Online Nurse Practitioner Programs

Distance Learning for Advanced Nursing Degrees

The need for nurse practitioners is rising dramatically. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment for nurse practitioners is expected to grow 36 percent through 2026. Recognizing the increased demand for additional training, many nursing schools offer online nurse practitioner programs, including the Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) and Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree. This guide goes in-depth on how aspiring nurse practitioners can earn their degree online.

Nurse Practitioner Career: In-Depth

A nurse practitioner is an advanced practice nurse who has more responsibility than a registered or staff nurse. A nurse practitioner can typically take on more duties without supervision from a physician. Nurse practitioners can work in most medical settings, although they work predominantly in hospitals and doctor’s offices.

RN vs. NP: What’s the Difference?

Nurse practitioners are a more specialized and advanced type of registered nurse. Consequently, all nurse practitioners are certified registered nurses, but registered nurses aren’t always nurse practitioners.

  Registered Nurse (RN) Nurse Practitioner (NP)
Minimum Degree

Associate degree in nursing (ADN)

Master’s degree (MSN), although a doctorate degree (DNP) may soon be the new minimum degree.

Working Environment

Hospitals, clinics, doctor’s offices and outpatient care centers

Hospitals, clinics, doctor’s offices and outpatient care centers

Job Responsibilities
  • Interacting with patients to obtain medical history and symptoms
  • Administer medical treatment and medication with a physician’s supervision
  • Some work is completed online, while some work is completed on campus
  • Perform medical tests
  • Instruct patients how to improve and maintain a healthy lifestyle
  • Interacting with patients to obtain medical history and symptoms
  • Observe patients in order to diagnose medical issues
  • Administer medical treatment and medication in accordance with a physician’s instructions
  • Analyze patients’ medical information in order to identify proper treatment
  • Order and perform medical tests
  • Instruct patients how to improve and maintain a healthy lifestyle
  • Perform physical examinations

Virtually any specialization is available to registered nurses. However, they have relatively limited autonomy and work under the supervision of a physician.

As with registered nurses, nurse practitioners have a wide range of specialties available. NPs have more responsibility and autonomy in that they can often make their own diagnoses and can offer treatment without physician oversight.

Licensing & Certification
  • Registered nursing license required
  • Certifications generally optional and a large number are offered by the American Nurses Credentialing Center
  • Registered nursing license required
  • Certification in area of specialty usually required, depending on the state practicing in.
  • Organizations offering certifications include the American Nurses Credentialing Center and the Pediatric Nursing Certification Board, among others.
Job Outlook

14.8% growth through 2026

36% growth through 2026

Salary (2018 Median)

$71,730 ($5,090 since 2016)

$113,930 (+$18,580 since 2016)

Nurse practitioners work directly with patients to provide frontline care, just like most registered nurses. However, they have more capabilities due to their specialized knowledge and advanced training. In addition to strong attention to detail, nurse practitioners must have excellent critical thinking, communication and interpersonal skills.

Because nurse practitioners specialize in treating certain types of patients, there are many career options available, such as those in gerontology, neonatal, pediatrics, oncology and more.

How Do Online Nurse Practitioner Programs Work?


Classes &
How do students access lectures and classes?

Schools use online systems where students can watch video lectures, ask questions, and turn in and receive assignments. Many nurse practitioner programs have live lectures with real-time interaction where students can ask instructors questions and have discussions with one another. If students can’t attend the class live online, the lecture recording will be posted so the student can watch on their own schedule. Finally, some classes have in-person requirements, such as clinicals and on-campus intensives, the latter of which consist of realistic clinical simulation exercises.

How do students access lectures and classes?

Schools use online systems where students can watch video lectures, ask questions, and turn in and receive assignments. Many nurse practitioner programs have live lectures with real-time interaction where students can ask instructors questions and have discussions with one another. If students can’t attend the class live online, the lecture recording will be posted so the student can watch on their own schedule. Finally, some classes have in-person requirements, such as clinicals and on-campus intensives, the latter of which consist of realistic clinical simulation exercises.


On-Campus & Hands-On
What on-campus elements are included as part of online NP programs?

