Best Online MSN Programs

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Whether you’re looking to get your pre-licensure degree or taking the next step in your career, the education you need could be more affordable than you think. Find the right nursing program for you.

Nursing continues to evolve due to changes in government regulations, healthcare services, and technology. Registered nurses (RN) find it increasingly difficult to pursue career advancement or maintain their current positions without additional training, driving nurses to return to school in large numbers. According to the National League of Nursing, of the 279,770 students enrolled in nursing programs in 2016, 15% were from master of science in nursing (MSN) programs. This percentage translates to approximately 42,000 students, which is a stark increase from previous years.

By earning an MSN, professionals can ensure that their knowledge and skills match what employers want in qualified candidates, leading to more opportunities and better pay. PayScale reports that the average MSN holder earns $91,000 annually, which is $12,000 more than those with only undergraduate credentials. In addition to displaying the most affordable online MSN programs, this guide assists prospective students with in-depth information on admission, financial aid, course offerings, and concentrations. Distance learners also gain insight into career options and professional development opportunities.

Top Affordable Online MSN Programs 2020

Rank School Location
1 Keiser University Fort Lauderdale, FL
2 Colorado Technical University Colorado Springs, CO
3 University of Kansas Lawrence, KS
4 Seton Hall University South Orange, NJ
5 Sacred Heart University Fairfield, CT
6 Indiana State University Terre Haute, IN
7 Grand Canyon University Phoenix, AZ
8 United States University San Diego, CA
9 Walden University Minneapolis, MN
10 Northeastern University Boston, MA

The Most Affordable Online MSN Programs

  1. Keiser University
    Location

    Fort Lauderdale, FL

    Opening its doors in 1977, Keiser University remains a relatively young school based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The school styles itself as thoroughly modern and offers a strong slate of distance learning degrees, including one of the nation’s most affordable online MSN programs. Keiser’s MSN program allows students to pursue either a generalist or a family nurse practitioner concentration. Both programs subscribe to Dr. Jean Watson’s human caring theory and philosophy, overtly focusing on holistic care for self, others, and the nursing profession.

    Both programs deliver all online coursework asynchronously and eliminate any need to visit the campus in Florida. The MSN program divides coursework into nine different “essentials” groups, including health policy and advocacy, informatics and healthcare technologies, clinical prevention and population health for improving health, and master’s-level nursing practice. All applicants to the program must hold an RN license and a bachelor’s in nursing with a minimum undergraduate GPA of 3.0.

  2. Colorado Technical University
    Location

    Colorado Springs, CO

    Located in Colorado Springs, the for-profit Colorado Technical University offers one of the nation’s most affordable RN-to-MSN online programs. Colorado Tech’s MSN degree allows students to specialize in nursing administration, nursing education, or family nurse practitioner. Students in the nursing administration and nursing education tracks can earn their degrees within 18 months, while family nurse practitioner students often finish in 24.

    These programs deliver coursework asynchronously, eliminate in-person requirements, and allow students to complete practicum requirements at healthcare sites in their own communities. They also charge students the same per-credit tuition even if they do not live in Colorado. Additionally, all three specializations feature Colorado Tech’s Intellipath system, which allows students to test out of and get credit for content they already know. Intellipath exists to provide online students — primarily working professionals — with the quickest possible route to their degrees.

  3. University of Kansas
    Location

    Lawrence, KS

    Based in Lawrence, the University of Kansas counts itself as the Sunflower State’s flagship university. KU now offers one of the most affordable RN-to-MSN online programs in the country. KU’s MSN program requires students to earn 37-39 credits, a process that takes full-time students two years and part-time students 3-4 years to complete. The program allows students to choose a functional specialty in organizational leadership, public health nursing, nursing informatics, or nursing education. In all cases, KU delivers online coursework asynchronously and never requires students to visit campus.

