Best Online MSN in Nursing Leadership Programs

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that employment of registered nurses will grow 15% through 2026, more than twice the national growth rate. On top of exceptional job prospects, registered nurses command high salaries. In 2017, the median salary for registered nurses employed at government agencies, many of whom work on issues related to public health, reached nearly $76,000. By comparison, the median salary for all other occupations approached only $38,000 that same year.

Despite growing demand, an increase in the number of nurses entering the labor market should create competition for many of the most desirable jobs in the field. Changes in government spending may also limit the number of new opportunities available for public health nurses. Professionals with a postsecondary degree in a discipline such as public health nursing should have the best job prospects.

1. Capella University

Focused primarily on distance education, Capella University offers one of the top online MSN leadership programs available. The degree functions as an RN-to-MSN pathway, intended for students who already work as registered nurses. The 66-credit curriculum includes a total of 15 courses: three bridge courses that transition students from undergraduate to graduate studies, eight core courses that cover fundamental nursing knowledge, and five specialization courses that focus on leadership practices and skills. The leadership specialization includes courses such as healthcare quality and safety management, advanced finance and operations management, and leading the future of healthcare. All students complete a six-credit practicum and capstone course with a minimum of 100 practicum hours. Students arrange practicum hours in an approved healthcare environment of their choice under the supervision of an approved preceptor.

2. Grand Canyon University

A Christian college in Phoenix, Arizona, GCU offers an online master of science in nursing with an emphasis on leadership in healthcare systems. Intended for applicants who already possess a BSN degree, the program stresses the values, knowledge, and skills necessary for advanced leadership in the healthcare field, exploring topics in critical nursing analysis, healthcare research, ethics, management, and healthcare policy. The program examines nursing and business leadership models, focusing on nursing education, practice, and care delivery. The 36-credit curriculum consists of nine courses, including leadership styles and development, servant leadership, and organizational development and change. All students must complete a practicum experience that explores the practical application of nursing leadership in healthcare settings. The program ends with an evidence-based capstone in which students identify a professional nursing leadership problem and develop a solution.

3. Benedictine University

A Catholic college in Illinois, Benedictine offers a master of science in nursing with a concentration in nurse executive leadership. Training students to serve as ethical leaders and healthcare professionals, the program offers a curriculum tailored to meet the specifications of the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. The online MSN in leadership program emphasizes topics in contemporary nursing practice and management, including organizational leadership, interprofessional collaboration, healthcare technologies, quality improvement, and evidence-based practice. Students complete a total of 36 credits, including 15 credits of nursing foundation courses and 21 credits of nurse executive leader concentrating courses. The program core covers topics such as health promotion, healthcare policy, and ethical care, while the concentration section covers specialized topics in professionalism and executive career development, effective communication, systems thinking, and resource allocation. All candidates also complete a 70-hour clinical immersion in a professional setting.

4. Saint Xavier University

Based in Chicago, SXU offers a master of science in nursing in clinical leadership that takes two years to complete. This MSN in leadership and management online trains nurses to develop and implement comprehensive healthcare plans, emphasizing advanced knowledge in clinical leadership strategies, evidence-based quality improvement, health assessment, pathophysiology, and pharmacology. The program requires a minimum of 38 credits, split between an 18-credit core, a nine-credit support section, and an 11-credit specialization section. The leadership specialization section combines theoretical perspectives on nursing management with a substantial clinical immersion. In total, students complete 450 hours of practicum experiences, including 150 nonclinical hours and 300 clinical hours in a healthcare setting. The program curriculum prepares graduates to sit for the national Clinical Nurse Leader examination, which SXU students pass at a rate higher than the national average.

