Clinical Nurse Leadership (CNL) Programs

Updated May 16, 2022

Clinical Nurse Leadership (CNL) programs can open the door to rewarding and lucrative specialized nursing careers. Explore CNL programs and learn what to expect.

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Clinical Nurse Leadership (CNL) Programs
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If you excel at analyzing data and leadership, a career as a clinical nurse leader (CNL) could be for you. CNLs improve patient outcomes by identifying new evidence-based practices and opportunities to enhance nursing.

This guide explores how to become a CNL, lists the best CNL programs, and answers your questions about CNL careers.

We use a data-driven methodology to rank the best online CNL programs, making it easier to find a program that works for you. Our methodology is based on metrics that we believe matter most to students, including academic quality, affordability, reputation, and program offerings.

Keep reading to learn more about clinical nurse leader programs, or go straight to our list of the best CNL programs.

Featured Online Programs

Degree and Specialization Options

Master of science in nursing (MSN) programs have two types of MSN specialties: advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) specialties — nurse practitioner, clinical nurse specialist, nurse midwife, nurse anesthetist — or non-APRN specialties.

APRN specialties have specific state license requirements, including board certification. Non-APRN specialties do not include these requirements, although they have optional certifications.

Clinical nurse specialists are APRNs, but CNLs are not. Other non-APRN MSN programs include:

Nurse Administrator

Nurse administrators manage and lead nursing functions in a healthcare setting with other healthcare administrators.

Nurse Educator

Nurse educators teach nursing theory and practice to nurses and nursing students in classroom or healthcare settings. They may also teach the public.


Public Health Nursing

Public health nurses address population and public health needs by developing and carrying out health programs. They can also manage community-wide health initiatives.

Nurse Informatics

Nurse informaticists analyze data about nursing practices and outcomes to identify ways to improve nursing and patient health.

What to Look for in a Clinical Nurse Leader Program

Finding the right CNL program for you depends on your background, experience, and career goals. Look at cost and program logistics plus these important factors.

  • Admission Requirements

    Admission requirements indicate how likely you are to succeed in a CNL program and how likely you are to be admitted.
  • Program Curriculum

    While CNL program curriculums are based on American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) standards, program descriptions and electives can indicate the program's culture.
  • Clinical Experience

    Especially if you attend an online CNL program or plan to work while studying, make sure that you can find clinical placement as an online nursing student in your community. Consider scheduling, travel, and placement rates.
  • Accreditation

    The AACN accredits CNL programs, and you must graduate from an accredited nursing program to receive certification. While you don't need certification to work as a CNL, it can be a valuable credential. Read more about accreditation.
  • Program Length

    Check that the program length works for your schedule. Most CNL programs offer a part-time option. If you don't have a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN), some CNL programs have nursing bridge options, which take longer to complete.
  • School NCLEX Pass Rate

    Check the school's National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) pass rate and the CNL program's board certification rate. These can tell you how well the school prepares graduates to succeed.
  • School Graduation Rate

    The school and CNL program graduation rates can reveal students' success. A low graduation rate may be a warning sign, even if the pass rates are high.

Applying to a Clinical Nurse Leader Program

While most CNL program students prepare students to be nurse leaders by earning a BSN and working as an RN, there are other pathways to admission. If you have a nursing license, a degree, or college-level coursework in another area of healthcare, you may be eligible for a bridge program. Whether your degree is in nursing or some other field, most programs require:

  • A GPA of at least 3.0
  • At least two references
  • College-level classes in statistics
  • College-level classes in human anatomy and physiology
  • An application that includes a personal statement or essay
  • Experience as an RN or in healthcare, public health, or related fields

Why Is Clinical Nurse Leader Program Accreditation Important?

This guide only lists accredited CNL programs. Nursing accreditation means that an independent group has evaluated the program and concluded that it effectively prepares students for CNL positions. This is important because:

  • The AACN only permits graduates of accredited programs to take the CNL certification examination.
  • Most employers only consider graduates of accredited programs.
  • Very few accredited programs accept transfer credits from unaccredited programs.
  • Most financial aid, especially federal financial aid, is only available for those attending accredited programs.
  • Unaccredited programs are an unnecessary risk to both your time and money.

Paying for Clinical Nurse Leader Programs

A CNL program poses a significant investment, but financial resources for nurses can help, especially if you plan in advance how to pay for a nursing degree.

Your school should offer financial aid programs, based on need, merit, or both. You can also apply for nursing scholarships, grants, and loans from professional nursing associations. Nonprofits, such as foundations, corporations, and government programs, may also offer financial awards.

