Nursing is one the largest, fastest growing and critically important professions in healthcare today. Nearly every nursing-related career is projected to grow by double digits in the coming decade. And, with an aging population and growing demand for health services, nurses are going to be at the forefront of medical care for years to come.
By earning an online master's in nursing, you can develop expertise in specialized areas of nursing and transition into advanced practice nursing positions or pursue administrative roles across healthcare settings.
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The Best Online Master's in Nursing Programs
To be considered for this ranking, schools were required to meet the following criteria:
- Accredited at the institutional level
- Private nonprofit or public school
- Minimum of 1 online master's degree in subject area
Schools were then scored on factors such as:
- Cost Financial Aid
- Number and variety of online program offerings
- Student-teacher ratios
- Graduation rates
- Placement and support services offered
- Academic/Career counseling services
- Employment services
- Loan default rates
These factors were assembled for each school and rated using a peer-based-value (PBV) calculation. PBV compares the cost of a program to the cost of other programs with the same (or similar) qualitative score and cost. PBV denotes the overall value or "bang for your buck" of a college or degree program.
To develop this year's rankings of the best online master's in public health, we analyzed publicly available data from the U.S. Department of Education, the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, as well as information from each ranked institution's academic programs. The Council on Education for Public Health accredits the graduate programs in public health found on this list, ensuring students receive a quality academic experience.
What to Know About Online Master's in Nursing Coursework
Online master's degrees in nursing blend the study of nursing practice business and healthcare administration with applied skill development in clinical nursing. Nursing is an expansive academic field and professional arena that allows you to specialize your education program in an area of nursing practice. Examples include nursing education, family practice, adult gerontology and nursing administration.
The online curriculum in an MSN program is the same as you would find in a campus-based program, minus the instructional delivery via online learning management systems. Through practicums with partner health providers in your area, you get the same hands-on clinical experience that campus-based students experience. After graduating, you should have skills in the following areas:
- Leadership skills for the design, delivery and assessment of patient care to individuals, families and groups
- Knowledge of accountability practices for point-of-care outcomes
- Communication and collaboration skills for working in cross functional teams
- Ability to use information management systems and technology
- Understanding of healthcare policy and its impact on nursing practices
- Ethical, evidence-based nursing practices and the ability to deliver safe patient care
What Common Courses are Offered in a Master's in Nursing Program?
Although coursework varies by MSN program and academic concentration, common classes include the following:
Health Assessment Across the Lifespan
Students examine the core competencies of primary care nursing professionals and teach them about conducting health assessment with cultural sensitivity to deliver a better patient experience.
This class explores the organizational structure of the U.S. healthcare system, health policy development and their relationship to nursing practice.
An advanced study of the physiology of organ systems, this class provides students with baseline knowledge that is used for clinical diagnosis.
Nursing Systems Management
This class focuses on nursing systems theory – including organizational and management – and how those theories are applied in administrative leadership positions.
In this course, students study different categories of drugs, their contraindications and interactions, which prepares them for proper pharmacology practices as advanced nurses.
What Specializations are Available in a Master's in Nursing Program?
Nursing is a broad, yet diverse healthcare field. When considering enrolling in an MSN program, prospective students should consider the area of nursing (e.g. pediatric, mental health) and the level of nursing (e.g. registered nurse, advanced practice registered nurse) they want to practice. MSN specialty options vary by nursing school, institution and state. The list below is an overview of common academic concentrations in nursing programs.
The nurse educator track is designed for individuals to assume faculty roles in higher education or educators in clinical, community or other healthcare settings. This concentration provides students with foundational knowledge of teaching strategies in both clinical practice and academic environments, preparing them to train the next generation of nurses. Coursework covers areas such as nursing curriculum development, evidence-based teaching and leadership in nursing practice.
The nurse informatics track is for nurses interested in nursing research, improving healthcare services delivery, and developing effective clinical systems. This academic specialty teaches students how to translate healthcare data and information into actionable changes as a member of interdisciplinary healthcare teams. Common classes include managing patient care data sets, database development and healthcare information workflow.
The nursing administration track is intended for registered nurses preparing for management and leadership positions across healthcare organizations. In this concentration, students develop applicable skills in budgeting, human resources management, patient care assessment, staff evaluation and more. Coursework covers areas such as financial management, operational planning and management, advocacy and ethics and healthcare systems management.
Family Nurse Practitioner
The family nurse practitioner track is for registered nurses who wish to practice nursing as an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse. These concentrations build upon the nurse's existing knowledge in patient assessment, enhance their hands-on clinical skills and prepare them for national certification examinations as a family nurse practitioner. Coursework covers areas such as advanced physical assessment, advanced pharmacology and pathophysiology, and decision-making practices.
What Exams or Projects Should I Expect?
In an online MSN program, you can expect to complete clinical immersion coursework via a local placement in a healthcare setting (e.g. hospital, community health clinic). Practicum hours vary by program and area of specialization. You can also expect to complete a capstone class that ask you to demonstrate your gasp of classroom-based instruction through multiple methods – such as clinical practice or a research project.
How Can I Choose a Quality Online Master's in Nursing Program?