5. Purdue Global

Purdue offers one of the best online MSN leadership programs in the country, preparing graduates for management roles in healthcare settings. Emphasizing flexibility for working nurses, the program offers four start dates throughout the year in January, February, April, and December. Purdue also offers the MSN in a self-paced ExcelTrack format, which enables online learners to complete as many core courses as they want for a flat tuition rate each semester. This competency-based model includes faculty supervision, ensuring students make adequate progress and are prepared for final exams. All students complete a leadership practicum and an evidence-based final project. The program prepares graduates to sit for the American Nurses Credentialing Center’s nurse executive certification exam. Candidates with more extensive management history may also qualify for the advanced nurse executive certification exam.

Public Health Nursing Programs Online: An Overview

The type of degree you need to become a public health nurse depends largely on the career path you hope to pursue. For example, those focused on community health education can often find work with just an associate degree, while those interested in conducting public health research typically require an advanced degree. Similarly, the course of study you pursue during your postsecondary education may vary a great deal from program to program.

What Degree Level is Needed to Become a Public Health Nurse?

An associate degree can qualify you for entry-level positions in public health nursing, such as working as a nursing assistant at a community health clinic or as a public health worker.

Larger healthcare organizations and government agencies may prefer to hire candidates with at least a bachelor’s degree in nursing. Some administrative and supervisory positions for registered nurses specifically require a bachelor’s.

Finally, if you hope to conduct research or teach at the postsecondary level, you will need an advanced degree. A master’s allows you to qualify for certification as an advanced practice registered nurse. While some colleges and universities may hire nursing professors with just a master’s, most seek out those with a Ph.D. in nursing or some other form of doctoral degree.

Advanced Degrees for Public Health Nursing Students

Pursuing graduate education in public health nursing can improve your job prospects, prepare you for more specialized roles in community health, and open up careers in academia. Below, we provide a high-level overview of two advanced degrees: a master of science in nursing (MSN) and a Ph.D. in nursing, both with a specialization in public health.

Master of Science in Nursing with a Specialization in Public Health

Most full-time students earn their MSN in two years, but part-time students may need up to four years to complete all of their public health nursing courses online. With most students meeting the required number of clinical hours for licensure during their undergraduate studies, most MSN programs do not explicitly require a field experience or practicum. However, an internship with a public health organization or agency can help you hone your skills in a real-world setting and strengthen your professional network.

After graduation, individuals holding an MSN often take on jobs as public health nurse managers, directors of community health centers, and directors of health education programs. Most work for nonprofit organizations or government agencies.

Ph.D. in Nursing with a Specialization in Public Health

The time required to earn a Ph.D. in nursing depends on the program you choose. For example, programs that feature a doctoral or capstone project usually take full-time students about three to four years to complete, while programs that require students to research and write a thesis may take up to seven years to finish.

Following a thesis track helps prepare you for positions in academia, including assistant professor of nursing and research fellow in community health. Completing a capstone allows you to graduate faster and take on jobs in practice, such as heading up a city’s department of public health.

Example Courses for Online Public Health Nursing Students

When pursuing an advanced public health nursing degree online, you often have the opportunity to customize your learning by selecting from a diverse slate of electives. Creating a varied workload allows you to align your course of study with your unique personal interests and professional goals.

Below are five examples of common foundational courses in master’s in public health nursing online programs.

  • Public Health Nursing Theory and Practice: Often taken as one of the first classes during a master’s program, this course offers an introduction to the social, cultural, economic, and demographic factors shaping public health. Students learn about the history of public health efforts, modern systems and approaches, and the role of the public health nurse more specifically.
  • Public Health Policy, Politics, and Progress: Public health nurses need an understanding of the laws and regulations that govern their efforts, especially when working for, or in close coordination with, a government agency. This class helps develop that understanding, as well as providing a survey of local, state, and federal public health policies and programs.
  • Population-Based Public Health Nursing Interventions: This class provides an overview of some of the most widely-used tools in public health nursing, including the use of health informatics to track occurrence of illness and the crafting of policy to reduce environmental health risks. This type of course often employs live learning experiences for students to apply these tools in practical settings.
  • Epidemiology and Population Health: Students in this course examine local and global threats to population health, including outbreaks of infectious diseases, biological terrorist attacks, the effects of natural disasters, and other large-scale emergencies. Students also work to develop cultural competencies that prove necessary in supporting diverse populations.
  • Public Health Nursing Leadership: Many public health nurses, especially those who pursue an advanced degree, take on leadership roles. This course helps prepare them through an exploration of leadership theory and real-world case studies of leadership in the healthcare sector. The course emphasizes collaborative partnerships, evidence-based decision-making, and organizational problem solving.

