Best Online RN to DNP Programs

As a registered nurse (RN), you possess a host of skills and extensive experience in treating patients. Consider taking your career to the next level by earning a doctorate of nursing practice (DNP), your field’s terminal degree. RN-to-DNP online programs help RNs like you complete their doctorates while continuing to work full or part time. Although going back to school while working might seem impossible at first glance, rest assured that numerous online programs cater to working professionals. Also, RN-to-DNP online bridge programs allow experienced nurses with associate degrees to bypass a bachelor’s program and earn their master’s and doctoral degrees simultaneously.

After completing your degree, you can move into the healthcare field’s most lucrative positions. Many RNs who complete online RN-to-DNP programs become top executives who earn, on average, over $100,000 per year. In this article, you can learn more about online RN-to-DNP programs, associated careers, and resources to jumpstart your education.

Best Online RN-to-DNP Programs

1. Frontier Nursing University

Frontier Nursing University designed their nursing education to meet the needs of rural citizens. Registered nurses can complete both a master’s of nursing and doctorate in the accelerated program. The master’s degree curriculum incorporates many of the DNP core courses, so students need complete only 19 additional credits to earn the advanced clinical degree. FNU requires three on-campus experiences for the bridge program, but students complete their clinical practicum near their homes. Many students live in rural communities, and more than half work in areas deemed medically underserved. Students choose full-time or part-time enrollment. Students may become certified as nurse midwives, family nurse practitioners, or psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners.

2. South Dakota State University

The RN-to-DNP online bridge program offered by South Dakota State University allows nurses with an undergraduate degree the opportunity to become advanced practice nurses in as little as three years. The school offers full-time and part-time options for working professionals. The program includes specializations in family nurse practitioner, neonatal nurse practitioner, family psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner, and pediatric nurse practitioner. The school is accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education and meets the requirements for graduates to gain credentials from the American Nurses Credentialing Center. The school uses a hybrid course delivery, with face-to-face courses offered in both Brookings and Rapid City. Students complete a minimum of 1,000 clinical hours, and they can arrange for these near their homes. Students must also complete a project that includes a written paper and presentation of a scholarly research project.

3. University of Florida

The University of Florida College of Nursing helps nurses advance their careers and fill in-demand healthcare jobs with an accelerated, online RN-to-DNP bridge program. Credit requirements vary, but students can expect to earn 75 to 78 credits in the RN-to-DNP online program. The university offers specialization in family nurse practitioner, acute care adult-gerontology, pediatric acute care, pediatric primary care, and psychiatric-mental health.

Applicants must have a bachelor’s degree in nursing with at least a 3.0 GPA, and they must be eligible for nursing licensure in Florida. The school offers part-time and full-time options, with an emphasis on patient assessment, healthcare policy, and practice expertise. While students can complete most core courses online, some specialty classes may require on-campus attendance in Gainesville. Students must complete up to 1,000 clinical hours of supervised nursing practice. The capstone project includes a clinical paper and presentation of a practice-based project.

4. Duke University School of Nursing

Duke University School of Nursing in Durham, North Carolina, earned a top ranking as Best Graduate School for Nursing and Best Doctor of Nursing Practice Program from U.S. News & World Report in 2019. Its RN-to-DNP online bridge program accelerates completion of a clinical nursing degree and allows nurses to advance their practice and gain licensure as a nurse practitioner or nurse anesthetist. The program requires at least 74 credits, and graduates earn an embedded master’s degree. While students can take all DNP courses online, Duke does require two- and three-day executive sessions. The curriculum includes the study of healthcare policy, enabling graduates to act as advocates for community health and the advanced practice nursing profession, as well as evidence-based patient care. Applicants must hold active licensure as a registered nurse in the state where they plan to practice, and must have also earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing with at least a 3.0 GPA.

5. Delta State University

Registered nurses with at least an associates degree can complete their Doctor of Nursing Practice in nine semesters through Delta State University’s RN-to-DNP online bridge program. Students can expect to complete up to 107 credits, earning embedded bachelor’s and master’s degrees along the way. Full-time and part-time options allow students flexibility while earning their degrees. The curriculum includes health assessment, health policy, informatics, and epidemiology. Students must complete 1,020 clinical hours in nursing practice and 420 clinical hours toward their final scholarly project. The school works with students to arrange clinical experiences in their geographic area. While Delta State offers all classes online, students should plan to visit the Cleveland, Mississippi, campus one to three times each semester. Applicants should have at least an associate degree in nursing with a 3.0 GPA. Students need one year of clinical nursing experience and RN licensure in their state.


