Registered nurses (RNs) can improve their job prospects and salary potential by earning a master of science in nursing (MSN). Nurses with an MSN specialize in an area of nursing, expand their knowledge and skills, and take greater responsibility when delivering patient care. Increased demand for healthcare services as the population ages translates to strong growth potential in the nursing field, which currently faces a shortage of qualified workers.
The job and salary opportunities for advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) appears especially promising. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 15% job growth for RNs between 2016 and 2026 and 31% job growth for nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, and nurse practitioners over that same period.
Prospective students can find many accredited RN-to-MSN programs online. Earning an MSN online as opposed to on campus presents many advantages — especially for working RNs — including increased flexibility, convenience, and affordability.
Western Governors University
WGU is a fully online college that serves students around the country. It offers a master of science in nursing education with an RN-to-MSN pathway. The school uses an innovative course format in which students pay a flat tuition rate each academic term. This format offers financial benefits to students who take a full course load each term.
WGU features a professionally focused, competency-based education model, which allows students to skip course content that they already know, expediting graduation. Nursing candidates work with academic advisors to determine a degree plan based on time and cost requirements, with most candidates taking 1-3 years to complete their RN-to-MSN online program.
A professionally focused college based in Kansas, Grantham offers one of the most affordable RN-to-MSN online programs in the country. The program features four specialization options: case management, nursing education, nursing informatics, and nursing management. Students complete 24 credits of bridge coursework and a competency exam (equivalent to a bachelor of science in nursing) before beginning graduate-level coursework. Depending on their transfer credits and course load, students can complete the bridge to the master of science in nursing program in as few as eight months.
Candidates then complete 24 credits of core graduate coursework, including classes in population health, nursing leadership, and health assessment. Grantham offers a competitive tuition rate for nursing students, and online learners pay the same tuition regardless of state residency, making the program a cost-effective choice for students around the country. The school offers reduced tuition rates for active-service military, veterans, and students from military families.
Grand Canyon University
A Christian school in Phoenix, Arizona, GCU ranks among the country's largest distance education providers. The school offers several accelerated RN-to-MSN programs online, including a BSN-to-MSN fast-track program. Students can apply undergraduate elective credits toward their master's degree, expediting graduation. Candidates choose from seven unique master's options, including healthcare informatics, nursing education, public health nursing, and acute care nurse practitioner.
The school also offers a hybrid MSN-MBA dual-degree program for nurses interested in advanced healthcare management positions. Though most program tracks require 36-53 credits, the dual MSN-MBA requires 66 credits. GCU's nursing programs use eight-week course blocks, with a primarily online format designed to support working nurses. Some pathways, such as the acute care nurse practitioner track, require short on-campus sessions that build clinical experience.
Drexel's online RN-to-MSN programs serve professional nurses who hold a bachelor's degree in another field and wish to pursue graduate studies in nursing. Students complete one bridge course — genetics and genomics: application to nursing practice — before beginning the graduate curriculum. The school offers four online specialization options for nursing students, including clinical nurse leader and nursing education.
Most tracks require 45-48 credits and include a mixture of core courses, support courses, and track courses. All students complete a 15-credit core that covers major topics such as ethical decision-making, research methods and biostatistics, and quality and safety in healthcare. Concentration courses focus on advanced skills and professional preparation. Most concentrations include a practicum component that requires students to apply their learning in a professional healthcare environment.
University of Arizona
Based in Tucson, UA hosts one of the top RN-to-MSN online programs in the state. The school's online master of science in nursing in clinical systems leadership offers an accelerated pathway for working nurses looking to advance in the field. Students complete a total of 11 courses that focus on topics like evidence-based practice improvement, healthcare technology, health promotion, quality and safety, and strategies for creating healing environments.
At the end of the program, candidates complete a capstone, in which they design a patient care management plan under close faculty supervision. All courses use a fully online format that enables nurses to complete their degree without visiting campus. Candidates typically complete the program in two years. Nurses who already possess a BSN can skip many courses and earn their degree in as few as 15 months.
Frontier Nursing University
Based in Hyden, Kentucky, FNU concentrates exclusively on nursing education and offers one of the best online RN-to-MSN programs in the country. Open to working nurses with at least one year of professional experience, the program serves applicants who do not hold a bachelor's degree in any field. Students first complete one year of bridge courses and then the standard MSN curriculum, which requires candidates to choose one of three graduate tracks: nurse-midwife, family nurse practitioner, or psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioner.
