Best Online MSN in Acute Care Programs

Nursing provides students with a diverse, inspiring, and lucrative profession that continues to grow every year. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that advanced nursing professions will increase by 31% between 2016 and 2026; more than four times the average for all occupations. Plus, these professions pay a median annual salary of $110,930.

Current registered nurses can advance in their careers by enrolling in one of the acute care MSN online programs. Acute care nurses provide services to critically ill and injured patients in emergency rooms, hospitals, ambulatory care units, and other short-stay facilities. In addition to these personal benefits, acute care nurses enjoy a meaningful and valuable occupation. With the large number of uninsured and underinsured patients who require acute care and the growing disparity between healthcare needs and resource allocation, acute care nurses can play a significant role in the healthcare models of the future.

1. Seton Hall University

A Catholic college in South Orange, New Jersey, Seton Hall offers a master of science in nursing in adult-gerontology primary/acute care nurse practitioner. Employing a values-oriented curriculum that emphasizes both practical skills and principles of servant leadership, the program trains students to formulate advanced clinical judgments and offer diagnoses and treatment plans to patients. Along with specialized courses such as acute care theory and health concepts of aging, all candidates complete an extensive, 675-hour practicum.

Graduates of the MSN acute care nurse practitioner online program are prepared to sit for a variety of professional certification exams from organizations including the American Association of Critical Care Nurses, the American Nurses Credentialing Center, and the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners Certification Board. Most students complete the program in four years of part-time study.

2. Grand Canyon University

Emphasizing a Christian approach to professional education, GCU operates a sizable campus in Phoenix, Arizona, along with one of the largest online education programs in the world, serving over 90,000 students. The school hosts a master of science in nursing (acute care nurse practitioner) with an emphasis in adult-gerontology, a primarily online degree that combines skills in clinical diagnosis, health assessment, and care management.

This MSN acute care nurse practitioner online program emphasizes both the physiological and psychological impact of acute care on patients. The degree requires a minimum of 53 credits, with courses offered in eight-week blocks. While most courses occur entirely online, GCU requires candidates attend two short campus experiences that build hands-on experience and provide training for certification exams.

3. Drexel University

A private college based in Philadelphia, Drexel hosts a comprehensive online master of science in nursing with a concentration in acute care nurse practitioner that builds the skills and knowledge to provide healthcare services to adult and geriatric patients with acute medical issues. This 57-credit online program includes three major components: core courses, support courses, and clinical courses, which form that majority of the curriculum.

Degree candidates also complete 800 hours of clinical practice, which run concurrently with synchronous weekly lectures online. Most students complete eight-hour clinical sessions twice a week in a healthcare setting in their own communities. New York residents should note that licensing regulations prevent clinical rotation hours from being performed in the state. While most courses occur online, students must visit campus for occasional clinical practicum sessions in Drexel’s patient simulation lab, along with extensive technical skills training.

4. Texas Tech University

Based in Lubbock, TTU ranks among the largest colleges in Texas, with a sizable online program that includes one of the top acute care MSN online programs in the state. The master of science in nursing with a track in adult-gerontology acute care nurse practitioner degree trains nurses to offer care to adults suffering from both episodic and chronic health problems. Candidates gain the skills to promote, maintain, and restore the health of patients with acute health problems, providing comprehensive and culturally sensitive healthcare.

TTU’s program requires a minimum of 48 credits and consists of three major components: the nursing core, prerequisite nursing courses, and population-focused courses. Core courses cover topics such as population health essentials and leadership for healthcare, while prerequisite courses explore advanced topics such as critical care pharmacology and diagnostic methods. The popular focus section consists of four courses in acute care, three of which include skill lab sections that require occasional campus visits.

MSN in Acute Care Programs Online: An Overview

Acute care MSN online programs vary slightly in admission requirements, length, and curriculum design, depending on the school. Nevertheless, these degrees hold many commonalities, such as needing an RN license and a BSN to get started. This guide covers information about acute care nursing programs.

Admission Requirements for an Online MSN in Acute Care Program

Admission to most acute care MSN online programs requires a bachelor’s degree in nursing from an accredited school. Most schools want applicants to hold a minimum 3.0 GPA, although this requirement varies by program. Prospective acute care nurses need to possess an unencumbered RN license and should make sure their school accepts a license from their state before applying. Most schools also require applicants to submit a personal goals statement, a resume, and letters of reference from professional supervisors and former professors. Applicants may also need to meet minimum scores on a standardized test, such as the GRE, MAT, or GMAT.

How Long Does It Take to Complete an Online MSN in Acute Care Program?

Most acute care MSN online programs require 35-50 credits and 1-3 years to complete. Since most distance education students work full-time as practicing nurses, learners enroll in fewer credits per semester, taking longer to finish the program than their full-time counterparts. Some schools help students accelerate degrees by offering courses in eight-week formats throughout the year instead of the traditional 15-week semesters with no summer coursework. Other schools put all students through classes in cohort groups, which means that nurses know their exact graduation date as soon as they enter the program. For transfer students, an individually paced program, rather than a cohort-based one, may actually speed up the time to graduation. Clinicals also affect a nursing student’s program length. Learners who complete these hours quickly and efficiently can save time and money throughout the graduate program.

