The Best Online Clinical Nurse Specialist Programs

Daniel Bal
Updated June 19, 2024
This guide explores online CNS programs, including the expected coursework, costs, and three exceptional professors.
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Clinical nurse specialist (CNS) programs provide registered nurses (RNs) with the opportunity to earn either a master’s or doctorate in specialties such as pediatrics, mental health, and gerontology. Within their specialty, a CNS may play the roles of clinician, educator, researcher, and consultant.

This guide overviews some of the best online CNS programs with information on the application process and what to look for in an online program.

We use a data-driven methodology to rank the best online clinical nurse specialist programs, making it easier for you 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 online clinical nurse specialist programs, or go straight to our list of the best online clinical nurse specialist programs.

Online Clinical Nurse Specialist Programs

#1 The Best Online Clinical Nurse Specialist Programs

University of Detroit Mercy

  • Location-markerDetroit, MI
  • 4 year
  • Campus + Online
Average Tuition
  • In-State$29,562
  • Out-of-state$29,562
  • Retention Rate86%
  • Acceptance Rate79%
  • Students Enrolled4,987
  • Institution TypePrivate
  • Percent Online Enrollment84%
  • AccreditationYes

Online Clinical Nurse Specialist Program Concentrations

A CNS has advanced education and training in a concentration of their choosing. Their specialized role is often defined by population (for example, pediatrics, geriatrics, women’s health) and settings such as intensive care units and emergency rooms. Diseases like oncology and cardiology or types of care such as psychiatry and rehabilitation are also factors.

The CNS must pass a national certification exam in their chosen specialty after graduation.

Some of the more popular specializations include the following:

  • Adult Gerontology (AG): An AG-CNS specializes in the acute care of adults and older populations at hospitals, clinics, and private practices.
  • Pediatrics: A pediatric CNS focuses on providing care to children, adolescents, and sometimes entire families in hospitals, clinics, and other healthcare facilities.
  • Family: This CNS works directly with families in disease prevention and general care within either a healthcare or an academic setting.
  • Psychiatric Mental Health: A CNS specializing in PMH assesses and diagnoses mental health issues in patients of all ages. They also educate patients and their families on various psychiatric and mental health conditions.
  • Neonatal: A neonatal CNS works with newborns and their parents or guardians by monitoring the clinical care of infants who suffer from various medical conditions.

Featured Online MSN Programs

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What to Look For in an Online Clinical Nurse Specialist Program

Prospective nurses need to consider various factors before choosing an online CNS program that works for them. Researching information such as admission requirements, the length of the program, and the school’s success in preparing its students for certification can help narrow the options.

It is also crucial to check if the program follows the certification and licensing requirements by verifying that it is accredited.

Admission Requirements

While most CNS programs generally ask for similar admission requirements, such as a valid RN license and a minimum of a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN), some institutions may ask applicants to meet other criteria.

By reviewing each program’s admission requirements, students can determine which schools may be best suited to their educational background.

Clinical Experience

When completing an online program, schools will typically coordinate with a healthcare facility close to the students’ location where they may complete in-person clinicals. According to the National Association of Clinical Nurses, CNS programs usually require 500 clinical hours.


The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) evaluates CNS programs to determine if they meet state and national standards for certification through the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) or the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN).

Programs that do not have accreditation may limit a graduate’s ability to continue their education or find employment. It is best to attend an accredited program.

Program Length

A program’s length varies, but online programs can provide flexibility. On average, it takes about two years for licensed RNs to complete a CNS program.

School Graduation Rate

A school’s graduation rate helps highlight student success. It provides insight into the percentage of students who complete the program within the expected time frame.

First-Time Board Certification Pass Rate

A school’s board certification pass rate indicates how well students perform on the CNS specialty exams, which graduates need to pass to apply for the appropriate license. The higher the pass rate, the more successful the program is in preparing its students for their future roles.

Online Learning Format and Requirements

Online programs are more flexible than in-person. Depending on the program, students can enroll in synchronous (real time) or asynchronous classes (student’s time). A computer, preferably a laptop, and a stable internet connection are typically required for online learning.

Applying to an Online Clinical Nurse Specialist Program

Before applying to an online CNS program, students should review the admission requirements to determine if they meet the prerequisites. They can then decide if a program is appropriate for them and their academic and professional background.

To gain admittance into either a master of science in nursing (MSN) or doctor in nursing practice (DNP) program, prospective CNSs must meet the following requirements.

  • check-circleAdmission Requirements: BSN from an accredited institution (some schools may accept an RN who does not hold a bachelor’s degree), transcripts from previous academic programs, National Council Licensure Examination for RNs (NCLEX-RN) exam scores, resume outlining professional nursing experience, and letters of recommendation
  • check-circleGPA Requirements: 3.0 or higher
  • check-circleOther Requirements: A valid, unencumbered RN license

Why Is Online Clinical Nurse Specialist Program Accreditation Important?

When researching academic institutions, applicants are advised to select an accredited nursing program. Earning a degree from an accredited institution benefits graduates and their future employers by confirming the program’s quality.

Attending an accredited program can lead to the following advantages:

  • Receiving accreditation from the CCNE verifies that the program meets the standards for certification from the ANCC or AACN. Without confirming the quality of the program, the CCNE will not provide an institution with accreditation.
  • Exclusive programs typically only accept credits transferred from other accredited programs. It can be difficult for students from unaccredited programs to transfer to another academic institution.
  • Institutions are more likely to accept a degree earned from an accredited program as a prerequisite for admittance.
  • Students who attend unaccredited programs may not be eligible for financial aid.
  • Accredited degrees can lead to better employment positions with higher earning potential.