RN-to-DNP Online Programs: An Overview

In this section, review RN-to-DNP programs’ many facets, including admission requirements, program length, common courses, internships, and professional organizations. Finally, keep in mind that details can vary widely among programs.

Admission Requirements for an Online RN-to-DNP Program

All RN-to-DNP online programs require that applicants possess a valid nursing license in their home states. Beyond that, these programs break down into two broad categories. The first category attracts nurses who already possess a bachelor’s in nursing. The other category, also known as RN-to-DNP bridge programs, accept applicants from RNs who possess only an associate degree in nursing.

Many programs require that applicants submit GRE scores; some programs may use cutoffs that automatically disqualify applicants who do not achieve a specific score. Another cutoff that programs typically use is GPA; you should possess a minimum 3.0 undergraduate GPA. Finally, expect that every program to which you apply requires work experience; for example, doctoral programs, especially those with concentrations, ask students to complete thousands of hours of supervised clinical experience at their job sites.

How Long Does It Take to Complete an Online RN-to-DNP Program?

The answer to this question depends on your educational experience. Incoming students with a bachelor’s degree in nursing spend three to four years earning their degrees. Students enrolled in RN-to-DNP bridge online programs can spend up to six years in school. Bridge program students typically complete an additional 12 credits on top of the standard 80-100 credit online RN-to-DNP program curriculum.

In addition to your degrees, other factors influence your program’s length. Cohort learning programs, those wherein a group of students take courses together and in a set order, require you to stay in school longer than individually paced programs. In individually paced programs, you get the final say over your course load each semester. Some dedicated, full-time individually paced students can graduate before their cohort counterparts. Outside of coursework, expect clinical hours to influence how long it takes you to graduate; some programs require upwards of 2,500 hours.

Concentrations Offered for an Online DNP Degree

Adult-Gerontology Primary Care

This concentration prepares students to work with patients ages 18 and up. The curriculum stresses pharmacology, diagnostic methodology, and differential diagnosis. As family nurse practitioners treat all adult patients, they may take two or more courses on the same topic to differentiate treatment best practices for different age groups.

Careers this concentration prepares for: Family nurse practitioner

 

Neonatal

The neonatal concentration attracts RNs who plan to work with premature infants and other high-risk children ages zero to two years. The coursework stresses intensive care best practices and infant pharmacology. During clinicals, students rotate among intensive care nurseries to learn from practicing neonatal nurse practitioners. Graduates typically go on to work in large hospitals.

Careers this concentration prepares for: Neonatal nurse practitioner

 

Psychiatric Mental Health

This concentration prepares students to diagnose and treat patients’ mental disorders. Coursework stresses psychology, pharmacology, and long-term treatment best practices. Cultural sensitivity and differentiating treatment also play a significant role in many programs’ curricula. Graduates often work at psychiatric hospitals, performing patient intake and working alongside psychiatrists.

Careers this concentration prepares for: Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner

Example Courses for Online RN-to-DNP Students

The courses in RN-to-DNP programs vary, but all focus on the same essential skills DNP graduates need for their careers. In this section, learn more about five courses common to RN-to-DNP online programs. Please keep in mind that programs you research may use different names and course descriptions.

  • Comprehensive Health Assessment: Nurse practitioners must know how to perform a thorough physical examination and record patients’ medical histories. The curriculum stresses diagnostic methodology; students may complete practicums wherein they shadow nurse practitioners examining patients. Just as important, students learn how to incorporate socioeconomic and cultural sensitivities when they interview patients for the first time.
  • Pharmacology: In pharmacology courses, students analyze how medication affects patients’ biological systems. Important course topics include psychology, biochemistry, and drug metabolism. All RN-to-DNP online students take one or more pharmacology course, typically an introductory course and another that focuses on the patient population with whom students intend to treat after graduation.
  • Informatics: Informatics refers to how technological advances in information storage and retrieval affect the healthcare profession and patient outcomes. In informatics courses, students analyze information systems such as integrated data repositories to understand better how these systems assist healthcare professionals with diagnosing and treating patients.
  • Health Policy and Economics: In this course, nurses analyze the U.S. healthcare system: its facilities, challenges, costs, etc. The curriculum covers healthcare’s evolution and recent attempts by hospitals and political leaders to improve healthcare affordability and access. In class, students propose solutions to these challenges by performing research and creating policy proposals.
  • Leadership: All DNP graduates must possess leadership skills so they can manage teams and organizations after graduation. Coursework emphasizes leadership best practices, persuasion, psychology, and managing the workplace. In most programs, students take leadership courses only after they have mastered their concentration.

