Earning Your Master of Science in Nursing Online


Stephanie Johannsen
Stephanie Johannsen

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Stephanie Johannsenis a Registered Nurse (RN) with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) and a Master of Science in Health Administration (MSHA). Her unique background includes extensive clinical and administrative roles in hospitals, insurance companies, Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs), drug companies, start-up joint ventures, ambulatory centers, hospice, long term care, home health, travel nursing and overseas education. She also worked as a Certified Legal Nurse Consultant (CLNC) assisting with class action lawsuits, medical malpractice cases and catastrophic injury cases. Stephanie has had an exciting career fully exploring nearly every aspect of health care and thrives on sharing those experiences with others who wish to enter the field.

For practicing nurses, a master of science in nursing (MSN) degree can be a significant step to professional growth. Online MSN programs give students a flexible way to earn the degree they need while they continue to work full- or part-time. Use this guide to review today’s best online MSN programs, research program options, learn more about the curriculum, and examine cost, quality, and financial aid options. Take your first step toward an MSN today.

Top Online MSN Programs for 2020

Given the importance of MSN degree in helping nurses advance their careers, there are many nursing schools that offer solid MSN programs online. Figuring out which one to apply to and attend can be difficult. We’ve taken many factors into account and created a list of the most well-rounded online MSN programs available today.

University of Central Florida


Located in Orlando, Florida, the University of Central Florida (UCF) boasts one of the largest student populations of any school in the nation. UCF offers a robust online program and with a variety of undergraduate and graduate program options, including an online a master’s of science in nursing degree.

Specifically, UCF offers its MSN program in three online formats across three specializations. Students can choose to pursue their degree in cohort, full-time, or part-time formats. This maximizes flexibility and allows students to tailor learning to fit their personal needs. Depending on the format, students will take between four and seven semesters to complete their degree.

The three specializations offered are: Nurse Educator, Leadership and Management, and Nursing and Healthcare Simulation. The latter is particularly unique in that it’s the shortest UCF online MSN program at 31 credit hours. It’s designed to train nurses in healthcare simulation for education, quality improvement, and training purposes. The Nurse Educator and Leadership and Management specializations are longer, at 35 and 36 credit hours, respectively. Each specialization consists of the same four core MSN courses, along with seven or eight track-specific courses.

Jacksonville University

Queens University of Charlotte

Types of Online MSN Programs

There are lots of options for those who want to earn their master’s degree in nursing. Each program is specifically designed for a differing experience, and suits a different set of educational backgrounds of applicants. Some MSN programs are intended for registered nurses without a bachelor’s degree, while others require a bachelor of science in nursing for admission. Here’s more on the most popular types of MSN degree tracks:

Direct Entry MSN Programs

These are relatively new to academia and were created to help alleviate the shortage of health professionals within the United States. Direct entry MSN programs are designed for students who already have a bachelor’s degree, but in an area of study other than nursing. Programs differ in format, but usually begin with taking pre-licensure nursing courses during the first year and passing the NCLEX-RN exam. Once that is completed, students move onto the MSN related coursework. Students can choose from traditional campus-based programs or flexible online direct entry MSN programs.

The benefits

  • Time savings: Depending on the school, many direct entry programs take about three years. This is a far less time than going back to school to earn a BSN or associate degree in nursing, then obtaining an MSN (4-6 years).
  • Financial savings: Not having to earn a second undergraduate degree, whether it’s at the bachelor’s or associate level, can save tens of thousands of dollars on schooling.

The drawbacks

  • Background research required: Prospective direct entry students need to do careful background research to choose the right concentration for their MSN degree, yet do so without any prior knowledge.
  • Academic intensity: Because direct entry programs are open to students from any academic background, those with degrees that have less of a mathematical or scientific basis may have to spend extra time on those skills, and on an accelerated basis.

Best for… Direct entry programs are perfect for students who want an MSN degree, but do not want to earn a second bachelor’s or associate degree in nursing first.

Accelerated MSN Programs

Accelerated MSN programs include a curriculum set up so that that students can complete their MSN degree as quickly as possible, each unique. Some schools allow students to use their prior education or experience to help them move more quickly through a particular course. Other programs allow students to take as many courses as they want within a certain time period. Finally, some programs are extra flexible in allowing students to structure their degree requirements in the most efficient and practical way possible.

