The Best Online MSN Programs

The increase in available healthcare in the United States has led to a higher demand for different, more specialized types of care, and for skilled nursing professionals who can offer it. Today, nurses are frequently taking on more of the responsibilities that used to fall on doctors — from diagnosing and treating illness to prescribing medication — and new medical technologies require advanced skills to operate. Many nurses now find that a master’s of science in nursing (MSN) is a worthwhile choice for professional development and increased job opportunities.

While a bachelor’s degree in nursing typically focuses on general knowledge for healthcare delivery, an MSN degree is more specialized, allowing students to concentrate on a specific area of nursing, such as education, administration, or women’s health. The MSN also prepares students for higher-level leadership roles, and the increased responsibilities of these positions lead to an increase in pay. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that a nurse practitioner commands a median salary of $98,190, while a nurse anesthetist’s median salary is around $154,390.

What is an Online MSN Program?

The convenience and flexibility of an online MSN degree makes it a popular choice for students with career or family obligations. Online programs allow students to create their own class schedules and require few, if any, visits to campus. In addition to courses, many graduate nursing programs require a clinical practicum to help students gain hands-on experience. Most distance education programs allow students to complete clinical practice hours near their homes under the supervision of an approved preceptor. Typically, nursing departments can help students locate an appropriate healthcare center to perform their practice hours.

To help you find the best online MSN program available, we’ve ranked these schools according to a wide range of factors, taking into account everything from the percentage of students enrolled exclusively in online courses to the tuition price and graduation rate. The schools on our list represent the intersection of affordability, academic strength, online resources, and course flexibility. Whatever nursing career you’re interested in pursuing, there’s a school on this list that’s bound to fit your needs.

The Rankings

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Online MSN Program Requirements

Typically, applicants to nursing master's programs must hold an undergraduate degree in nursing and submit standardized test scores and evidence of clinical experience. These requirements ensure that students possess the academic and practical foundation necessary to successfully complete a master's in nursing online.

Below are common prerequisites for online nursing master's programs. However, specific admission requirements vary by institution, so prospective students should research the program's prerequisites before applying.

MSN Prerequisites

  • Bachelor of science in nursing: Most online MSN programs require students to hold a BSN. Bachelor's programs provide a foundation in nursing and prepare students for advanced coursework.
  • Minimum GPA: Typically, MSN programs require applicants to have a minimum 3.0 undergraduate GPA. Minimum GPA requirements ensure students are academically equipped to earn a master's in nursing online.
  • GRE scores: Many nursing programs require applicants to submit GRE scores. High GRE scores indicate strong critical thinking, analytical, and problem-solving abilities, which are important skills for healthcare professionals.
  • Clinical experience: Often, applicants to online MSN programs must have at least one year of nursing experience. Field experience prepares nurses to study clinical topics at an advanced level.
  • Background check: Most online MSN programs require prospective students to pass a background check to ensure they are legally suited for clinical contact with patients.

How to Choose an Online MSN Program

When selecting an online master's in nursing program, students should consider program cost, length, location, and specialization options. Program costs vary greatly among online MSN programs. Students should consider tuition rates, fees, and financial aid availability. Most students require two years to earn their online master's in nursing. However, some programs last only one year, while others can last up to three years.

School location can affect clinical placement options and available support services. Additionally, some online programs are not available to residents of certain states. Some online MSN programs offer more specialization options than others. While many programs provide a general foundation for advanced practice nursing, others allow students to focus on a specific subfield within the profession.

Finding Accredited Online Nursing Programs

Students pursuing a master's in nursing online should look for accredited programs, which meet established standards for quality and rigor. Students often pursue an MSN online to advance their careers, and employers prefer nursing professionals with degrees from accredited programs. Additionally, credits earned from an accredited online MSN program transfer easily to other institutions.

The two main accreditation organizations for nursing programs are the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) and the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN). These organizations evaluate the educational goals and outcomes of graduate nursing programs to ensure they prepare students for nursing careers.

To earn a quality education and respected credentials, students should apply to online MSN programs that hold regional accreditation and CCNE or ACEN accreditation.

Nursing Specializations

Many students enrolled in online master's in nursing programs pursue a nursing specialty, which provides training in a nursing subfield or patient population. Common nursing specializations include pediatric care, women's health, and neonatal nursing. Programs may also offer nonclinical specializations in nurse leadership, nursing education, or nursing administration.

Prospective students should ensure their online nursing master's program offers the specialization that aligns with their career goals. The specializations below are common options in online MSN programs.

