Clinical Nurse Leadership (CNL) Programs

November 29, 2021 · 5 Min Read

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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Clinical nurse leaders improve patient care and medical operations through strong leadership and organizational expertise. CNL programs prepare registered nurses to take on advanced roles, coordinate treatment plans, and make a positive impact on their working environments.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects employment growth for healthcare occupations at 15% from 2019-2029, much faster than the average for all occupations. This growth adds about 2.4 million new healthcare industry jobs. With this influx of medical employment, healthcare facilities need strong leadership to guide nursing staff and ensure success.

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What to Expect From Clinical Nurse Leadership Programs

CNL programs provide graduate-level instruction to qualified nurses who want to improve healthcare delivery and advance their careers. Clinical nurse leadership programs prepare enrollees to monitor and revise treatment plans, introduce evidence-based best practices, and make risk assessment-informed decisions.

Program requirements vary, but CNL students can typically expect to spend about two years pursuing this specialized degree. These programs cover all aspects of nurse leadership and generally require about 35 credits of coursework. In addition to challenging classes, learners complete a hands-on CNL practicum.

Read on to learn about CNL program admissions, specializations, degree options, and coursework.

Admission Requirements and Prerequisites

Clinical nurse leader program applicants must typically hold an active nursing license. Many programs require a bachelor of science in nursing. For CNL hopefuls without a BSN, many schools offer BSN-MSN-CNL bridge programs. Graduates can earn CNL certification through the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN).

CNL programs maintain varying admission requirements, but many prefer substantial nursing experience. Additionally, candidates who can demonstrate proficiency in a nursing specialty or in administration may increase their chances of acceptance.

CNL programs train nurses for advanced leadership roles, so they hold high standards and require several prerequisites. Candidates should prepare to provide the following during the admission process:

Official transcripts demonstrating a minimum 3.0 GPA An active, unencumbered U.S. registered nursing license Professional resume demonstrating nursing experience Proof of malpractice insurance for clinical practicum coursework Statement of purpose and professional goals Professional references detailing nursing proficiency Completion of application and admission interview

Degree and Specialization Options

Earning a specialized MSN degree provides RNs several avenues for career advancement. While MSN programs offer many concentrations, specialization options fall into two categories: advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) specialties and non-advanced practice registered nurse (non-APRN) specialties.

APRN specialties focus on clinical and practical components of patient care. These concentrations include nurse midwife, family nurse practitioner, and gerontology primary care nurse practitioner. Non-APRN specialties prepare nurse leaders to teach, improve healthcare systems, and manage staff. They include clinical nurse leadership, nurse education, and nurse informatics.

The following non-APRN specializations allow degree-seekers to narrow their educational focus and prepare for leadership positions.

  • Clinical Nurse Leader: Professional nurse leaders assess and advance healthcare facility operations through planning and risk assessment.
  • Nurse Administrator: Administration professionals oversee nursing team staffing, evaluations, and assessments.
  • Nurse Educator: Specialized nursing teachers educate nursing students in classroom and clinical settings.
  • Public Health Nursing: Public health experts monitor and study health trends, analyze health risk factors, and educate communities.
  • Nurse Informatics: Nurses in this field incorporate medicine with computers and information science to track and optimize patient outcomes.

Comparing Similar Degrees

CNL professionals hold significant leadership responsibilities in healthcare facilities, but they are not the only nursing management roles. While most nurses provide patient care on the front lines, nurse leaders oversee treatment plans, business operations, education, and staffing in numerous healthcare settings.

Nurses hoping to advance their careers and take on leadership positions may consider pursuing CNL, nurse executive, nurse education, or nurse administration degrees.

Degree Comparison
Degree Length Courseload Focus Admission Requirements
CNL Degree 2 years 35-40 credits Improving patient care, measuring patient outcomes, and assessing risks BSN preferred and active RN license
Nurse Executive Degree 2-3 years 33-79 credits Leading with a business management approach to healthcare operations Master’s degree and RN license for doctoral-level programs; BSN preferred and RN license for master’s-level programs
Nurse Education Degree 2-3 years 36-53 credits Educating, mentoring, and training nursing students BSN preferred and active RN license
Nurse Administration Degree 2-3 years 36-51 credits Managing nursing staff and the operations of a healthcare facility BSN preferred and active RN license

Each of these degrees may lead to greater promotional opportunities and higher salaries, but they require different personality types. Nurse education and administration duties involve working with subordinate nurses or nursing students. These careers require collaborating with others and demand excellent interpersonal skills.

Clinical nurse leaders and nurse executives perform high-level functions like developing plans for success, assessing risks, and creating budgets. These careers also involve people but may best suit goal-oriented, highly organized individuals.

Popular Clinical Nurse Leadership Courses

CNL courses prepare nurses to assume leadership and management roles in clinical settings. Degree-seekers should expect to complete about 35 graduate coursework credits including a clinical practicum.