The advantages

  • Academic efficiency: Many accelerated programs allow students to take courses all year. Instead of taking off during the winter and summer breaks, you can continue with course work.
  • Potential to save money: Accelerated MSN programs reduce the amount of time a student spends in school working toward the degree. Depending on the school tuition rates, students can potentially reduce the overall cost of earning an MSN degree by reducing the time in school by an entire term.

The disadvantages

  • Higher initial cost: Accelerated programs can save time on an MSN degree in several ways, but typically allow more courses within a shorter period of time. As most schools charge per class or credit, this can result in a higher tuition cost in the short term.
  • Requires a full-time commitment: To allow students to finish their degree as quickly as possible, program administrators have set up accelerated programs such that there is little time for students to do anything else other than attend class online, study and complete clinicals.

Best for… Accelerated programs are ideal for students who want to earn their MSN as quickly as possible, and have the time and money to devote 100% of their attention to their goal.

RN to MSN Programs

Many registered nurses earn a bachelor of science in nursing degree. But many others become licensed RNs with just an associate degree or a diploma from an approved nursing program. However, a master’s degree traditionally requires incoming students to have a bachelor’s degree. To accommodate this need, many nursing schools have created special programs for non-BSN prepared RNs who want to get an MSN by building on their real-world clinical experience. Many RN to MSN programs are available online, as well.

The benefits

  • Still earn a BSN: RN to MSN programs vary, but many of them will include earning a BSN in addition to the MSN degree.
  • Large professional growth potential: For RNs who want to transition to management, education, or a specialized area of practice, a RN to MSN program is probably the most cost-effective way of getting there.

The drawbacks

  • Length of program: Because students are typically earning both a BSN and MSN degree, many RN to MSN programs last three or more years. For some nurses, it might not be worth the added time and expenses.
  • Challenging coursework: Many RN to MSN programs require students to take bachelor’s and master’s level courses at the same time. This can present an extra set of learning challenges for some.

Best for… Practicing nurses who want to advance their nursing career but don’t already have a bachelor’s degree in nursing.

BSN to MSN Programs

Getting an MSN degree after first earning a BSN is a traditional academic degree path. Therefore, the BSN to MSN route is the most common type of online MSN program available. Most BSN to MSN programs consist of about 35 credit hours and last about two years, if the course-load is full-time. Given how well-established these MSN programs are, students usually have the greatest opportunity to pursue a particular specialization or concentration this way.


  • Plenty of program options: Because the BSN to MSN is so common, almost every nursing school with a graduate program has this degree path, meaning there are many programs to choose from.
  • Speed of completion: Of all of the major types of MSN programs, the BSN to MSN path is the fastest. This is due to students not only having the requisite nursing background, but having already completed all foundational and general education undergraduate coursework as well.


  • Clinicals still required: Even though incoming students have already completed the clinicals necessary for earning a BSN and have real world clinical experience, BSN to MSN programs still have clinical requirements.
  • Lower return on investment: Because incoming nursing students already have a bachelor’s degree in nursing, the return on investment for an MSN degree isn’t always as good when compared to other MSN programs that accept students with little to no background.

Best for… Nurses with a bachelor’s degree in nursing who would like to move on to the next level of their nursing career, whether in management, leadership, education or a nursing specialization.

Dual Master’s: MSN/MBA

The MSN degree is typically intended for those who want to take on lower to middle level management or leadership positions within a department or healthcare organization. For those who want to enter the corporate or executive leadership roles at the highest level, some schools have created dual degree programs. These combine the master of science in nursing degree with the master of business administration.

Why it’s a good idea

  • Create change at the highest level: With the addition of the MBA degree, nurses earn the ability to take on roles that create policy changes at the top of organizations.
  • Networking opportunities: With the combination of the MBA and MSN degrees, students will have opportunities to create connections with individuals work in both the healthcare and executive realm of an organization.

The disadvantages

  • Time commitment: Depending on the program, obtaining two degrees at once can add an extra year or more to the time it takes to graduate.
  • Admissions requirements: While it’s not impossible to gain acceptance into a joint MBA/MSN degree program, the admissions requirements are more involved and rigorous.

Best for… Anyone with a nursing background who wants to reach the highest levels of leadership within a healthcare organization.

Exploring the Online MSN Curriculum

The majority of curriculums in online MSN programs consist of three parts. The first part includes the core MSN courses that all students take, regardless of concentration. The second portion are courses specific to the student’s concentration of choice, such as nurse educator or informatics. The third part is clinicals or practicums that students must complete at an approved healthcare site.