Certifications and Licenses This Program Prepares For

  • Advanced Practice Registered Nurse: After graduating from a master’s program in public health nursing, you may consider seeking out licensure as an APRN. This level of licensure, required for nurse practitioners and nurse anesthetists, allows nurses to perform many of the same services as physicians, which improves your job prospects and earnings potential. Requirements vary from state to state, but you must pass a national certification exam offered by an organization such as the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners or the American Nurses Credentialing Center.
  • Certified in Public Health: This credential, administered by the National Board of Public Health Examiners, signals expertise in public health sciences to potential employers. To qualify, you must possess a combination of education and work experience and then pass the CPH exam. The exam consists of 200 questions and includes topics such as health equity and program management. It costs $385.

Accreditation for Online Public Health Nursing Programs

Whether you pursue a bachelor’s, master’s, or DNP in public health nursing online, make sure to select a program that holds accreditation. Accreditation ensures that your school meets certain academic standards and equips its graduates with the skills they need to serve as public health nurses. If you attend an unaccredited school, you may not qualify for federal financial aid, and potential employers may not recognize your degree.

Two organizations accredit the majority of postsecondary programs in nursing: the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) and the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE). You can review their websites for a list of programs that each has accredited to award degrees.

It is rare for a college or university that offers a program in nursing to hold regional or national accreditation at the institutional level without also holding accreditation from either ACEN or CCNE at the programmatic level.

Job and Salary Outlook

Job Opportunities for Public Health Nursing Graduates

After earning a degree in public health nursing, you can embark on a wide variety of careers. You may want to serve as a registered nurse, providing direct care to individuals at a community health center, or as a health educator, helping your neighbors avoid the health risks associated with smoking or obesity. If you seek out licensure as an advanced practice registered nurse, you may even work to diagnose and treat mental health issues like substance abuse in your community.

Registered Nurse

Median Annual Salary: $70,000

Registered nurses specializing in public health help educate their communities about diseases and chronic health conditions. They may also offer certain medical services, including immunization.


Nurse Practitioner

Median Annual Salary: $103,880

Nurse practitioners can diagnose and treat certain medical conditions without the supervision of a licensed physician. They often concentrate on mental health and other specialized areas.


Health Educator

Median Annual Salary: $53,940

Health educators help people learn about behaviors that promote wellness. They may assess community needs and design a program accordingly or educate multiple communities about a single issue, such as substance abuse.


Community Health Worker

Median Annual Salary: $38,370

Community health workers serve as a link between members of their community and the medical profession. They may collect data for physicians and researchers or conduct outreach to help more people take advantage of free services.


Postsecondary Teacher, Nursing

Median Annual Salary: $71,260

Postsecondary teachers instruct students and conduct research at colleges, universities, and vocational schools. They may also advise students and perform various administrative tasks, including faculty hiring.


Source: PayScale, Nov. 2018

How Much Do Public Health Nursing Graduates Make?

Your salary as a public health nursing graduate depends on the career path you choose, your location, and years of experience. The table below tracks the median salaries for five occupations at three different career stages. Generally speaking, individuals with more work experience earn higher salaries, though wages tend to increase only slightly for positions requiring less education, like community health worker.