Online nurse practitioner programs have one primary on-campus requirement – on campus intensives (OCIs). OCIs can last several days and involve in-person skill exercises where students perform in a simulated setting in front of faculty members. The number of OCIs depends on the program. These are not exams or tests, but rather another way for faculty members to provide additional medical instruction.

How do distance-learners complete clinicals and hands-on learning?

In addition to the OCIs, students receive hands-on learning through clinicals or practicums. These are arranged by the program to provide the necessary training and experience in a location convenient to the student. Some programs allow the student to suggest possible locations. With these suggestions, the school will look into whether clinical training is possible, both from a logistical and academic quality standpoint.


to Traditional Programs
Do online programs prepare students for certification exams?

Upon graduation, nurse practitioners will need board certification in their area of specialization. Nurse practitioner programs do not necessarily “teach” to the certification; however, all accredited online nurse practitioner programs will prepare students to become certified. Students will need to study for the certification on their own and should not rely only on their educational training in order to become certified in their area of expertise.

Are online programs accredited?

Practically all online nurse practitioner programs are accredited, although students must research their specific program’s accreditation. The main accrediting body is the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE), which is also the same organization that accredits traditional, on-campus nurse practitioner programs.

Online Degrees for Nurse Practitioners: MSN and DNP

In order to become a nurse practitioner, a graduate degree is required. Today, there are two degrees available. Though the master of science (MSN) degree is the most common path to becoming a nurse practitioner, times are changing: the doctor of nursing practice, or DNP, may likely become the new minimum degree for nurse practitioners.

Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)

The MSN degree opens up several avenues of nursing to students, in addition to becoming a nurse practitioner. For example, students can use their MSN degree to become a certified nurse anesthetist, certified nurse midwife or certified nurse specialist. Assuming the nurse already has a BSN degree and attends school full-time, the MSN will take two years and 50 credit hours to complete. This is much shorter than the DNP degree, which can take three to four years. Explore top programs for earning a MSN online, and take a look at some of the classes found in a typical MSN program:

Course Description
Graduate Epidemiology

The foundation of diseases and how they affect the population in which they exist. Past and current research on disease theories will be examined.

Clinical Diagnosing Across the Lifespan

A hands-on class which requires students to take their classroom instruction and prior experience and apply them to patient diagnoses, making sure to provide accurate and complete medical care, yet take culturally and developmentally conscious steps to provide the most sensitive and acceptable care.

Leadership and Informatics

This class teaches the application of information systems and how they can be used to improve leadership, patient care and medical policy.

Acute Care Management

Students will learn about medical theories and clinical treatments for dealing with patients suffering from chronic and short term acute pain and illness.

Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)

For nurses who desire a doctoral level degree in nursing that will enhance their clinical practice, the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree is probably their best and safest option. Given the shift to requiring the DNP degree of nurse practitioners, students who earn the DNP will not need to worry about reaching the minimum educational requirements. However, unlike the MSN degree, the DNP degree usually takes twice as long (four years instead of two) and includes a capstone project, which MSN programs do not.

Just like with the MSN degree option, many schools offer the DNP degree online. Since clinical nursing is inherently a hands-on profession, online DNP programs usually have a large hands-on component. On campus intensives (OCIs) and clinical hour requirements ensure that DNP students apply what they’re learning in the classroom to the real world. The following is a snapshot of the typical curriculum of the DNP degree.

Course Description
Advanced Pharmacology

Provides instruction and theories as they relate to how drugs interact with organ systems and the disease they are designed to treat.

Research and Biostatistics

The quantitative and qualitative techniques used to analyze clinical data will be explained in this course. Research data analysis methodologies will also be discussed.

Medical Ethics

Potential ethical dilemmas as they may be encountered by nurses are reviewed. Students will engage in debate as to what their moral principles should be in light of ethical requirements of medical practitioners.

Advanced Evidence Based Nursing Practice

This class provides an opportunity for students to apply research findings and overall medical knowledge to provide the most effective medical care.

Healthcare Policy

Students will learn about the intersection of medical science, public policy and laws and how they affect the treatment and care patients receive.

Benefits to Distance Learning


Since online nurse practitioner programs allow students to take classes on their own schedule, students are able to more easily fit in their schooling with their non-academic lives. From work to family to personal time, flexible class scheduling is a major advantage of getting a degree online.