Graduates who work in underserved areas are often eligible for government loan forgiveness for nurses, such as the Nurse Corps. Many employers help pay for your CNL program in exchange for a commitment to work for them for a certain period once you graduate.

Learn More About the Top Clinical Nurse Leader Programs and Schools

#1 Clinical Nurse Leadership (CNL) Programs

University of Rochester

  • Rochester, NY
  • 4 years
  • Campus

Description:

The University of Rochester bases its nursing programs on its Unification Model, combining academics, research, and practice. The clinical nurse leader (CNL) program, which requires 37 credits for completion, is available as an RN-to-BSN-to-MSN, an MSN, a post-master's certificate, or a DNP program. Part-time CNL program students can take 1-2 credits per semester. 

Details:

  • Program(s): Master of science in nursing - clinical nurse leader
  • Campus: Rochester, NY
  • Type: Private
  • Accreditation(s): Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Tuition: $1,640 per credit
  • Admission Requirements: Varies. The MSN requires a BSN, a 3.0 GPA, an undergraduate statistics course, a New York nursing license, and one year of clinical experience.
  • Minimum Time Commitment: 30 months
  • On-Campus Requirements: Yes
  • School NCLEX-RN Pass Rate: 95.1%
  • Median Earnings Two Years After Graduation: $95,070 for master's graduates, according to College Scorecard
Average Tuition
In-state
$55,040
Out-of-state
$55,040
Retention Rate
94%
Admission Rate
30%
Students Enrolled
12,233
Institution Type
Private
Percent Online Enrollment
7% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes Middle States Commission on Higher Education

#2 Clinical Nurse Leadership (CNL) Programs

University of Portland

  • Portland, OR
  • 4 years
  • Online + Campus

Description:

The University of Portland's CNL program, which comprises 42 credits, 45 lab hours, and 500 clinical hours, emphasizes evidence-based practice and data-driven decision-making. The curriculum includes outcome measurement, risk assessment, and change management. Students develop, implement and evaluate a clinical project to develop their evidence-based change leadership over their three clinical courses. 

Details:

  • Program(s): Master of science in nursing - clinical nurse leader
  • Campus: Portland, OR
  • Type: Private
  • Accreditation(s): Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Tuition: $23,870 per year
  • Admission Requirements: BSN, 3.0 GPA, GRE scores (waived for applicants with 3.5 GPA), graduate-level statistics course within the last five years, RN license in state where clinical practice will take place
  • Minimum Time Commitment: 30 months
  • On-Campus Requirements: Yes
  • School NCLEX-RN Pass Rate: 90%
Average Tuition
In-state
$47,478
Out-of-state
$47,478
Retention Rate
90%
Admission Rate
77%
Students Enrolled
4,254
Institution Type
Private
Percent Online Enrollment
1% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities

#3 Clinical Nurse Leadership (CNL) Programs

Elmhurst College

  • Elmhurst, IL
  • 4 years
  • Online + Campus

Description:

Elmhurst University offers three MSN programs: nurse administrator, nurse educator, and the CNL program. The program uses a cohort model, and students are only admitted in the fall semester. Learners with an ADN may be eligible for the RN-to-MSN CNL program, and graduates of the MSN program may apply for a one-year MBA nursing specialty program. 

Details:

  • Program(s): Master of science in nursing - clinical nurse leader
  • Campus: Elmhurst, IL
  • Type: Private
  • Accreditation(s): Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Tuition: $780 per credit
  • Admission Requirements: BSN, 3.0 GPA, current and unencumbered Illinois RN license, college-level research or statistics course in the last 10 years
  • Minimum Time Commitment: 24 months
  • On-Campus Requirements: Yes
  • School NCLEX-RN Pass Rate: 100%
  • Median Earnings Two Years After Graduation: $82,000 for master's graduates, according to College Scorecard
Average Tuition
In-state
$37,454
Out-of-state
$37,454
Retention Rate
82%
Admission Rate
68%
Students Enrolled
3,453
Institution Type
Private
Percent Online Enrollment
20% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes Higher Learning Commission

#4 Clinical Nurse Leadership (CNL) Programs

Southern Connecticut State University

  • New Haven, CT
  • 4 years
  • Online + Campus

Description:

Southern Connecticut State University offers three MSN programs: nursing education, FNP, and the CNL program. CNL students can choose either a thesis or a special project as a capstone. Students must maintain a 3.0 GPA. If they receive a lower grade in any course, they must repeat it.