  • Primary Care: This specialization may focus on pediatric or geriatric care. Coursework prepares aspiring nurse practitioners to perform health screenings, implement treatment plans, manage chronic conditions, and promote healthy habits for young or elderly patients.
  • Gerontology: Students learn best practices for providing acute or primary care to elderly patients. This specialization prepares future gerontological nurse practitioners to work with aging populations in nursing homes, hospice facilities, and home healthcare settings.
  • Emergency and Acute Care: This specialization covers topics including health assessment, clinical reasoning, pathophysiology, and collaborative care management. Coursework prepares aspiring emergency nurse practitioners to provide urgent primary and acute care to diverse patient groups in emergency clinics.
  • Family Nursing: This specialization covers primary care needs, diagnostic methods, and case management practices for child, adolescent, adult, and elderly patients. Students learn to prevent, assess, and manage health problems in patients of all ages.
  • Psychiatry and Mental Health: Students who specialize in psychiatry and mental health take courses related to human behavior, child development, and psychopharmacology. Students learn to address patients' mental health needs through holistic treatment and medication management.

What Works With Your Schedule?

Online master's in nursing programs may be asynchronous or synchronous. Students in asynchronous programs complete coursework at their convenience. The programs include no set class times. Synchronous programs require students to log on at specific times to attend live lectures and participate in discussions.

Online nursing master's programs are ideal for working professionals with busy schedules. However, prospective students should consider each program's format before applying.

What Can You Afford?

Students pursuing a master's in nursing online have a variety of financial aid options, including federal grants and loans. Students enrolling in an online MSN program can determine their eligibility for federal financial aid by submitting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Many schools offer full or partial scholarships based on financial need or academic merit. Students should research available grants, scholarships, and stipends from nursing associations, community programs, and private businesses.

Students can apply for the federal NURSE Corps Loan Repayment Program, which offers postgraduate loan forgiveness to nurses who spend two years working in a medically underserved community. Many state governments also offer service-based loan forgiveness initiatives. Similarly, the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness program partially waives student debt for qualifying graduates who work in the public sector.

What Jobs Can You Get With an Online MSN Degree?

Graduates of online MSN programs can pursue a variety of career paths in settings such as hospitals, nursing homes, correctional facilities, and private medical practices. Graduates of online nursing master's programs often secure positions such as those listed below.

  • Nurse Practitioner: These professionals perform many of the same tasks as medical doctors, including managing patient care, performing exams, diagnosing medical conditions, prescribing medications, and referring patients to specialized providers. Some states require nurse practitioners to work under a physician's supervision. Most nurse practitioners hold an MSN.
  • Critical Care Nurse Manager: These professionals oversee nursing staff in critical care settings, such as hospital intensive care units. They manage staff selection and training, coordinate day-to-day operations, schedule shifts, and monitor budgets. Employers prefer to hire nurse managers with advanced credentials, such as an MSN.
  • Healthcare Executives: These executives manage healthcare organizations such as hospitals, nursing homes, and primary care medical practices. They lead an organization's nursing staff and oversee medical, operational, and financial resources. They coordinate staff training, facility accreditation, and community outreach initiatives. Healthcare executives typically hold a master's in nursing or a related field.
  • Patient Safety Director: These directors oversee the creation and implementation of patient safety programs within healthcare organizations. They collect and analyze data and collaborate with administrators, doctors, and nurses to improve safety strategies. They also ensure facility compliance with federal and local safety standards. Most employers prefer to hire directors with a master's degree.
  • Legal Nurse Consultant: These consultants assist attorneys in legal cases related to issues such as personal injury, workers' compensation, and medical fraud. They help legal professionals interpret medical terminology, records, and charts, and they often work with organizations including insurance providers, hospitals, government agencies, and pharmaceutical companies. Most legal nurse consultants are current or former practicing nurses.

Salary Expecatations for MSN Holders

One of the most common positions for graduates of online nursing master's programs is nurse practitioner. Nurse practitioners specialize in fields such as gerontology, psychiatry, family health, and acute care.

Nurse practitioners complete many tasks traditionally performed by physicians. Due in part to the national shortage of primary care providers, these practitioners are an integral part of the U.S. healthcare system.

Because nurse practitioners require advanced education and hold high levels of responsibility, they earn some of the highest salaries among nursing professionals. Additional factors that affect earning potential include experience, location, employer, and specialty. The chart below highlights average salaries by occupation among MSN graduates.

Average Annual MSN Salaries
Nurse Practitioner $92,773
Nursing Manager $82,511
Nurse Educator $70,101
Nurse Case Manager $71,165
Nurse Anesthetist $145,942

Source: PayScale