    The curriculum divides itself into four sections: common core, leadership core, functional specialty core, and a two-credit nursing research process that lasts an entire semester and takes place under the supervision of a faculty member. The program boasts accreditation from the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education.

  4. Seton Hall University
    Location

    South Orange, NJ

    Seton Hall University — a private, Roman Catholic-affiliated school based in South Orange, New Jersey — offers one of the most affordable RN-to-MSN online programs in the country. Students enrolled in the online MSN program at Seton Hall choose a concentration in health systems administration with case management, pediatric nurse practitioner, or adult gerontology nurse practitioner.

    No matter the concentration, Seton Hall delivers all online MSN coursework asynchronously. Additionally, students in the program never need to visit campus in South Orange to complete their degrees. The health systems administration concentration requires students to complete 30 credits, a process that usually takes two years. The nurse practitioner program offers more in-depth study and requires students to complete 48 credits, which typically takes three or four years. Each concentration focuses on small class sizes, allowing for plenty of one-on-one interaction between Seton Hall faculty and students.

  5. Sacred Heart University
    Location

    Fairfield, CT

    A Roman Catholic-affiliated university in Fairfield, Connecticut, Sacred Heart maintains a wide slate of distance learning offerings, including one of the most affordable RN-to-MSN online programs in the country. Sacred Heart’s MSN program aims for flexibility above all, eliminating BSN, GRE, and in-person requirements. The program also delivers all of its coursework asynchronously to best meet the needs of working professionals.

    The program’s curriculum allows students to choose one of four specializations: clinical nurse leader, nursing management and executive leadership, nursing education, and family nurse practitioner. The clinical nursing leader and family nurse practitioner specializations prepare graduates to sit for and pass industry-standard examinations. In all cases, the program’s curriculum consists of 36-39 credits; students can finish their degrees in two years by enrolling part time and taking one course per eight-week term. The program’s admissions committee requires only a current RN license and a bachelor’s degree in any field to apply.

  6. Indiana State University
    Location

    Terre Haute, IN

    Based in Terre Haute, Indiana State University is best known nationwide as the alma mater of Boston Celtics legend Larry Bird. The school offers one of the strongest and most affordable MSN programs in the country. Indiana State’s MSN program requires students to earn 47-50 credits, a process that typically takes part-time students 30-36 months, although completion times can vary based on the culminating course that students choose. The program includes a family nurse practitioner concentration and students must complete 675 clinical hours at a healthcare site in their community.

    The program caters to working professionals, delivering all coursework asynchronously and eliminating in-person requirements. Core courses include healthcare perspectives, nursing research, advanced pathophysiology, and theoretical foundations of family healthcare nursing. All online students pay the same per-credit tuition regardless of where they live.

  7. Grand Canyon University
    Location

    Phoenix, AZ

    A private, Christian-affiliated (formerly Southern Baptist-affiliated) university in Phoenix, Arizona, Grand Canyon University expanded rapidly over the past decade. As a result, GCU now holds the title of largest Christian university in the world, surpassing Liberty University thanks to an enrollment of over 111,000 students. Distance learning contributed to GCU’s growth, and the school continues to offer one of the most affordable RN-to-MSN online programs.

    GCU’s online MSN program features several emphases, such as leadership in healthcare systems, health informatics, and acute care nurse practitioner in adult-gerontology. GCU strives for flexibility for working professionals, delivering asynchronous coursework and eliminating in-person requirements. Students who wish to attend evening classes in Phoenix can complete the program through blended learning. Core courses include an evidence-based practice project, servant leadership, and healthcare research and analysis.

  8. United States University
    Location

    San Diego, CA

    A for-profit school based in San Diego, California, United States University opened its doors at the turn of the 21st century and currently enrolls less than 2,000 students. The university also offers one of the country’s most affordable online MSN programs. The MSN program at USU requires students to complete 50 credits, a process that usually takes two years. The program runs on a hybrid model, combining synchronous, videoconferencing coursework with two scheduled on-campus immersion sessions.