FNU offers full-time and part-time options. Along with coursework, all candidates complete 675 hours of clinical practice, building practical skills in a professional setting. FNU offers most coursework online, but students must visit campus for three residency sessions.
Aspen's fully online RN-to-MSN programs prepare graduates for leadership positions in healthcare management, clinical practice, and nursing education. Aspen offers five specialization options, including forensic nursing, informatics, administration and management, nursing education, and public health. Aspen's online RN-to-MSN programs feature start dates every two weeks and fully asynchronous courses with no required class meetings or log-in times.
Each specialization track requires 57 credits spread across 19 courses. Candidates complete seven foundation courses that serve as a bridge to graduate study, covering topics such as health assessment, nursing research, and community health nursing. After a proctored bridge exam, students complete 12 courses that explore advanced topics in nursing along with specialization knowledge.
Based in Savannah, Georgia, South University offers an RN-to-MSN online with a family nurse practitioner specialization. Training nurses to deliver care across the human lifespan, the degree builds skills in clinical judgment, communication, critical thinking, and leadership. The program emphasizes experiential learning, and all candidates complete an extensive nursing practicum that covers four major areas of caregiving: adult and gerontology, women's health, pediatrics, and primary care.
The curriculum prepares graduates to sit for professional certification exams offered by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing and the American Association of Nurse Practitioners. While the school serves students from around the country, state licensing and practicum requirements prevent residents of certain states from enrolling online, including Alabama, Minnesota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Washington.
Concordia University Wisconsin
A private Christian college based in Mequon, CUW offers an RN-to-MSN online pathway that allows registered nurses to earn their bachelor's degree in as few as 18 months before moving on to earn a master of science in nursing. Students choose from three fully online concentration options: family nurse practitioner, adult/gerontology nurse practitioner, and nurse educator.
The MSN curriculum requires 39-41 credits and includes a program core that covers topics such as pharmacotherapeutics, healthcare policy issues, and advanced pathophysiology across the lifespan. Students also select from several specialization courses depending on their chosen track. Most tracks take 3-4 years to complete. CUW offers start dates in the fall and spring, providing flexibility for working students.
A private school based in Nashville, Tennessee, Vanderbilt offers a hybrid ASN-to-MSN program with built-in flexibility for working nurses. The program offers more than a dozen advanced specialization options, including neonatal nurse practitioner, nurse-midwifery, pediatric nurse care practitioner, and women's health nurse practitioner. Vanderbilt nursing courses use a distributed learning format that mixes online learning with concentrated blocks of campus time, typically lasting just a few days.
While candidates do not need to reside in the Nashville area, they may need to visit campus up to four times each semester to fulfill learning requirements. Students who reside outside of Nashville can complete supervised practicum work near their homes. Vanderbilt offers full-time and part-time enrollment options, including an accelerated format that enables candidates to complete their RN-to-MSN online in as little as two years of full-time, year-round study.
RN to MSN Online Programs: An Overview
This guide covers what to expect from the best online RN-to-MSN programs, including admission requirements, program length, concentration options, and sample coursework. Students should consider these factors when researching potential RN-to-MSN programs to ensure the program they select aligns with their goals, interests, lifestyle, and budget. Specific requirements and curriculum offerings vary by program.
All accredited MSN programs require applicants to demonstrate proof of RN licensure. To receive an RN license, nurses must graduate from a diploma-based nursing program and pass the National Council Licensure Examination. Most RN-to-MSN programs require applicants to hold an associate or bachelor's degree — earned with a minimum 2.5 GPA — and submit letters of recommendation. Common prerequisite courses include anatomy, biology, statistics, and chemistry. Some schools require GRE scores. International learners from non-English-speaking countries must often submit Test of English as a Foreign Language scores.
Program length varies based on a student's enrollment status. Full-time learners can sometimes graduate from accelerated RN-to-MSN online programs in 1.5 years, but most programs take at least two years to complete. Part-time students can graduate in 3-4 years.
Time to graduation also varies depending on the program format. Asynchronous programs allow students to complete coursework at their own pace. Alternatively, cohort-based programs require learners to complete exams and submit assignments according to a paced, predetermined schedule.
Concentrations Offered for an Online MSN Degree
Most RN-to-MSN programs offer advanced practice nursing concentrations. Concentrations differ by school, but some common concentrations include the three described below.
