Best Online MSN-to-DNP Programs

June 3, 2020 | Staff Writers

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Nurses who possess a master of science in nursing (MSN) usually work as nurse anesthetists, certified nurse practitioners, or other nursing professionals who improve patient outcomes. Nurses at this career stage may desire to take on an administrative role. If this describes you, consider pursuing an MSN to doctorate of nursing practice (DNP) online degree. These programs allow you to earn your field’s terminal degree, while still working full or part time.

Along with new career opportunities, DNPs confer greater salary potential. Medical and health services managers, many of whom begin their careers as RNs, earn almost $99,000 per year. Management-level careers such as this allow nurses to effect positive change on a much larger scale than what they might achieve with lower degree levels. Depending on the DNP student’s program and concentration, the graduate might educate the next generation of nurses, ensuring thousands of professionals benefit from their expertise.

Top 5 Online MSN-to-DNP Programs 2020

Rank School Location
1 American Sentinel University Aurora, CO
2 Capella University Minneapolis, MN
3 Maryville University St. Louis, MO
4 University of Florida Gainesville, FL
5 Walden University Minneapolis, MN

Best Online MSN-to-DNP Programs

  • American Sentinel University

    Aurora, CO

    American Sentinel is a for-profit Institution that offers many online healthcare-focused degrees and certificates in nursing and management. In this online MSN-to-DNP program, students can choose from concentrations in educational leadership, executive leadership, informatics leadership, and professional leadership. All courses, such as health statistics, health services research, and principles of finance, are completed online. The only in-person obligations are a four-day residency requirement in Aurora, Colorado, and 1,000 clinical hours at an approved healthcare location.

    American Sentinel subscribes to a rolling admissions policy and reviews applications throughout the calendar year. Prospective students must submit a resume, personal essay, and proof of at least one year of employment at a healthcare facility. Before applying, DNP seekers must secure a location or facility to complete their required onsite clinical hours. Most students who enter with an MSN finish this program in 28 months. Online students have access to educational resources such as 24/7 tutorial services, a writing help center, and a virtual library.

  • Capella University

    Minneapolis, MN

    Accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education, Capella’s nursing program offers an MSN-to-DNP program online. Located in Minneapolis, Minnesota, this for-profit online school helps students acquire the necessary administrative, organizational, and communication skills to be effective leaders in healthcare. The curriculum examines public healthcare policy, patient care, modern advancements in technology, and how the healthcare system can be improved. All students complete at least 52 credits, which includes four capstone courses and practicums.

    Admission requirements include a master’s degree in nursing from an accredited institution with a 3.0 GPA or higher. Applications must contain official transcripts, application fee, proof of registered nurse licensure, and documentation of one year of work experience in the field. Incoming students may be eligible for scholarships offered through the department worth up to $10,000. Awards require a separate application and have independent deadlines.

  • Maryville University

    St. Louis, MO

    Established in 1872, Maryville is a private university with approximately 6,500 students. Distance learners can pursue an MSN-to-DNP program online. There are no on-campus requirements for distance learners, and they may apply without taking the GMAT or GRE. Courses are asynchronous; students can access them any time to work with their schedules. All students complete at least 11 courses for a total of 33 credit hours, including a capstone course and final project. Core courses for the MSN-to-DNP program online include graduate statistics, advanced healthcare policy, foundations of clinical scholarship, and integrating and synthesizing research.

    Distance learners in this program typically finish the requirements in approximately 20 months. Online students complete all clinical requirements at nearby locations. Applicants should have a registered nursing license and an MSN. Graduates of this program often seek out management and administrative positions.

  • University of Florida

    Gainesville, FL

    Located in Gainesville, Florida, and established in 1853, UF offers an MSN-to-DNP online program for graduate students who already hold an MSN. Online learners prepare to become experts in a specialized advanced practice area of the field. Graduates of the UF nursing program move on to careers as clinical nurse specialists, educators, nurse anesthetists, and nurse midwives. Distance students take all required courses online including quantitative research design and measurement in nursing, applied statistical analysis, infant care, and community health studies.

    Prospective students should have a 3.0 GPA or higher in their MSN program, a current registered nurse license with permission to practice in Florida, and national certification as an advanced registered nurse practitioner. UF expects incoming nursing students to have graduate-level courses in pathophysiology, health assessment, and pharmacology. Competitive applicants have minimum scores of 153 and 144 on the verbal and quantitative sections of the GRE, respectively.