    USU grounds its MSN curriculum in Caring Science and evidence-based models of nursing. The program features a family nurse practitioner concentration. All program applicants must submit evidence of a current, unencumbered RN license and a bachelor of science in nursing degree with a minimum GPA of 2.5. USU offers a 72-month tuition payment plan to students in the program in order to ease the monthly cost of tuition.

  9. Walden University
    Location

    Minneapolis, MN

    A for-profit university in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Walden University delivers one of the furthest-ranging and most affordable RN-to-MSN online programs in the country. Walden’s MSN program offers eight specializations, with options such as adult-gerontology acute care nurse practitioner, family nurse practitioner, psychiatric and mental health nurse practitioner, and public health nursing.

    No matter what specialization students choose, the program delivers all of its coursework asynchronously and eliminates in-person requirements, hoping to meet the needs and schedules of working nurses. All specializations vary in terms of coursework, but they all accept transfer credits and offer multiple start dates throughout the academic year. The MSN program boasts accreditation from the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education.

  10. Northeastern University
    Location

    Boston, MA

    Northeastern University offers one of New England’s most affordable online RN-to-MSN programs, a degree that includes a family nurse practitioner concentration. The program uses a hybrid delivery method, combining live, synchronous online video conference courses with on-campus intensives that take place in Boston twice each semester.

    The program focuses on experiential learning, requiring students to complete a practicum experience with a one-to-one preceptor (either with a physician or an advanced nurse practitioner) at a site in their communities. The program’s curriculum includes full-time (two-year completion time) and part-time (three-year completion time) options. The curriculum’s core courses include advanced pharmacology, health assessment, epidemiology, and family theory. All applicants must hold a current RN license, submit evidence of a minimum 3.0 undergraduate GPA, and complete an admissions interview.


MSN Programs Online: An Overview

This section covers the online MSN admission process. It also contains academic information, including program length, course offerings, concentration options, and practicum experiences. Furthermore, prospective students can learn about post-graduate licensure and certification. As with other fields, details vary by school and program. Students should confirm specifics with academic advisers and departmental administrators.

Admission Requirements for an Online MSN Program

While admission criteria differ by online MSN program, students can expect a minimum 3.0 GPA requirement. Colleges and universities may accept a lower GPA if candidates possess substantial work experience or high test scores. Schools that offer distance education increasingly eschew standardized testing. However, many schools still require GRE results. Prospective graduate students also need to complete prerequisite undergraduate coursework. Topics include statistics, biology, human anatomy, developmental psychology, nutrition, and human physiology.

Because graduate programs build upon established skills, students generally need relevant work experience detailed in a personal statement, resume/CV, and professional recommendations. Graduate programs exist for diverse students, including RNs with their bachelor of science in nursing (BSN), those without a BSN, and professionals with undergraduate degrees in another field.

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

Typically, online MSN programs take two years and require candidates to earn 30-36 credits.
Distance learners take asynchronous and live classes through platforms like Blackboard, Canvas, and Moodle. Delivery system and program structure affect program length. Most colleges and universities enable students to pace their degree plans, taking as many or as few classes as they want. However, certain schools emphasize collaboration and relationship building through cohort learning. Through this format, online students take one or two classes at a time, advancing through the program at the same rate as their peers.

Students without a nursing education may enroll in an MSN program. However, they must enroll in an entry program and pass the National Council Licensure Examination, which usually takes an additional 12-18 months. For experienced nurses, the most affordable RN-to-MSN online programs provide accelerated tracks that allow students to earn a graduate degree in one year.

Concentrations Offered for an Online MSN Degree

Gerontology
In this concentration, students learn to meet the growing needs of the aging population. On top of health promotion and restoration, students develop case management skills. They also study the underlying concepts of self-care and human growth needs. Coursework includes acute care, adult health diagnosis, and clinical pharmacology.