Option to continue working full-time

Since online nurse practitioner programs allow for flexible class scheduling and asynchronous learning, students are usually able to continue working at least part-time, if not full-time. Being able to bring in an income while in school can help offset the cost of attendance.

Reduced costs

Because distance learning doesn’t require traditional class attendance or on-campus participation, students can save on two primary costs: living and commuting. With online learning, students do not have to move to their school’s location nor commute to each class anywhere near as often as with a traditional nurse practitioner program.

Working at a comfortable pace

While most online nurse practitioner programs have a certain schedule for each semester, with assignments due at certain times, students can complete those assignments on their schedule. For those who would like to complete their nurse practitioner degree as soon as possible, there are several accelerated online programs that allow students to graduate sooner.

Checklist: Enrolling in an Online NP Program

  • Accreditation

    Practically all online nurse practitioner programs will be accredited, but always double-check. In addition, each state has its own rules concerning distance education instruction for nurses that practice in their state. For instance, if a nurse wants to earn a degree through a school based in Pennsylvania but wants to work in New Jersey, the nurse will need to ensure that New Jersey will recognize the online degree from Pennsylvania. Most online schools will explain further under a “state authorization” section of its website.

  • Specialization

    Not every online nurse practitioner program offers the same opportunities for specialization and concentration, and not all concentrations are available online. Students will need to confirm that their school of choice not only has the concentration they desire, but also if it is available through distance learning.

  • MSN or DNP

    Currently, only a master of science in nursing (MSN) degree is required to become a nurse practitioner. However, there is a strong push for a doctor or nursing practice (DNP) to become the minimum degree required. Students should carefully weigh the options when choosing between the two degree possibilities.

  • In-person requirements

    All accredited online nurse practitioner programs will have in-person, hands-on clinical requirements. Many schools will accommodate the student’s geographic location and approve local sites so they may obtain clinical requirements as easily has possible; however, students must confirm this before enrolling.

  • Online learning format

    Each online program has its own take on how to provide instruction. Students who need the maximum amount of flexibility may want to choose a program with asynchronous learning options. Other students may have less hectic schedules and desire a more traditional experience. For them, a hybrid program may be a better choice.

  • Prerequisites

    Each school may have different requirements for its incoming students. There might be some leeway for some students who don’t have certain minimum degrees or who haven’t taken certain classes, although they may be required to complete those prerequisites before moving on to the core curriculum classes.

  • Application requirements

    Not all online nurse practitioner programs have the same application requirements. For example, some programs require the GRE, while others make it optional. Still others may waive the GRE requirement if the student’s GPA is at a certain level.

Specializations for Nurse Practitioners

Nurse practitioners have a great deal of choice when they decide to embark on a specialization. In fact, some nurse practitioners choose to specialize in areas that might overlap a bit, such as family care and midwifery, so that they can help a larger population. Here are some of the more common specializations available to nurse practitioners in either the MSN or the DNP program.

  • Family

    This is one of the broader specialties, since family health NPs work with providing a wide variety of medical treatments and wellness care to individuals across the majority of their lifespans. The primary coursework will cover a broad range of topics in disease management, diagnosis and preventive care.

  • Pediatrics

    From infancy to adolescence, pediatric NPs work with children to provide treatments for illnesses and administer preventative care. Hands-on and classroom instruction focuses almost exclusively on pediatrics. Pediatric NPs can expect to work anywhere from hospitals to walk in clinics to pediatrician’s offices.

  • Women’s Health

    A women’s health nurse practitioner works with female patients through most of their adult lives. However, any care relating to childbirth will be limited, although prenatal and postnatal care is often part of a women’s health NPs repertoire. Students desiring to enter this specialty can expect to learn about female specific health issues.

  • Nurse Midwifery

    Nurse midwifery NPs focus on obstetric and gynecological concerns of women during their childbearing process. Students will not only learn about women’s health topics, but also go into detail concerning a woman’s health needs during pregnancy. By going into this specialty, students can expect to work in any number of medical settings where childbirth medical care is provided, such as hospitals, clinics and doctor’s offices.