Example Courses for Online MSN in Acute Care Students

In an MSN acute care nurse practitioner online program, the coursework varies depending on the school and specialization chosen. In general, the curriculum draws from a mix of advanced acute care topics and advanced nursing courses. The list below represents courses commonly taught in an acute care nursing degree.

  • Advanced Health Assessment and Diagnostic Reasoning: Students learn to conduct health assessments using advanced critical thinking and clinical judgement skills. This research-based course focuses on teaching students to evaluate health risk and status for both groups and individuals. Students look at the context of diagnosis by age, gender, and ethnicity factors.
  • Advanced Practice Care of Adults Across the Lifespan: This course seeks to answer the question: how does a nurse make clinical decisions among adult populations? Students consider clinical processes that help diagnose illnesses along with the treatment programs offered in healthcare settings. In the course, learners plan and evaluate treatments for adults with acute illnesses.
  • Advanced Practice Care of Frail Elders: Frail elders describes a subpopulation of senior adults characterized by inactivity and low bodyweight. This course focuses on the healthcare and health management needs of this population, emphasizing advanced practice nursing roles. Through hands-on activities, students learn to create, implement, and evaluate therapeutic interventions within this community.
  • Advanced Pharmacology: Learners in this course examine medicinal drugs and how they interact with human body systems. Starting with the basic principles of pharmacology, students learn the latest research and development of pharmacology and toxicology using laboratories, tutorials, and lecture sessions.
  • Advanced Pathophysiology: By studying organ system physiology, students learn normal functions in order to understand clinical problems. The course covers all organ systems and uses pathophysiology examples to illustrate concepts. Course content builds on a fundamental understanding of anatomy, physiology, and basic algebra. Students use discussion sessions and problem sets to apply concepts to practice.

Internship Component

Much like other nursing programs, the MSN in acute care requires extra hours as a clinical internship in order to graduate. Most MSN programs require more hours than lower-level nursing certifications ask for, usually at a total of 500-700 hours depending on the school. Some programs organize the hours into actual courses with intermittent on-site visits by a professor. Students spend these hours at a local organization pre-approved by an appropriate faculty member. These clinical hours enhance classroom instruction by offering students a practical workforce experience that can translate into future jobs.

Certifications and Licenses This Program Prepares For

  • Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioners: AG ACNP nurses address the problems of acutely ill patients in inpatient settings in order to improve treatment, reduce stay time, and improve patient satisfaction. Practitioners can emphasize cardio-pulmonary, critical care, or emergency department/trauma. The American Association of Critical-Care Nurses and the American Nurses Credentialing Center offer this certification.
  • Clinical Nurse Specialists: Focused on direct patient care in areas like pediatrics, geriatrics, oncology, and emergency care, CNS nurses provide direct patient care to improve health outcomes. The National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists governs this certification, and the CNS requires clinical training and graduate education, such as that earned in an RN to MS acute care nurse practitioner online degree.
  • Acute Care Nurse Practitioners: An advanced practice RN who cares for acutely injured or ill patients in an urgent care center or a hospital, an acute care nurse practitioner must hold an MSN and receive national certification from an agency like the American Nurses Credentialing Center or the American Association of Nurse Practitioners.

Accreditation for Online MSN in Acute Care Programs

Accreditation helps prospective students verify that a school teaches current and useful information and courses of study. Accreditors require schools to comply with specified standards in order to offer the best education. The Department of Education (ED) handles the educational system, including managing accrediting agencies. Regional and national accreditation differ in that regional accreditation holds a longer history and more well-respected position than national.

Prospective students can find sources for verifying accreditation on the Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. The Commision on Collegiate Nursing Education ensures the integrity of nursing education programs. However, CCNE primarily serves baccalaureate, graduate, and residency nursing programs.

Job and Salary Outlook

Job Opportunities for MSN in Acute Care Graduates

The U.S. faces a drastic shortage of qualified physicians, and experts expect that shortage to grow as the seniors population booms. Qualified nurse practitioners help fill this gap. Acute care nurse practitioners (ACNP) in particular can provide the patient services that physicians traditionally offer. By taking one of the acute care MSN online programs, nurses can move into many specialized roles in acute care, including providing medical treatment to pediatric patients and older adults.

Acute Care Nurse Practitioner

Median Annual Salary: $98,317

Specializing in serving patients with acute illnesses or injuries, an ACNP can diagnose problems, order treatments, and assist patients through a recovery process.


Acute Care Pediatric Nurse Practitioner

Median Annual Salary: $92,069

Serving the needs of infants, children, adolescents, and young adults, these medical professionals help address complex acute physiological and psychological conditions in young patients.


Adult Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner

Median Annual Salary: $93,993

These nurses provide and advance nursing care among senior patients with acute conditions. They may work in a variety of healthcare or residential settings.