When researching potential nursing schools and degree programs, it is important to understand that no two programs are alike. Your decision-making process should include a review of a program's accreditation, the overall quality of the program, nursing faculty, and clinical training requirements.
Accreditation ensures the nursing program meets recognized quality standards and also has a qualified clinical training component. The two central accrediting bodies for nursing programs are the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) and the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN). Students should ensure they attend an accredited nursing program as it is required not only by state nursing licensing agencies, but to sit for RN examinations (e.g. NCLEX-RN).
Can the program be completed entirely online or does it require on-campus visits? Can clinical practicums be completed in your local area with a partner hospital, clinic or medical provider? Having to travel out-of-state could be a major red flag when selecting a program, both for convenience and cost.
A third consideration is program quality. Examine the graduation rates and testing score. Does the program graduate a significant number of students and do those students have successful testing scores with NCLEX or nursing certification examinations? The lack of poor graduation rates and low test scores and could each be a potential warning sign.
Career Opportunities with a Master's in Nursing Degree
The master of science in nursing opens numerous career avenues for graduates in both registered nursing, advanced practice nursing, research and education. For many, becoming a registered nurse via an online BSN-to-MSN route is the primary goal, but for practicing nurses seeking advanced career opportunities an MSN with specialty training (e.g. family nurse practitioner) could be the right choice. Below is a list of potential career choices for individuals that complete a graduate degree in nursing.
Registered nurses coordinate and deliver hands-on patient care across healthcare settings, such as hospitals and community clinics.
Median Salary: $70,000 per year
Currently Employed: 203,800
Expected Job Growth in next 10 years: 31%
Nurse practitioners are advanced practice nurses that work under the supervision of a practicing physician, but can independently treat patients and write prescriptions.
Median Salary: $110,930 per year
Currently Employed: 155,500
Expected Job Growth in next 10 years: 36%
Health services administrators oversee individual health departments (e.g. nursing) and are responsible for organizational management, budgeting and finance, staffing and patient safety.
Median Salary: $98,350 per year
Currently Employed: 352,200
Expected Job Growth in next 10 years: 20%
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018
What's the Expected Job Outlook for Nursing Careers?
Nursing is one of the largest and fastest growing professions in the country, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Data from the BLS reveals that jobs for nurses and nurse practitioners are projected to increase considerably between 2016 and 2026. While registered nurses can expect 15 percent national job growth, nurse practitioners openings are projected to grow at double that rate – 31 percent. These figures are spurred by declining primary care numbers in physicians and staggering demand for healthcare services by an aging population. The BLS notes as primary care models shift, nurse practitioners will be increasing demand in hospitals, private physician offices, health clinics and ambulatory care settings.
Professional Organizations for Careers in Nursing
There are numerous nursing associations and organizations dedicated to advancing the practice of nursing. Whether you are a current RN seeking to advance their career or looking to become a registered nurse, these associations can help through scholarships, mentoring opportunities, conferences and more.
American Academy of NursingThe Academy publishes the peer-reviewed journal, Nursing Outlook, advocates for nursing policy in advance care planning, children and families and other areas, hosts expert panels across nursing specialties and more.
American Board of Nursing Specialties (ABNS)A nonprofit organization for certified registered nurses, the ABNS hosts annual conferences, provides networking opportunities and gives awards in certification advocacy and contributions to nursing certification.
American Nursing Association (ANA)The central membership organization for registered nurses, the ANA represents more than 4 million registered nurses across the United States and advocates on policy and healthcare issues that impact registered nurses.
Association for Nursing Professional Development (ANPD)This association focuses on professional development for practicing nurses within specialty nursing fields through professional development certification courses, training webinars and educational partnerships.
American Psychiatric Nurses AssociationThe largest association for psychiatric-mental health nurses, the APNA holds two yearly national conferences, provides continuing education programs and publishes the peer-reviewed Journal of the American Psychiatric Nurses Association.
How to Pay for a Master's in Nursing Degree
One of the most important factors to consider when deciding whether or not to enroll in an MSN or nurse practitioner graduate degree program is cost. Unlike many other online programs, the MSN requires a hands-on practicum, which means you could face additional fees and program costs. However, there are several options to help you defray the cost of your graduate nursing education.
Federal Financial Aid
Nursing students can secure loans from the U.S. Department of Education. Before taking out a loan, you should fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid to see if you are eligible for any types of financial aid.
Most nursing departments and schools of nursing provide scholarships for graduate students completing an MSN degree. For a single example, Chamberlain University offers the Clinical Educator Scholarship for graduate students in its MSN – Educator specialty track.
There are associations that provide scholarship programs for current and prospective nurses. Requirements and eligibility vary by fund, but examples include the Nurses' Float Scholarship from the Association of California Nurse Leaders and the Education Advancement Scholarships from the American Association of Nurse Practitioners.
In addition to department-based scholarships, you may also qualify for university-wide scholarship funding. For example, the University of Southern California offers the Norming Topping Student Aid Fund.
National Health Service Corps Repayment Program
For nurse practitioners, the National Health Services Corps (NHSC) offers a loan repayment program. In exchange for loan repayments, you must commit to working full- or part-time clinical practice for two years in a designated service shortage area.