Details:

  • Program(s): Master of science in clinical nurse leader 
  • Campus: New Haven, CT
  • Type: Public 
  • Accreditation(s): Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Tuition: $3,840 per year for in-state residents; $9,880 per year for out-of-state residents
  • Admission Requirements: BSN; 3.0 GPA; at least a 2.0 GPA in courses in statistics, nursing research methods, and health assessment; current and unencumbered Connecticut RN license
  • Minimum Time Commitment: 30
  • On-Campus Requirements: Yes
  • School NCLEX-RN Pass Rate: 100%
  • Median Earnings Two Years After Graduation: $106,420 for master's graduates, according to College Scorecard
Average Tuition
In-state
$5,924
Out-of-state
$16,882
Retention Rate
73%
Admission Rate
69%
Students Enrolled
9,817
Institution Type
Public
Percent Online Enrollment
21% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes New England Commission on Higher Education

#5 Clinical Nurse Leadership (CNL) Programs

La Salle University

  • Philadelphia, PA
  • 4 years
  • Online + Campus

Description:

LaSalle University's CNL program requires 34 credits and 400 clinical hours. Unlike other MSN programs at LaSalle, the CNL program is only available as a master's degree, not a post-master's certificate. Classes are primarily offered in the late afternoon and evening to accommodate working students. The CNL program includes one elective course.

Details:

  • Program(s): Master of science in nursing - clinical nurse leader
  • Campus: Philadelphia, PA
  • Type: Private
  • Accreditation(s): Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Tuition: $905 per credit
  • Admission Requirements: BSN, either a 3.2 or higher GPA or MAT/GRE score showing above 50th percentile, current and unencumbered RN license, at least one year of RN experience before clinical courses
  • Minimum Time Commitment: 30 months
  • On-Campus Requirements: Yes
  • Median Earnings Two Years After Graduation: $111,990 for master's graduates, according to College Scorecard
Average Tuition
In-state
$30,700
Out-of-state
$30,700
Retention Rate
71%
Admission Rate
78%
Students Enrolled
4,933
Institution Type
Private
Percent Online Enrollment
22% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes Middle States Commission on Higher Education

#6 Clinical Nurse Leadership (CNL) Programs

University of Southern Maine

  • Portland, ME
  • 4 years
  • Online + Campus

Description:

The University of Southern Maine offers a 42-credit CNL program that includes 468 clinical hours. The final three semesters include an ongoing clinical project. The program requires two years of experience as an RN for admission, more than most CNL programs. The program is currently under revision, so check the website for updates. 

Details:

  • Program(s): Master of science in nursing - clinical nurse leader
  • Campus: Portland, ME
  • Type: Public
  • Accreditation(s): Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Tuition: $430 per credit for in-state residents; $1,190 per credit for out-of-state residents
  • Admission Requirements: BSN, 3.0 GPA, courses in statistics and health assessment, two years of experience as an RN, MAT (top 50 percentile) or GRE (153 verbal, 147 quantitative, 4.0 writing), Maine RN license
  • Minimum Time Commitment: 30
  • On-Campus Requirements: Yes
  • School NCLEX-RN Pass Rate: 85.8%
  • Median Earnings Two Years After Graduation: $95,170 for master's graduates, according to College Scorecard
Average Tuition
In-state
$7,868
Out-of-state
$20,692
Retention Rate
69%
Admission Rate
81%
Students Enrolled
8,429
Institution Type
Public
Percent Online Enrollment
40% Percentage of all students who are enrolled online.
Accreditation
Yes New England Commission on Higher Education

Frequently Asked Questions About Clinical Nurse Leader Programs


What does a clinical nurse leader do?

Clinical nurse leaders are nurses who are responsible for improving nursing quality and outcomes. They do research, identify best practices, lead initiatives, and monitor and evaluate the results.

They must have excellent nursing, analytical, and collaboration skills. Most but not all clinical nurse leaders work in hospitals.

Are clinical nurse leaders in demand?

Nurses at every level are in demand, especially nurses with master's degrees. While the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn't specifically track clinical nurse leader jobs, it projects that medical and health services manager jobs will grow 32% between 2020 and 2030.

What is the difference between a clinical nurse specialist and clinical nurse leader?

A clinical nurse specialist is an advanced practice nurse who is board certified in a particular clinical specialty, such as adult and gerontology care or pediatrics. Clinical nurse leaders also have master's degrees, but are not APRNs. They focus on improving clinical care overall.

What is clinical nurse leader certification?

If you are in your last semester or are a graduate of a master's-level CNL program or other accredited nursing program, you are eligible to take the CNL examination and apply for certification from the AACN. You must have a current RN license for full certification.

Related Clinical Nurse Leader Resources

NurseJournal.org is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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