Careers this concentration prepares for: Adult primary care specialist, geriatric nurse, resident services director

Family Nurse Practitioner
This concentration focuses on patient care/interaction and administrative skills. Students cultivate primary care skills, along with knowledge in individual intervention and community assessment. They also learn to manage common, acute, and chronic illnesses across a lifespan. Classes consist of clinical therapeutics, leadership development, and healthcare quality and safety.

Careers this concentration prepares for: Chronic pain nurse practitioner,
public health advocate, nurse researcher

Nursing Leadership
A specialization for RNs who want to occupy director and manager positions, nursing leadership prepares students to work in community, educational, and patient-centered settings. Students develop project management and organizational change skills. As advocates, they learn to meet the needs of underserved communities. Course topics include health informatics, complex healthcare management, and advanced pathophysiology.

Careers this concentration prepares for: Head nurse, clinical nurse leader, patient care director

Example Courses for Online MSN Students

In addition to a theoretical core, online MSN degree plans comprise such fundamental classes as health policy, nursing research methods, biostatistics, and advanced health assessment and promotion. Advanced coursework varies by program. Students personalize the curriculum through concentrations and electives. This list contains five common MSN classes.

  • Biostatistics: Students learn the core terminology and practices needed to observe, collect, and analyze data. Using statistical software, students evaluate research methods and evidence-based practices at the intersections of epidemiology and biostatistics. Additional topics include probability models, linear regression, and hypothesis testing. This fundamental class is important for all nurses.
  • Advanced Pathophysiology: Students examine the complex physiological processes associated with patient care in changing health states across the lifespan. They study altered functions in integrative and regulatory mechanisms at the cellular, organ, and system levels. The course also trains students to apply skills in patient case management. As a fundamental topic, all nurses benefit from this class.
  • Primary Care: As required training for nurse practitioners, this class concerns individual care for young and aging adults, emphasizing patients with complex or multiple illnesses. Through didactic and clinical seminars, students develop key skills in health promotion and disease prevention. They also train in community health and ambulatory settings under the guidance of an experienced nurse practitioner or physician preceptor.
  • Health Disparities: Students explore the differences in individual and community healthcare regarding cultural environment, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and socioeconomic stratification. They study the legal, regulatory, and ethical standards related to advanced nursing practice. The course also covers alternative strategies centering on cultural competence and diverse population care. Health disparities particularly concern nurse advocates and educators.
  • Mental Health Practice Management: This advanced course trains students to care for chronically ill patients with mental health needs and/or psychiatric disorders. Topics include health assessment, diagnosis, and case management. Students also study the prescription of pharmaceutical agents in diverse care settings, including clinics, schools, community facilities, and home health and hospice agencies.

Internship Component

Because graduate programs center on career preparation through advanced, field-specific skill development, degree candidates must undergo practical training. For most professionals, this is called an internship; for nurses, it is called a clinical experience. Through these hands-on experiences, students engage with diverse professional teams and learn about quality care initiatives.

Requirements vary by state. Students who want to earn initial licensure need around 400 clinical hours. Master’s programs usually require 500 hours, while doctoral programs require at least 1,000. Most schools enable online students to complete clinical hours with local preceptors, placement sites, and current employers. Learners who live near their school may benefit from more opportunities, including on-campus work with university hospitals and laboratories.

Certifications and Licenses This Program Prepares For

  • Nurse Practitioner State Licensure: To apply for the nurse practitioner (also called the advanced registered nurse practitioner) license, candidates must be an active RN in their respective state. They also need to complete a master’s or doctoral program in nursing. Additional requirements vary by state. Washington requires candidates to show at least 250 hours of advanced nursing practice in the last two years. Iowa asks nurses to earn advanced certification from an external organization before applying for the state license.
  • American Nurses Association Certifications: ANA offers 19 certification programs, covering the main nursing fields. Professionals can earn a clinical nurse certificate in adult-gerontology, or they may pursue specialist credentials in informatics, ambulatory care, or nursing case management. ANA also provides nurse practitioner certifications in such areas as pediatric primary care and psychiatric-mental health. Eligibility and exam criteria vary.
  • Advanced HIV/AIDS Certified Registered Nurse Certification: HIV/AIDS prevention and care requires specialized training. The HIV/AIDS Nursing Certification Board offers certification at introductory and advanced levels. The latter requires candidates to hold an active RN license with at least three years of work experience and 2,000 hours of HIV/AIDS nursing. Applicants also need a master’s degree. The four-hour exam consists of 250 multiple-choice questions.