Students must also pass the AACN's CNL certification exam. This three-hour, computer-based exam reflects the CNL Job Analysis Study and covers several competencies. Candidates must achieve a score of 350 or greater to pass.

  • Clinical Education and Mentoring: This course offers a theoretical, practical, and evidence-based foundation for education, leadership and mentoring in the clinical nurse leadership role. Enrollees learn how to support patients, families, and colleagues by studying human behavior and educational psychology. This course also prepares leaders to assess, coach, and provide feedback.
  • Organizational Management for Healthcare Leaders: This course focuses on leadership and management theories in healthcare. Enrollees study organizational policies and systems for leading in clinical disciplines. This course also explores relevant global, political, and cultural perspectives on patient care.
  • Advanced Pharmacology: This course covers the chemical and biochemical interactions of several important pharmaceutical classes. Students learn pharmacodynamics, pharmacokinetics, and pharmacogenomics fundamentals. This course also evaluates how drugs affect the body, including the respiratory, gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, and central nervous systems.
  • Ethics for Advanced Practice Nursing: This course explores legal and ethical principles and implications for nursing practice, research, professional interactions, and scholarly work. Using case studies, learners examine ethical principles' practical applications in real management dilemmas.
  • Clinical Practicum: This capstone requirement focuses on professional skills such as implementing quality improvement strategies, providing patient-centered care, collaborating with healthcare teams, managing outcomes, and implementing evidence-based practice. In this course, students prepare to meet the AACN competencies and curricular expectations for clinical nurse leader education and practice.

How Much Do CNL Programs Cost?

CNL programs generally take two years to complete and cost about $12,000-$45,000. Graduate education costs vary based on factors such as school reputation, school type (public or private), and student residency status.

Instructional format can also impact overall cost. Online students can save on housing and transportation costs, since they do not need to commute or relocate to a school campus. Distance learners may also pay less per credit for online courses. CNL programs do require in-person practicums, but many online programs allow for flexibility in where those hours take place.

To lower their overall educational costs, CNL candidates can take advantage of financial aid options such as scholarships, fellowships, grants, and loans. Follow the links below to learn more about scholarships and grants for advanced nursing degrees.

Why Get a Clinical Nurse Leadership Degree?

RNs who graduate from clinical nurse leader programs enjoy higher earning potential and exciting professional responsibilities. CNLs can make a positive impact in their facilities and communities. They also benefit from several job perks.

Increased salary potential may motivate many RNs to invest in a CNL program. As of July 2021, registered nurses earned an average annual salary of $66,340, while clinical nurse leaders garnered an average salary of $83,180. That significant salary bump can offer a positive return on investment and help offset educational costs.

Other non-APRN degrees can lead to salary perks and leadership roles, but goal-oriented nurses who focus on the big picture of healthcare may especially enjoy CNL careers. Clinical nurse leaders also enjoy the following benefits:

Career Advancement: Many nurses want to enhance their professional profiles without losing touch with patient care. CNL roles allow RNs to take on increased responsibility while continuing to interact with patients, nurses, and other healthcare providers. Rewarding Work: CNLs guide patient care, modify nursing practices to improve outcomes, instruct other medical professionals in continuing education, and generally work to enhance healthcare in their medical environment. Stable Hours: Since CNLs often assume supervisory or managerial roles, they can maintain more stable working hours than other RNs. Some nursing professionals may prefer a CNL schedule to better balance work and family obligations.

How to Select Your Clinical Nurse Leader Program

If you're ready to begin searching for your ideal CNL program, don't forget the following educational considerations:

  • Accreditation: Independent accrediting agencies establish quality standards for postsecondary education. Colleges and universities should hold regional accreditation from the organization that evaluates schools within their geographic area. Nursing schools must also hold programmatic accreditation from the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education or the Accrediting Commission for Education in Nursing.
  • Available Concentrations: Many nursing schools offer specialized MSN degrees, but not every institution offers CNL programs. Ensure that all prospective schools offer the coursework and teach the competencies necessary to pass the CNL exam upon graduation.
  • Cost and Financial Aid: CNL program costs can vary substantially. Budget-conscious students can get the most for their money by choosing an in-state, public institution that holds accreditation with the above organizations. Degree-seekers should also look into schools' financial aid offerings.

Frequently Asked Questions

How much does a clinical nurse leader make?

According to PayScale, clinical nurse leaders earn an average salary of $83,180, which is more than $16,000 above the average salary for RNs.

How do I get CNL certified?

To become CNL certified, an RN must pursue an MSN degree with a specialization in clinical nurse leadership. After completing the program, graduates must also pass AACN's CNL certification exam.

Is the CNL exam hard?

The CNL exam is computer-based and takes three hours. It covers the competencies taught in a CNL program. The exam scores on a scale of 150-500. Candidates must earn a score of at least 350 to pass.

Are online clinical nurse leader programs worth it?

As long as they hold accreditation with the proper regional and national accrediting agencies, online CNL programs are just as legitimate as on-campus programs. They may also cost less. 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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