Clinical Nurse Leadership (CNL) Programs

NurseJournal Staff
Updated August 30, 2023
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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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.

Explore Popular Online MSN Programs

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

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Learn About the Top Clinical Nurse Leader Programs and Schools

#1 Clinical Nurse Leadership (CNL) Programs

University of Rochester

  • Location-markerRochester, NY
  • 4 year
  • Campus + Online
Average Tuition
  • In-State$57,188
  • Out-of-state$57,188
  • Retention Rate92%
  • Acceptance Rate35%
  • Students Enrolled11,741
  • Institution TypePrivate
  • Percent Online Enrollment82%
  • AccreditationYes
#2 Clinical Nurse Leadership (CNL) Programs

University of Portland

  • Location-markerPortland, OR
  • 4 year
  • Campus + Online
Average Tuition
  • In-State$49,424
  • Out-of-state$49,424
  • Retention Rate86%
  • Acceptance Rate77%
  • Students Enrolled3,999
  • Institution TypePrivate
  • Percent Online Enrollment100%
  • AccreditationYes
#3 Clinical Nurse Leadership (CNL) Programs

Elmhurst College

  • Location-markerElmhurst, IL
  • 4 year
  • Campus + Online
Average Tuition
  • In-State$38,354
  • Out-of-state$38,354
  • Retention Rate81%
  • Acceptance Rate66%
  • Students Enrolled3,421
  • Institution TypePrivate
  • Percent Online Enrollment86%
  • AccreditationYes
#4 Clinical Nurse Leadership (CNL) Programs

Southern Connecticut State University

  • Location-markerNew Haven, CT
  • 4 year
  • Campus + Online
Average Tuition
  • In-State$6,162
  • Out-of-state$18,436
  • Retention Rate77%
  • Acceptance Rate80%
  • Students Enrolled9,331
  • Institution TypePublic
  • Percent Online Enrollment96%
  • AccreditationYes
#5 Clinical Nurse Leadership (CNL) Programs

La Salle University

  • Location-markerPhiladelphia, PA
  • 4 year
  • Campus + Online
Average Tuition
  • In-State$31,350
  • Out-of-state$31,350
  • Retention Rate78%
  • Acceptance Rate76%
  • Students Enrolled4,624
  • Institution TypePrivate
  • Percent Online Enrollment91%
  • AccreditationYes
#6 Clinical Nurse Leadership (CNL) Programs

University of Southern Maine

  • Location-markerPortland, ME
  • 4 year
  • Campus + Online
Average Tuition
  • In-State$8,064
  • Out-of-state$21,532
  • Retention Rate70%
  • Acceptance Rate88%
  • Students Enrolled8,022
  • Institution TypePublic
  • Percent Online Enrollment88%
  • AccreditationYes

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.

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    Admission Requirements

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

Frequently Asked Questions About Clinical Nurse Leader Programs

question-mark-circleWhat 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.

question-mark-circleAre 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.

question-mark-circleWhat 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.

question-mark-circleWhat 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

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