  • Walden University

    Minneapolis, MN

    Walden is a for-profit school founded in 1970 and located in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This MSN-to-DNP program is for those with a current registered nursing license and an MSN who wish to diversify their skill sets and knowledge in healthcare policy, patient care, information systems, and organizational leadership. Nursing students at Walden must accumulate a minimum of 576 practicum hours of in-person field experience. Some of these practicum hours may come from the research time involved with the final doctoral project. In total, practicums take 48 weeks to complete.

    Walden DNP graduates move on to careers both inside and outside hospitals and clinics, and work in areas such as informatics, education, health policy, and government. Students interested in this MSN-to-DNP program should have a master’s degree in nursing with a 3.0 GPA or higher. The school also offers nursing students merit-based scholarships of up to $10,000.

MSN-to-DNP Online Programs: An Overview

Review this section to learn more about the basics of MSN-to-DNP programs online, including admission requirements, courses, concentrations, and other variables that make each program unique. Remember that details can vary — sometimes widely — between programs.

Admission Requirements for an Online MSN-to-DNP Program

All MSN-to-DNP programs require that applicants possess an active nursing license, an MSN, and work experience. Applicants typically submit letters from past and current employers, describing their work history. Programs may also require applicants to submit GRE scores; some programs use GRE cutoffs to cull their applicant pools. Some programs make exceptions to GRE score minimums for applicants with other exemplary qualities, such as an exceptionally high GPA, so pay close attention to each program’s application page.

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

Since you already possess a master’s degree, expect to spend significantly less time earning your DNP than students who have only their bachelor’s or associate degrees. Full-time students can complete their MSN-to-DNP online in just one year, earning 30-40 credits and completing 500 hours of supervised clinical experience. You may need longer to graduate if you completed fewer than 500 clinical hours during your MSN program, since the DNP requires 1,000 total hours, and sometimes more for students with specializations. You may also expect to spend longer in school if you attend a program that uses a cohort learning model. Students in cohort programs take courses with the same group of students for their entire time in the program. Either delivery method encourages long-lasting professional relationships, but full-time cohort students tend to graduate later than those in full-time individual pace programs. In the next section, you can learn more about MSN-to-DNP online concentrations.

Concentrations Offered for an Online MSN-to-DNP Degree

Family (Individual Across the Lifespan)
This and other MSN-to-DNP programs prepare students to earn their nurse practitioner licenses in their home states. The family concentration includes courses in healthcare public policy, ethics, and leadership development. Nurses who complete this concentration typically work in family healthcare centers, such as private practices and clinics. 

Careers this concentration prepares for: Family nurse practitioner

Health Systems Executive Leadership
Many RNs earn their DNPs to enter the healthcare management field. Students in the health systems executive leadership concentration analyze organizational behavior, build their leadership skills, and learn the analytical skills all executives need to understand their teams’ strengths and weaknesses. Programs offering this concentration often require applicants to possess 1-2 years of management-level experience. 

Careers this concentration prepares for: Top executive; chief nursing officer; population health analyst

Nurse Anesthesia
Nurse anesthetists work alongside anesthesiologists to ensure patients’ safety during operation. The curriculum stresses biochemistry and physiology. It requires more than 2,500 clinical hours, wherein students lead nursing teams during medical procedures. Graduates go on to work across nearly all medical settings, including dental offices. 

Careers this concentration prepares for: Nurse anesthetist

Example Courses for Online MSN-to-DNP Students

Different online MSN-to-DNP programs offer unique concentrations and other educational experiences, but all programs teach students the core concepts they need to succeed as graduates. In this section, you can learn more about core courses common to many programs. Contact each prospective department with any specific questions.

  • Organizational and Management Theory: DNP graduates must know how to organize, lead, and manage teams of nurses. This course focuses on these crucial skills. Through lecture and independent research, students learn how to work as an effective leader, improving patient outcomes while creating a better workplace environment for all nurses.
  • The Science of Healthcare Delivery: Critical thinking plays a significant role in healthcare delivery, and in this course, students learn how to apply these skills to tackle the biggest challenges the healthcare field faces in the 21st century. The curriculum includes analysis of the successes and failures of healthcare reform movements, so students may one day apply these lessons as healthcare leaders.
  • Healthcare Public Policy: At the local, state, and federal levels, public policy drives healthcare innovation. Students study legislation and healthcare delivery trends, such as the rise of HMOs in the 20th century, to analyze how the public and private sectors influence healthcare and nursing. Students in this course perform independent, original research into the most pressing healthcare public policy topics (e.g., Obamacare, Medicare expansion).
  • Genetics and Molecular Therapeutics: This course introduces students to advanced topics in molecular genetics such as gene function and expression, heredity, and mutation. Students also learn about the latest technological advancements that lead to new treatments for genetic disorders. Nurses planning to enter oncology often take multiple genetics and molecular therapeutics courses to understand the causes of and treatments for various cancers.
  • Grant Writing: As leaders in their field, DNP graduates often write grant proposal to gain funding for research projects. In this course, students learn how to research, write, and submit a grant application. The curriculum stresses advanced research and writing skills. The course typically requires students to write a simulated grant proposal that professors and peers critique.