Job Title Overall Median Salary Median Salary for Entry-Level Median Salary for Mid-Career Median Salary for Late-Career
Registered Nurse $63,162 $56,898 $63,369 $70,300
Health Educator $44,181 $40,582 $48,259 $57,679
Community Health Worker $35,724 $34,917 $38,146 $37,511
Public Health Nurse $56,787 $51,000 $56,000 $61,000

Source: Payscale

Professional Organizations

Joining a professional organization can help you develop the skills and connections necessary to advance in your career. Many of these organizations host local and national events, giving you the chance to grow your professional network and explore interesting new opportunities. They may also offer online and in-person continuing education (CE) programs, allowing you to earn CE credits to renew your licensing or certification. Finally, some groups advertise job openings exclusively to their members.

Association of Public Health Nurses: APHN works to advance the professional interests of public health nurses across the country. It offers training webinars, hosts an annual meeting, and provides an advocacy toolkit to helps its member push for better public health policies.


American Public Health Association: APHA strives to support the work of public health nurses through leadership development programs and scholarships. The group curates research on topics including gun violence and vaccines, administers a variety of professional development opportunities, and hosts a career center, complete with advice for recent public health graduates.


American Nurses Association: ANA supports nurses of all stripes, including those working in public health. The association offers formal certification programs, provides scholarships to aspiring nurses, and organizes regional events to help its members connect and share best practices.

Financing Your Online Public Health Nursing Program

When it comes to financing your online nursing degree, start by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This application helps determine your eligibility for federal grants, work-study opportunities, and low-cost student loans. Many states also use the information you submit for the FAFSA to provide their own forms of financial aid as well.

In addition to government funding, many private organizations offer scholarships to attract more nurses to the profession and meet the growing need for trained healthcare workers. You can find a list of eight public health scholarships for nursing students below.

Scholarships for Public Health Nursing Students

Susan T. Borra Fellowship in Nutrition Communication

Who Can Apply: Administered by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Foundation, this award supports students looking to continue their education in the area of nutrition communication and public health education. The academy selects recipients on the basis of academic achievement, community service, and financial need.

Amount: $5,000


Campus Safety, Health, and Environmental Management Association Scholarship

Who Can Apply: This award aims to encourage students to pursue careers in environmental health and safety, including public health nursing. To apply, you must complete at least 12 hours per semester as an undergraduate or graduate student. Applicants must also submit their transcripts and a letter of recommendation.

Amount: $3,000


Indian Health Service Scholarship Program

Who Can Apply: This program supports American Indian and Alaskan Native students pursuing degrees in the health professions. To receive an award, you must commit to working in a tribal community for at least two years after graduation and attend a regionally or nationally accredited program.

Amount: Up to the full cost of tuition


Vivian Drenckhahn Student Scholarship

Who Can Apply: Both undergraduate and graduate students seeking a degree related to public health can apply for this scholarship. The Society for Public Health Education selects award recipients through a combination of academic qualifications, financial need, and a demonstrated commitment to working in public health education.

Amount: $2,500


Nurses Educational Funds Scholarships

Who Can Apply: Nurses Educational Funds, Inc. provides both undergraduate and graduate scholarships to those studying nursing, including students pursuing a degree in public health nursing. To apply, you must first complete at least 12 credits of an accredited nursing program and maintain a GPA of at least 3.6.

Amount: $2,500-$10,000


Nursing.org’s Nurses First Scholarship

Who Can Apply: This scholarship award recognizes outstanding nursing students who have committed themselves to providing exceptional patient care. Applicants must maintain a 3.5 GPA and write an essay about the person who most influenced them in their nursing career.

Amount: $1,000


Foundation of the National Student Nurses’ Association Scholarships

Who Can Apply: This foundation offers two scholarships, each open to aspiring public health nurses. Applicants to either program must enroll in an accredited nursing education program and maintain membership in the National Student Nurses’ Association. The foundation selects recipients based on academic achievement and financial need.

Amount: $1,000-$10,000


National Black Nurses Association Scholarships

Who Can Apply: This program specifically serves African-American students hoping to begin a career in a field like public health nursing. To qualify for funding, applicants must join the association, enroll in an accredited program, submit two letters of recommendation, and write an essay detailing how they hope to improve the health or social condition of African-Americans.

Amount: $1,000-$6,000