Internship Component

One reason RN-to-DNP online programs take five to six years to complete involves the 1,000-2,000 hours of supervised clinicals you perform at either your job site or at healthcare centers in your local community. Your program sets up your clinical rotations well in advance. While completing your clinicals, both you and your and supervisors keep track of your hours and report back to your program.

When researching programs, inquire with each concerning the support they provide online students completing clinicals. You want a program that employs dedicated staff that helps students locate appropriate clinical rotations and solve any potential problems. If a program maintains these or similar resources, the university’s physical location should not impact your decision to apply.

Certifications and Licenses This Program Prepares For

  • Cardiac Nurse Practitioner: Cardiac nurse practitioners possess the skills necessary to treat patients with heart-related health conditions. This license requires 2,000 hours of specialized clinical experience in cardiovascular health, continuing education credits, and an application fee. DNP graduates who earn this license go on to work in specialists’ offices and major hospitals’ cardiovascular departments.
  • Orthopedic Nurse Practitioner: The orthopedic nurse practitioner licensure qualifies DNPs to treat patients with bone and muscular conditions. The license requires 1,500 clinical hours in orthopedic health and a passing grade on the ONP-C exam. To renew your license, you must earn continuing education credits each year; each state sets the number of credits orthopedic nurse practitioners must earn.
  • Neonatal Nurse Practitioner: Neonatal nurse practitioners work with newborns and infants to diagnose and treat medical conditions that often affect small children. To earn this license, you complete 700 clinical hours in neonatal care and pass the neonatal nurse practitioner examination. Licensed nurses renew their licenses every three years by earning continuing education credits.

Accreditation for Online RN-to-DNP Programs

When researching online RN-to-DNP programs, you must ensure that each program on your shortlist can provide you with an excellent education that prepares you for your future career. To make this determination, research each program’s accreditation status. First, all reputable universities possess regional accreditation. The U.S.’s seven regional accreditation agencies oversee every school in the country. The U.S. Department of Education (ED) and the Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) regulate these agencies.

As you plan to earn your degree online, your program should also possess accreditation from the Distance Education Accrediting Commission or another national accreditation agency. Finally, research independent accrediting organizations, such as field-specific agencies that review graduate-level nursing programs. An online program that possesses accreditation from the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing and the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education offers an excellent educational experience.

You can also review a comprehensive list of accredited schools on the ED and CHEA websites.

Job and Salary Outlook

Job Opportunities for DNP Graduates

Many DNP online program graduates go on to earn their nurse practitioner license or certificate in the field in which they specialized. These five careers represent potential career paths you can pursue after earning a DNP. As you review these and related careers, keep in mind that once you select a concentration, your career path becomes much narrower. However, once DNP graduates accumulate experience, they often find new career opportunities within their specialty.

Pediatric Nurse Practitioner

Median Annual Salary: $86,373

Pediatric nurse practitioners work with patients ages two to 18. Their expertise lies in developmental health; they often work at doctors’ offices.


Family Nurse Practitioner

Median Annual Salary: $91,000

Family nurse practitioners treat patients of all ages, typically at doctors’ offices. Job duties include interviewing new patients and prescribing medication.


Neonatal Nurse Practitioner

Median Annual Salary: $97,395

Neonatal nurse practitioners treat children ages zero to two. They often work in hospitals’ neonatal care centers, treating premature infants and other ill children.


Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner

Median Annual Salary: $100,620

Psychiatric nurse practitioners help patients suffering from psychiatric disorders such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. They typically work in psychiatrists’ offices and psychiatric hospitals.


Oncology Nurse Practitioner

Median Annual Salary: $101,390

Oncology nurse practitioners help cancer patients develop treatment plans and manage pain. They often work in hospital oncology departments.


Source: PayScale, Nov. 2018

How Much Do DNP Graduates Make?

In the table below, you can learn more about the annual mean wage for nurse practitioners in five employment settings. Like with other salary information, remember that as a DNP, your salary should exceed the annual mean wage as states require nurse practitioners to possess only an MSN.