Internship Component

In an MSN-to-DNP online program, expect to complete 500-1,000 hours of supervised clinicals that directly relate to your concentration, similar to those required by most master’s programs. Expect to complete these hours at your job site, but if your job site cannot provide you with the necessary clinical rotations, your program should help you find a suitable alternative in your area. Depending on the program, your clinical hours may involve multiple rotations and supervisors.

Certifications and Licenses This Program Prepares For

  • Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner: These nurses treat adult and elderly patients with chronic health conditions; they may work alongside physicians in multiple departments to treat a single patient. Nurses earning this licensure complete 500 hours of supervised clinicals in adult-gerontology acute care before taking the acute care nurse practitioner exam. Nurses renew their licenses every five years.
  • Psychiatric and Mental Health Nurse Practitioner: These nurses work alongside psychiatrists to diagnose and treat patients’ mental health disorders. To earn this licensure, you must complete 500 clinical hours in a psychiatric setting and pass the psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioner exam. Your license remains valid for five years; each state sets unique requirements for licensure renewal.
  • Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner: These nurses work in OB/GYN offices to maintain patients’ reproductive health and guide women through their pregnancies. This license does not require a specific number of clinical hours, but most applicants possess one to two years of experience working in an OB/GYN office or similar setting. All applicants must pass the women’s health nurse practitioner exam. The license remains valid for three years; nurses complete continuing education (CE) courses to renew their licenses.

Accreditation for Online MSN-to-DNP Programs

To determine whether a prospective MSN-to-DNP program would prepare you for your future career, determine its regional, national, and field-specific accreditation status. In the U.S., the Department of Education (ED) oversees every school through chartering seven regional accreditation agencies. All reputable universities possess regional accreditation from their assigned agencies. Online programs should also have national accreditation, ideally from the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC). DEAC accreditation signifies that an online program’s educational quality matches that of the university’s on-campus program.

MSN-to-DNP programs convey a highly specialized set of knowledge and skills, for which reason field-specific accreditation agencies review these programs for quality. Look for accreditation from the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education and the Accreditation Commission for Education. These organizations’ accreditation represents the gold standard in graduate-level nursing education.

To learn more about accreditation, please review a complete list of ED and CHEA-accredited universities.

Job and Salary Outlook


Job Opportunities for DNP Graduates

As you already possess a master’s degree and work experience, you likely have some knowledge of what kinds of careers DNP graduates pursue. As you review the four occupations below, consider how selecting a concentration or specialization may affect your career path and salary potential. Based on hiring and salary trends in your area, you may decide to change your specialization from the one you studied during your master’s program. Inquire with programs to determine how changing concentrations may affect your educational experience and career prospects.


Nurse Practitioner



Median Annual Salary: $92,392

Nurse practitioners lead teams of RNs to treat patients. Like physicians, they can diagnose patients and prescribe appropriate medications. As shown in the careers below, they typically select a concentration.



Advanced Registered Nurse Practitioner



Median Annual Salary: $92,480

Advanced registered nurse practitioners possess extensive work experience. Employers value these nurses for both their managerial and healthcare expertise.



Family Nurse Practitioner



Median Annual Salary: $91,604

Family nurse practitioners work with patients in doctors’ offices. As they treat patients of all ages, they must possess significant background knowledge in neonatal, pediatric, adult, and geriatric healthcare.



Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner



Median Annual Salary: $100,620

Psychiatric nurse practitioners work with psychiatrists and other physicians to diagnose and treat patients’ mental disorders. They work at many healthcare facilities, including psychiatric hospitals.

Source: PayScale, Nov. 2018

How Much Do MSN-to-DNP Graduates Make?

In the United States, California, Alaska, Hawaii, Massachusetts, and Connectiut offer MSN-to-DNP program graduates the highest annual mean salaries.