- Certified Nurse Midwife
A certified nurse midwife concentration prepares students to deliver babies and provide prenatal and postpartum care to patients. Nurse midwives educate patients about pregnancy, labor and delivery, and postpartum issues like breastfeeding.
- Family Nurse Practitioner
A family nurse practitioner concentration teaches students to provide primary care to children and adults. They can work in private practice, hospitals, and community health centers. They often work closely with physicians and other healthcare workers. These nurses often focus on preventative care and health education.
- Nurse Anesthetist
This concentration teaches students how to monitor and manage anesthesia. Nurse anesthetists remain with patients who receive general or local anesthesia throughout a treatment or procedure to monitor reactions. They may also provide other pain management and emergency services to patients.
The following list outlines a few common classes in RN-to-MSN programs, although students should keep in mind that coursework varies by school and concentration.
- Advanced Pharmacology This course explores the interactions between drugs and organ systems, examining current issues in toxicology and pharmacology. Research topics may include pharmacokinetics, receptor mechanisms, and drug metabolism and distribution. Students study major classes of drugs and the risks and benefits of using them to treat patients.
- Research for Evidence-Based Practice This class examines the role of research in evidence-based nursing practice and teaching. Students learn about the research process, including how to ask a clinical question and assess and analyze evidence. They also learn to translate research into clinical practice. Other covered issues include research utilization models and synthesis of evidence.
- Nursing Ethics Students learn about ethical issues related to the healthcare field, with an emphasis on nursing. The course focuses on the application of nursing ethics to specific patients, institutions, and providers. Students analyze different healthcare scenarios using ethical principles and reasoning.
- Primary Care of Women and Children Designed for students who plan to provide primary care to children and/or women, this class introduces common indicators of wellness and illness in these populations. It also explores pediatric and midwifery career paths.
- Applied Clinical Genetics and Genomics Learners explore the latest research and basic foundations of genetic science and molecular concepts, learning to incorporate a genetics focus into their nursing practice. Coursework explores topics like ethical implications of genetic information, taking a patient's genetic history, and common genetic tests.
To graduate from an online RN-to-MSN program, you must complete a practicum in a hospital or clinic with a recognized preceptor. While some schools provide clinical placement specialists, many online students need to complete some independent research to find a registered preceptor. A practicum gives you hands-on experience with diagnostic assessment, healthcare implementation, and outpatient rehabilitation programs.
Certifications and Licenses This Program Prepares For
RN-to-MSN programs prepare graduates to work as licensed APRNs in roles like certified nurse midwife, family nurse practitioner, and acute care nurse practitioner. APRNs must hold an RN license in their state, pass a national certification exam, and possess a master's degree. Each state sets its own APRN licensing requirements, so graduates should refer to their state board of nursing for more information.
The American Midwifery Certification Board offers the CNM certification, which qualifies recipients to work as certified nurse midwives. CNMs must recertify every five years. Applicants must pass a computer-based, 175-question exam in nurse-midwifery / midwifery. To take the test, individuals must hold a master's degree from a nurse-midwifery/midwifery program that holds accreditation from the Accreditation Commission for Midwifery Education.
The National Board of Certification and Recertification for Nurse Anesthetists offers the CRNA credential. Applicants must pass the national certification exam for nurse anesthetists and recertify every four years.
The Pediatric Nursing Certification Board offers this credential. Applicants must pass the Certified Pediatric Nurse Practitioner - Primary Care exam. To take the test, individuals must hold a current RN license and a master's in nursing with a concentration in pediatric primary care.
Accreditation for Online RN to MSN Programs
No matter which nursing specialty you pursue, you must consider a program's accreditation. An accredited degree verifies the quality of your education to potential employers and schools. Furthermore, you cannot sit for state licensure exams without an accredited degree.
The Department of Education oversees six regional accrediting bodies, including the Higher Learning Commission and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Additionally, specialty accrediting agencies like the American Nursing Association (ANA) may accredit nursing programs. You can check your school's accreditation status on its website, visit the Department of Education's database of accredited schools, or go to ANA's accreditation page.
Job and Salary Outlook
What Can You Do With an MSN Degree?
Earning an MSN opens the door to advanced practice nursing careers that offer better compensation and more responsibility than careers available to RNs without a graduate-level education. RN-to-MSN graduates can pursue roles like family nurse practitioner, certified nurse midwife, and pediatric nurse practitioner. These types of careers offer average salaries between $88,000 and $102,000 per year. Comparatively, general registered nurses make a median annual salary of $71,730.