Accreditation for Online MSN Programs

To confer valid degrees, higher education institutions must earn accreditation at the national or regional level. Colleges and universities maintain this designation by adhering to academic, research, and professional standards. Schools apply for national accreditation through the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). They become regionally accredited through one of six organizations, depending on location. For example, Texas universities obtain regional accreditation from the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

On top of national and regional accreditation, the best online MSN programs maintain specialized accreditation. The Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) and the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) represent the two main bodies. ACEN accredits all nursing programs, while CCNE only supports baccalaureate and master’s degrees. By earning an accredited MSN, professionals ensure full acknowledgment of their degree by employers, government agencies, and professional organizations. For lists of accredited schools, visit the ED and CHEA’s websites.

Job and Salary Outlook

Job Opportunities for MSN Graduates

According to a National Institutes of Health article, nursing, by 2022, will offer more job opportunities than any other U.S. field. Occupational growth averages 15% for all nursing professions. With an online MSN, professionals can pursue careers as registered practitioners in high-demand areas like gerontology, neonatal care, case management, dialysis, and anesthesiology. They may also occupy positions as nurse educators, researchers, and legal consultants. Additionally, a master’s degree prepares professionals for doctoral academics and career advancement.

Health Services Manager

Median Annual Salary: $98,350

Also known as healthcare administrators or executives, these leaders coordinate the medical/health services for their organization. Managers can oversee a clinical department or an entire facility.


Nurse Midwives

Median Annual Salary: $100,590

These nurses provide care to women, including family planning services, gynecological exams, and prenatal services. Midwives also oversee the birthing process, helping physicians deliver babies and manage emergency situations.


Advanced Registered Nurse Practitioner

Median Annual Salary: $103,880

ARNPs occupy primary and specialty care roles, delivering care to individuals, families, and communities. They assess patients, develop care plans, and help individuals integrate health promotion strategies into their daily lives.


Nurse Anesthetist

Median Annual Salary: $165,120

These nurses provide anesthesia and related services before, during, and after medical procedures. To provide safe and adequate doses, anesthetists work with patients and doctors to discern allergies, illnesses, and other conditions that may affect drug treatment.


Source: BLS

How Much Do MSN Graduates Make?

According to PayScale, professionals with an MSN earn, on average, between $66,000-$117,000. However, salaries vary by position, industry, employer, and qualifications. Location also affects pay, with nurses in metropolitan areas like Chicago, Houston, and New York earning more than those in smaller cities and rural areas. The table below details salary ranges for five careers across a professional’s lifetime.

Job Title Overall Median Salary Median Salary for Entry-Level Employees (0-5 years) Median Salary for Mid-Career Employees (5-10 years) Median Salary for Late-Career Employees (20+ years)
Registered Nurse $62,953 $56,898 $63,369 $70,260
Nurse Educator $73,192 $68,206 $69,840 $79,050
Nursing Manager $83,123 $75,812 $80,685 $91,270
Family Nurse Practitioner $90,894 $89,317 $94,603 $97,603
Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner $100,161 $96,884 $103,285 $112,451

Source: Payscale

Professional Organizations

By enrolling in an accredited online MSN program, students gain the knowledge, skills, and experiences necessary for career advancement. Nurses can bolster their academic training by engaging with professional organizations. Membership usually comes with an annual fee but provides access to financial aid, including academic scholarships, achievement awards, and project funding. Members also benefit from the support of colleagues worldwide. Professionals collaborate through online forums, local social events, and annual conferences. Furthermore, these organizations operate skill development programs, like the American Nurses Association’s workshops and webinars.