State Annual Mean Salary for Nurse Practitioners
California $126,770
Alaska $125,140
Hawaii $122,580
Massachusetts $120,140
Connecticut $118,500

Professional Organizations

As an RN with a master’s degree, you may already have some knowledge of professional organizations catering to nurses. In this stage of your career and education, consider joining one or more organizations that align with your career interests. Even in an online MSN-to-DNP program, you may need help from such organizations regarding career advice, job boards, and publications. The three nursing programs below represent just a few options — you might continue searching for other options to help you earn your degree and succeed in your new career.

Academy of Medical-Surgical Nurses: AMSN members dedicate themselves to advocating for their profession and improving patient care in operating rooms. They benefit from exclusive certification exam aids, scholarships, and leadership opportunities.

American Association of Nurse Practitioners

: The AANP attracts nurse practitioners from all specialties. Graduate student members, who pay a reduced membership fee, receive access to the AANP JobCenter and scholarships open only to AANP members.

American Association for Men in Nursing

: The AAMN advances the study of men’s health, and advocates for more men joining the nursing profession. Both men and women may join. MSN-to-DNP students join as full members; they can vote and run for office in their local AAMN chapters.

Financing Your Online MSN-to-DNP Program

Your first step in financing an online MSN-to-DNP program involves completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), through which you may qualify for thousands of dollars in federal grants and loans. Even if the FAFSA does not offer you financial aid, you can still apply for scholarships to reduce your out-of-pocket expenses. The eight scholarships below represent just a few of those available to nursing students earning their DNPs.

Scholarships for MSN-to-DNP Students

AfterCollege/AACN $10,000 Scholarship FundWho Can Apply:

The AfterCollege/AACN $10,000 Scholarship Fund awards money to undergraduate and graduate nursing students. Applicants must attend AACN member schools. Applicants specializing in nursing education have an advantage over other applicants. The scholarship accepts applicants each quarter, with deadlines on the final days of March, June, September, and December.

Amount: $10,000

Caroline E. Holt Nursing ScholarshipWho Can Apply:

The Daughters of the American Revolution awards this scholarship to three nursing students each year. Bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral students may apply; the DAR accepts applicants from both men and women. The DAR does not prefer applicants whose families possess DAR membership. Students who can show financial need have a higher chance of earning this competitive scholarship.

Amount: $2,500

Japanese American Citizens League National Scholarship ProgramWho Can Apply:

Each year, the JACL National Scholarship Program awards over $70,000 to undergraduate and graduate students throughout the U.S. Only JACL members may apply; JACL accepts applications from individuals representing all racial and ethnic groups. To apply, submit a personal statement, transcripts, and one recommendation letter.

Amount: Varies

National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners ScholarshipWho Can Apply:

All applicants must hold NAPNAP membership. Some years, NAPNAP does not offer the scholarship due to funding issues. Doctoral students may qualify for a research grant, which requires a separate application. Check in the spring for new scholarship and grant opportunities; scholarship windows open for only one month.

Amount: $1,000

National Black Nurses Association Scholarship ProgramWho Can Apply:

The NBNA awards over 20 scholarships each year to African American nurses earning their bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in nursing. All applicants must possess NBNA chapter membership and plan to stay in school for at least one year after earning the scholarship. To apply, submit official transcripts, a two-page essay, and two recommendation letters.

Amount: $1,000-$6,000

National Federation of the Blind Scholarship ProgramWho Can Apply:

The NFB awards multiple merit-based scholarships to undergraduate and graduate students who classify as legally blind. Applicants submit medical documentation concerning their condition, plus transcripts, and essay, and at least one recommendation letter by the March 31 deadline. All scholarship recipients agree to attend the annual NFB convention.

Amount: $3,000-$12,000

Sharps Compliance Scholarship Essay ContentWho Can Apply:

Sharps Compliance, Inc. awards three scholarships each year to undergraduate or graduate students majoring in a healthcare field. Only U.S. and Canadian citizens may apply. The scholarship committee bases its scholarship awards solely on applicants’ essays. Applicants must submit their essays by the November deadline; Sharps Compliance announces scholarship recipients the following month.

Amount: $750-$1,500

TYLENOL Future Care ScholarshipWho Can Apply:

TYLENOL awards 40 scholarships each year to undergraduate and graduate students studying medicine, nursing, and other healthcare-related fields. Only legal U.S. residents may apply. Applicants submit their transcripts, proof of volunteer service, and essay. The application window opens on May 1st and closes on June 28th. The scholarship does not renew.

Amount: $5,000-$10,000

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