 16% $165,120
Nurse Midwife 21% $100,590
Medical and Health Service Managers20% $98,350

Source: BLS

But not all nurses who get a master’s degree in nursing will work in a clinical setting. Some will engage in research as a clinical nurse researcher, assist attorneys and the court system as a legal nurse consultant or teach the next generation of nurses as a nurse educator. And don’t forget – the MSN degree can eventually lead to a doctorate. For those who want access to postsecondary teaching and research positions, a terminal degree, such as the Ph.D., may be recommended.

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Finding More Information on Nursing Master’s Programs Online

Learn more about the MSN degree in the following guides including what the MSN program is like for who already have their RN, as well as those who have earned their BSN.

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Best Online MSN Programs

College Name & Address Tuition Graduation Rate
Johns Hopkins University
Baltimore, MD 21218
$55,816 93.1%
Ohio State University
Columbus, OH 43210
$35,992 83.5%
St. Xavier University
3700 W 103rd St, Chicago, IL 60655
$895 per credit 54.5%
Rush University
Rush University 600S, Paulina St. Chicago, Illionis 600612
$1,066 per credit 95.0%
Duke University
Durham, NC 27708  
$54,712 94.8%
George Washington University
2121 I St NW, Washington, DC 20052    
46.5%
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Affordable Online MSN Programs

College Name & Address Tuition Graduation Rate
Johns Hopkins University
Baltimore, MD 21218
$55,816 93.1%
Ohio State University
Columbus, OH 43210
$35,992 83.5%
St. Xavier University
3700 W 103rd St, Chicago, IL 60655
$895 per credit 54.5%
Rush University
Rush University 600S, Paulina St. Chicago, Illionis 600612
$1,066 per credit 95.0%
Duke University
Durham, NC 27708    
$54,712 94.8%
George Washington University
2121 I St NW, Washington, DC 20052    
46.5%
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Accredited Online MSN Programs

College Name & Address Tuition Graduation Rate
University of Texas—Arlington
701 W Nedderman Dr, Arlington, TX 76019
$18,878 41.9%
Maryville University of St. Louis
650 Maryville University Dr, St. Louis, MO 63141
$15,646 66%
University of South Alabama
307 N University Blvd, Mobile, AL 36688
$17,128 38.2%
Frontier Nursing University
195 School St, Hyden, KY 41749
$18,935 72%
Simmons University
300 Fenway, Boston, MA 02115    
$1,235 per credit hour 62%
Drexel University
3141 Chestnut St, Philadelphia, PA 19104
$1,265 per credit hour 67.4%
University of Cincinnati
2600 Clifton Ave, Cincinnati, OH 45221
$26,210

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