American Association of Nurse Anesthetists: Established in 1931, the AANA supports more than 53,000 members through public policy advocacy. The association offers certification guidance and volunteer opportunities. Members connect through workshops, leadership assemblies, and academic conferences. Students benefit from distinct resources and events, including research funding and the Anesthesia College Bowl.


American Nurses Association

: As the premier professional organization for RNs, the ANA provides comprehensive skill development opportunities, including continuing education courses and 19 certification programs. Members also benefit from financial awards and career guidance.


National Student Nurses Association

: The NSNA helps its 58,000 members through the initial RN licensure process and beyond. The association provides mentorship programs, career planning resources, and school guides. Students connect through leadership training programs and annual conventions.

Financing Your Online MSN Program

The most affordable RN-to-MSN online programs provide low tuition prices that disregard residency status. Colleges and universities also incentivize distance learners with scholarships and grants. All U.S. citizens (and some noncitizens) can access government funding by submitting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

For graduate and professional students, FAFSA awards include Direct Unsubsidized and PLUS Loans. Those who commit to teaching in high-need schools upon graduation may apply for Federal Pell and TEACH Grants. Nursing students should also seek private awards from local business and professional organizations. The following section contains seven such opportunities.

Scholarships for MSN Students

AAMN ScholarshipsWho Can Apply:

The American Association for Men in Nursing sponsors this award for graduate students who completed at least one semester in an accredited program. Candidates need to be AAMN members. They also must display academic achievements and commitment to equitable nursing practices. The AAMN requires recipients to present at the organization’s annual conference or in a sponsored webinar.

Amount: $1,500


APIC Graduate Student AwardWho Can Apply:

The Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology provides this research award for graduate nursing students. The funds go toward the completion of an evidence-based project that centers on improving health initiatives. In addition to receiving funds, recipients present at the APIC annual conference and publish in its scholarly journal.

Amount: $5,000


March of Dimes Graduate Nursing ScholarshipsWho Can Apply:

These awards are open to RNs enrolled in master’s programs with an emphasis on maternal-child nursing. Students must have at least one year of training left. They also need to hold membership to one of four professional organizations, such as the Association of Women’s Health. Selection criteria include academic performance, volunteerism, and job experience.

Amount: $4,000


Minority Nurse Faculty ScholarshipWho Can Apply:

Offered by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, this program supports graduate nursing students from underrepresented ethnic and racial backgrounds. Candidates must be full-time enrollees in a clinically focused master’s program. They must also commit to teaching in an accredited nursing school upon graduation. Application materials include a one-page essay and three signed references.

Amount: $18,000


NBNA ScholarshipsWho Can Apply:

The National Black Nurses Association, Inc. provides more than 15 scholarships every year. To apply, candidates need to be NBNA members at the national or local level. Application materials include academic transcripts, a two-page essay, two recommendation letters, and a current headshot. The committee selects recipients based on engagement in nursing activities and commitment to serving African-American communities.

Amount: $1,000-$6,000


Nursing Economic$ Foundation ScholarshipsWho Can Apply:

Sponsored by the eponymous journal, this award is available to RNs pursuing their master’s degree in nursing administration or management. Applicants must demonstrate career goals in administration, management, leadership, or education. To apply, candidates submit GRE scores, a CV/resume, academic transcripts, and a goal statement. They also need to submit relevant tuition information.

Amount: $5,000


Promise of Nursing Faculty FellowshipsWho Can Apply:

Sponsored by NSNA, this award is open to RNs pursuing graduate education with the intention to become nurse leaders. Candidates need an accredited BSN and to be enrolled in at least six semester credits in their program. Applicants must also demonstrate academic achievement and financial need.

Amount: $1,000-$7,500

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