Nurses who earn an MSN gain advanced nursing skills and may specialize in caring for specific groups of people, such as children, women, or people with psychiatric disorders. They learn to order and evaluate tests, diagnose and treat conditions, and refer patients to specialists.
Family Nurse Practitioner
Family nurse practitioners diagnose and treat children and adults. Sometimes they work in specialized departments, like pediatrics, oncology, or geriatrics. They often work independently and can perform many of the same duties as physicians. They typically focus on preventative care, education, nutrition, and hygiene.
Average Salary: $92,000
Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner
Psychiatric nurse practitioners support patients with mental illnesses and neurological disorders. They give patients medications and occasionally assist with counseling. They usually work in mental health facilities or units.
Average Salary: $102,000
Acute Care Nurse Practitioner
Acute care nurse practitioners usually specialize in a field like oncology, surgical, or cardiac care. They provide short-term care to patients, assessing patient symptoms, giving medication, and considering treatment outcomes.
Average Salary: $100,000
Pediatrics Nurse Practitioner
Pediatrics nurse practitioners specialize in treating children and adolescents. They usually work closely with pediatricians and focus on preventative care and health education. They conduct regular checkups, prepare children for medical treatments and surgeries, give vaccinations, and provide care for children in hospitals.
Average Salary: $88,000
Certified Nurse Midwife
Certified nurse midwives deliver babies and provide prenatal and postnatal care to patients. They collaborate with gynecologists and obstetricians. They work in hospital settings, private practice, and patients' homes. They also educate patients on issues like nutrition during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
Average Salary: $92,000
Financing Your Online RN-to-MSN Program
Prospective learners seeking an advanced practice nursing degree can find some of the cheapest RN-to-MSN online programs by consulting our ranking. Many learners qualify for federal financial aid, including student loans, grants, and work-study programs. Students should fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid to determine their eligibility.
Students can also take advantage of private scholarships and grants. The following list outlines some scholarship opportunities for students in RN-to-MSN programs. Nursing majors should also research local funding opportunities from nursing associations and health institutions.
Scholarships for RN-to-BSN Students
Geraldine “Polly” Bednash Scholarship $5,000
AACN gives out two of these scholarships four times a year to nursing students with a minimum 3.2 GPA. Applicants must be pursuing a BSN or higher and attend an AACN school affiliated with CastleBranch. They must also write a 250-word essay describing their education and career goals.See Scholarship
GradSchools.com Minority Nursing Scholarship $2,000
GradSchools.com offers this scholarship to encourage minorities to earn a graduate degree in nursing. Applicants must submit a 250-word essay. They also need to be a student of color, legal resident of the U.S., 18 years or older, and enrolled full time in a graduate nursing program.See Scholarship
American Cancer Society Nursing Scholarship $10,000 a year
ACS coordinates this scholarship program for advanced practice nurses studying oncology. Applicants must be pursuing a master of science in cancer nursing or a doctor of nursing practice. Scholarship winners receive the award for two years.See Scholarship
DiversityNursing.com Scholarship $5,000
DiversityNursing.com offers a scholarship for part-time or full-time nursing undergraduate or graduate students. Working nurses not in school can also apply for the scholarship. Applicants must be U.S. citizens, set up jobseeker accounts, and complete a registration form.See Scholarship
RN to BSN/MSN Challenge Scholarship $1,000
RegisteredNursing.org offers a scholarship for registered nurses pursuing a bachelor of science or master of science in nursing. Applicants must be at least 18 years old and hold a minimum 3.5 GPA. They must also submit a 500-700-word essay.See Scholarship
Professional associations like the ones listed below offer access to networking and continuing education opportunities, job boards, and professional resource centers. Members may also present ongoing research and advocate for nursing issues at annual conferences and meetings.
Join your state branch of ANA for access to career development opportunities and breaking news in the field. ANA certifies nurses through the ANCC exam and provides annual state and national networking opportunities for members.
AANP provides nurse practitioners nationwide with networking opportunities and publications. The association also hosts job search engines and advance notice job boards.
This consortium of private practice midwives connects medical professionals with prospective patients. Members can advertise their practice on the Find-A-Midwife search engine and receive copies of the Journal of Midwifery & Women's Health.