Setting Annual Mean Wage for Nurse Practitioners
Offices of Physicians $108,300
General Medical and Surgical Hospitals $117,850
Outpatient Care Centers $112,940
Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools $101,600
Other Health Organization Offices $107,700

Source: BLS

Professional Organizations

Although you may need up to six years to complete your RN-to-DNP degree, it pays to start preparing for your future career as soon as possible. Joining one or more professional organizations connects you with thousands of like-minded graduate students, continuing education courses, and job hunting resources. Start your search with the three organizations below, each of which offers members unique benefits and low membership fees for student members.

American Nurses Association: ANA members benefit from webinars and a private career center. Nurses with professional experience can take leadership courses to build their resumes. Like many professional organizations, ANA offers professional insurance at competitive rates.


Oncology Nursing Society: The ONS lobbies Congress on behalf of oncology nurses and the patients they treat. Members receive access to continuing education courses and invitations to the ONS spring congress; multiple online conferences allow all members to participate no matter their location in the U.S.


Emergency Nurses Association: Over 43,000 ENA members work in emergency rooms throughout the country. The ENA provides its members with new continuing education courses each month and discounts on emergency nursing certification.

Financing Your Online RN-to-DNP Program

As you research RN-to-DNP programs, do not forget about financial aid opportunities. Submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to determine if you qualify for federally backed loans, grants, and/or work-study opportunities. Even if you do not qualify for FAFSA aid, you can still apply for scholarships exclusive to graduate students earning their RN-to-DNP. In the next section, explore eight scholarships that help students like you finance their educations.

Scholarships for RN-to-DNP Students

American Association of Occupational Health Nurses Scholarships

Who Can Apply: Nursing undergraduate or graduate students specializing in occupational health may apply for the six AAOHN scholarships using a single application. Interested students must become AAOHN members before submitting their applications, which include an essay and two recommendation letters. AAOHN uses a points systems to determine scholarship recipients.

Amount: $1,000-$2,500


Caroline E. Holt Nursing Scholarship

Who Can Apply: The Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) awards the Caroline E. Holt Nursing Scholarship to three undergraduate or graduate nursing students with financial need. DAR accepts applications from men and women; other DAR scholarships are exclusive to women. To apply, submit the scholarship application, financial need form, two recommendation letters, transcripts, and 1,000-word essay by the February 15 deadline.

Amount: $2,500


CVS Together We Care Scholarship

Who Can Apply: Each year, CVS presents this scholarship to up to 20 graduate students earning their master’s or doctoral degree in nursing with an advanced practice registered nurse certification. Applicants must possess a minimum 3.2 GPA and show considerable leadership potential through community involvement. Students cannot renew the scholarship.

Amount: $2,500


Emergency Nurses Association Scholarships

Who Can Apply: The ENA awards funding to undergraduate and graduate nursing students who plan to work as emergency nurses in hospital ERs and similar healthcare settings. Based on 2017 data, applicants have an approximately 50% chance of receiving some ENA funding.

Amount: Varies


National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners Scholarship

Who Can Apply: Nursing undergraduate and graduate students preparing for careers as pediatric nurse practitioners may apply. In years when NAPNAP does not offer a scholarship, it may continue to accept applications for other awards and grants applicable to RN-to-DNP students.

Amount: Not listed


National Health Service Corps Scholarship Program

Who Can Apply: U.S. citizens earning their graduate nursing degrees at U.S. universities may apply. NHSC considers applicants specializing in adult medicine, family medicine, geriatrics, primary care, psychiatric medicine, or mental health. Scholarship recipients agree to work in a community in need within the U.S. for at least two years after earning their degrees.

Amount: Full tuition


The Recovery Village® Healthcare Scholarship

Who Can Apply: The Recovery Village ® awards scholarships to undergraduate and graduate students earning a healthcare-related degree. To apply, submit an essay detailing how you plan to help people with mental or substance abuse disorders. Applicants must submit all application materials by the June 30 deadline. Students cannot renew the scholarship.

Amount: $1,000


Society of Pediatric Nurses Scholarships

Who Can Apply: The SPN awards two scholarships each year to members advancing their educations in pediatric nursing. The scholarship includes funding to attend the annual SPN conference held each April. In addition to scholarships, the SPN awards research grants to graduate nursing students; applying for grants requires a separate application.

Amount: Varies