Paying for Online Clinical Nurse Specialist Programs

A key factor in determining an appropriate online CNS program is tuition. Choosing an online program is often less of a financial commitment when compared to in-person programs. Yet, the cost can still vary based on the type of school (public vs. private), the length of the program, and enrollment status (full time vs. part time).

Students who need help paying for a CNS program can find it in the form of financial aid for nurses and scholarships.Applying for nursing scholarships, loans, and grants can help decrease the program’s cost.

Scholarships provide funds based on merit, talent, or academic performance. Loans consist of borrowed money that needs to be paid back, while grants are awarded based on a student’s financial need.

Learn More About the Best Online Clinical Nurse Specialist Programs and Schools

More Online CNS Programs

Michigan State University: Online MSN-CNS, Adult-Gerontology

Michigan State University’s online MSN for Adult-Gerontology Clinical Nurse Specialists prepares APRNs to care for adults across the lifespan, while its primary concentration—Nurse Education—provides teaching expertise. All coursework is delivered 100 percent online; students need only visit MSU’s East Lansing campus for a single one-day orientation before beginning their studies. Classes include Clinical Decision Making, Care for Aging Individuals Across the Healthcare Continuum, and Curricular Design in Nursing Education, among others. According to MSU’s official website, full-time students can complete the program in as few as five semesters; part-time students can do so in eight semesters.

Cost: $889.75 per credit-hour (2023-24)

Purdue University Northwest: Online MSN-CNS

Purdue University Northwest’s online MSN-CNS is a fully web-based program apart from one visit to its Hammond campus during a required Advanced Health Assessment course. Students can choose to specialize in adult and/or critical care nursing. Additional core coursework includes Informatics in Nursing, Pathophysiologic Concepts, and Pharmacotherapeutics for Advanced Practice Nursing. According to PUN, all program faculty are highly qualified and certified in online instruction.

Cost: $340.90 per credit-hour for Indiana residents, $501.10 per credit-hour for non-residents (2023-24)

Old Dominion University: Online MSN-CNS/Nurse Educator, Adult-Gerontology

Old Dominion University’s online MSN-CNS and Nurse Educator program in Adult-Gerontology is designed to train expert clinicians ready to conduct research, nursing interventions, and effective teaching strategies. Students can choose between a general or clinical adult-gerontology tracks. Old Dominion University’s online CNS students may be required to visit its campus in Norfolk, VA for training or testing, usually no more than once or twice a year. Students take all remaining classes online. The program’s varied curriculum addresses advanced nursing theory, research, and teaching.

Cost: $599 per credit-hour for Virginia residents; $623 per hour for nonresidents (2023-24)

University of South Alabama: Online MSN-CNS, Adult-Gerontology

The University of South Alabama’s online MSN-CNS Adult-Gerontology program offers two pathways: a post-BSN track or an extended RN-to-MSN track for students with associate degrees or diplomas. Both options help students cultivate the skills they need to deliver advanced patient care and translate research while preparing them for the CNS certification examination. Courses include Evidence-Based Practice and Quality Improvement in Health Care; Healthcare Policy and Finance; and Advance Nursing Assessment. Online MSN-CNS students need not visit USA’s campus in Mobile, as all courses are delivered online; students complete didactic and clinical work in their respective communities.

Cost: $594 per credit-hour (2023-24)

Kent State University: Online MSN-CNS, Adult-Gerontology

Kent State University’s online CNS program in Adult-Gerontology is ideal for RNs who want to care specifically for adults throughout the lifespan. This program accepts students in the fall or spring. According to KSU, the program’s curriculum is designed to cultivate advanced nursing skills in direct patient care, leadership, research, consultation, and ethical decision-making across the continuum of health and disease. Students can complete the 38-unit program fully online on a part- or full-time basis. Among the University’s required AG-CNS courses are Advanced Nursing Informatics, Methods of Inquiry, Clinical Diagnostics for Advanced Practice Nurses, and a practicum, which students can complete in their home communities. Please note that Kent State also offers an online BSN-to-DNP pathway, which comprises 74 credits and starts in the fall.

Cost: $571.90 per-credit-hour for Ohio residents taking fewer than 11 credit hours per semester; $581.90 per-credit-hour for non-residents taking fewer than 11 credit hours per semester, PLUS a surcharge of $10 per credit hour (2023-24)

Frequently Asked Questions About Online Clinical Nurse Specialist Programs

What is the difference between an MSN and a DNP clinical nurse specialist program?

An MSN program focuses on helping nurses gain advanced medical skills within their chosen specialty. The skills they learn allow the CNS to be eligible for more prestigious positions that offer higher salaries.

A DNP program, in addition to advanced medical skills, provides nurses with enhanced knowledge in clinical theory, opening them up to positions in academia and research.

What does a clinical nurse specialist do?

A CNS focuses on a specialized area of nursing within a variety of healthcare settings, such as hospitals, clinics, and private practices. Specialty areas mainly include adult-gerontology, family, pediatrics, neonatal, and psychiatric mental health. Within their specialty, the CNS might play the role of an educator, advisor, advocate, and a researcher.

What skills do you need to be a clinical nurse specialist?

The most crucial skill for a CNS is their understanding of advanced nursing practices within their specialty. A successful CNS also benefits from various soft skills for nurses, including communication, critical thinking, teamwork, and problem-solving.

These qualities can help nurses thrive within their chosen healthcare settings.

How much can nurses earn after graduating from a CNS program?

On average, a CNS can earn a yearly salary of $100,392, according to Payscale in March 2024. However, earnings depend on specialty, setting, and experience.

While an entry-level CNS with less than a year of experience can earn $89,202, nurses with 10-20 years of experience can net an average of $100,626. Those with over 20 years of experience can earn $110,220.

Related Online Clinical Nurse Specialist Program Pages

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