Pulmonary Nurse Practitioner

Median Annual Salary: $90,000

Also known as a respiratory nurse, a pulmonary nurse practitioner cares for patients with lung diseases, such as asthma, emphysema, tuberculosis, or lung cancer.


Clinical Nurse Manager

Median Annual Salary: $80,840

Working in hospital management, a clinical nurse manager coordinates nurses, manages staff schedules, and deals with questions and complaints. This role is often the first management position for a nurse.


Source: PayScale, Nov. 2018

How Much Do MSN in Acute Care Graduates Make?

Medical facilities in all states need nurses, and acute care programs exist throughout the country. Nevertheless, highly urbanized states with large populations tend to employ more nurses and pay them higher than predominantly rural ones. The table below shows the top five paying U.S. states for nurse practitioners.

State Employment Employment Per Thousand Jobs Hourly Mean Wage Annual Mean Wage
California 13,570 0.81 $60.95 $126,770
New York 13,450 1.46 $56.35 $117,210
Texas 10,730 0.90 $53.53 $111,330
Florida 10,380 1.23 $48.04 $99,930
Ohio 7,460 1.39 $48.90 $101,710

Source: BLS

Professional Organizations

Joining a professional nursing organization can serve as a powerful tool to help launch or advance a nurse’s career. After earning an MSN acute care nurse practitioner online degree, graduates can join professional organizations and enjoy continuing education programs, annual conferences, online learning opportunities, certifications, and clinical resources. Members enjoy major professional conferences and peer-reviewed journal subscriptions to help stay current in the field. Most importantly, professional organizations give students and young professionals a chance to seek mentorship and connect with established nurses.

American Association of Critical-Care Nurses: Membership in AACN includes access to continuing education courses, certification options, and clinical resources, such as journals and conferences. The association also offers innovative online learning programs.


American Nurses Association: ANA members can stay current in nursing practice and advance their careers thanks to the organization’s career center, webinars, certifications, and job board. The ANA also offers mentorship programs and conferences.


National Student Nurses Association: NSNA brings together nursing students from across the country to prepare for exams, enjoy discounted health insurance, take advantage of a career center, and receive a subscription to Imprint magazine.

Financing Your Online MSN in Acute Care Program

The U.S. government, private funders, states, hospitals, and other agencies offer major sources of funding for students in RN-to-MSN acute care nurse practitioner online programs. To qualify for most federal funds, students must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) found on the Department of Education’s website. Following that, nurses can contact employers and state offices about loan forgiveness programs. Finally, a search through scholarships options, like the ones below, may reveal additional sources of aid.

Scholarships for MSN in Acute Care Students

ANTHC Board of Directors $5,000 Scholarship

Who Can Apply: Alaska Native and Native American people who are permanent residents of Alaska, and are interested in working in the healthcare field, can apply. The organization gives 10 scholarships annually, and students can use the funds for books, tuition, fees, or other expenses. Interested applicants should check the website for details in the spring months.

Amount: $5,000


Hispanic Health Professional Student Scholarship

Who Can Apply: The National Hispanic Medical Association offers this scholarship to recipients of Hispanic origin majoring in healthcare fields, including nursing. Amounts and details of the application change year to year, so students should check the website regularly to determine the next opening.

Amount: $2,000 – $5,000


UnitedHealth Foundation

Who Can Apply: The UnitedHealth Foundation, in partnership with the National Association for Hispanic Nurses (NAHN), supports a vision of a culturally relevant workforce in an effective healthcare system, especially in underserved communities. Applicants should check with the local NAHN chapter president for further details.

Amount: $5,000 per year for three years


Hector Gonzalez Past Presidents Scholarship

Who Can Apply: Sponsored by NAHN, this scholarship recognizes the contributions of the organization’s founding president Hector Hugo Gonzalez. NAHN especially encourages male students to apply for the scholarship, which provides funds for a single year only.

Amount: Varies; around $4,000


Association of Perioperative Registered Nurses Scholarship

Who Can Apply: Applicants must hold a 3.0 GPA in previous coursework and an interest in perioperative/surgical nursing. International applicants may apply, but AORN staff, AORN Board of Directors, scholarship committee members, and AORN Foundation Board of Trustees may not. The committee considers academics, essays, and financial need when making decisions.

Amount: Varies


AAUW Career Development Grants

Who Can Apply: Women who have earned a bachelor’s degree and plan to enroll in a higher education program in order to advance their careers or return to the workforce can apply for funding. The organization rewards applicants who demonstrate commitment to education for women and girls, strong alignment between career goals and the chosen program, and financial need.

Amount: $2,000-12,000


Air Force Allied Health Profession Scholarship Program

Who Can Apply: Members of the U.S. Air Force can take advantage of the HPSP to earn graduate degrees in nursing. Recipients must serve one year of active duty for each year they receive a scholarship, culminating in a maximum of three years of duty.

Amount: Full tuition, fees, and a living stipend