This curriculum structure changes slightly for students without a BSN degree or nursing background. In those cases, there is an additional portion of the curriculum to cover the missing coursework, such as foundational and prerequisite nursing courses. The following sample timeline is for MSN students who already have their BSN degree and choose to take a leadership and management area of specialization.

Term Courses # Credits
Semester 1 Nursing Informatics, Advanced Practice Nursing Theories, and Dynamics within a Healthcare Organization. 9
Semester 2 Nursing elective, Research Methods, and Nurse Management. 9
Semester 3 Healthcare Resource and Financial Management, Legal and Ethical Behaviors for Advanced Practice Nurses. 6
Semester 4 Leadership and Management for Nurses and Leadership and Management Clinical. 6
Semester 5 Evidence Based Practice and Leadership and Management Internship. 6

How Do Master’s in Nursing Programs Work Online?

In most cases, all the coursework in an online MSN program will be delivered through distance learning technology. Depending on the program, the bulk of the course material is delivered and managed by learning management software. This can include handouts, tests, assignments, and lectures. The software is also used to coordinate interactions between students and educators. Some programs supplement the collaborative learning with tools like Skype or Facetime.

The exact online education process depends on the preferences of school administrators, professors, and the educational format. For example, with asynchronous learning, interactions among students and between students and the professor are not as likely to be in real time. Instead, there will probably be message boards where students can access as it’s convenient to them. If a program contains synchronous learning, it is conducted primarily in real time.

Clinicals & Labs for the Online MSN

Even though many programs tout 100% online curriculums, that doesn’t mean MSN students have no in-person education elements. In nursing school, the most significant hands-on education requirements are clinicals or practicums.

Online MSN programs also have these requirements, but because the majority of students do not live or work close to the school, they have special procedures in place for reviewing and approving clinical sites chosen by the students. These locations can be either the same place where the student currently works as an RN or a potential future employer. It’s quite common for those who make a great impression during their clinicals to have their job applications receive special consideration during the post-graduate job search.

Students should be selective in choosing a preceptor, or healthcare professional, who helps find teaching opportunities for students during the clinical. In addition to clinicals, some programs may also have on-campus intensives, immersions, or labs that students must complete.

Specializing as a Master’s in Nursing Student

One of the key benefits of studying for a master’s level nursing degree is the ability to specialize. Most schools with MSN programs have several concentrations to choose from. By opting for an appropriate concentration, nurses can receive a tailored education designed to most effectively prepare them for career advancement.


Care coordination: A lesser known MSN specialization, care coordination refers to the process of providing the most effective nursing care possible by taking into account factors which affect a patient’s health. Students learn how to manage the various medical providers and professional organizations that can affect treatment plans.


Forensic nursing: The forensic nursing concentration teaches how law enforcement and the justice system interact with medical professionals. Students will learn about topics from gathering evidence and treating victims of sex crimes to the fundamentals of providing expert medical testimony in court, as well as crime prevention.


Nursing education: Also known as a Nurse Educator, this is one of the more commonly found MSN majors, partially because of a pressing need for more teachers to help train nurses and meet the rising demand for healthcare. Students will learn the skills necessary to teach in both an academic and clinical setting. Review top online MSN programs in nursing education.


Nursing informatics: Nursing informatics is a type of information engineering subfield within healthcare. It involves using information systems to improve health outcomes in patients. In this concentration, students learn how to use computer hardware and software to tackle some of the most challenging problems in patient care management. Learn more about online nursing informatics MSN programs.


Nursing leadership and administration: Nursing leadership and management is a commonly available MSN major. It combines the clinical experience and management training necessary to properly lead and manage a group or department in a healthcare organization. Read about the online MSN in nursing administration.


Public health: This specialization deals with providing care to patients within a community setting. Students learn how to apply epidemiological theories to keep a community healthy, as well as maximize their roles as health evaluators and policy creators.

Online MSN Program Admissions

Graduate-level nursing programs can be competitive. Applicants are often concerned with more than just a high GPA, and those with a non-nursing background applying to direct entry MSN programs may have to compete harder. Below we identify the parts of an application candidates should be especially focused on, and ways in which to stand out.

Entrance Exam Scores

Many MSN programs require applicants to take an entrance exam, such as the GRE, and submit their scores. These exams provide an objective measure of a student’s potential success in graduate school.

How to stand out

A strong GRE or other entrance exam score can help convince an admissions committee that a student can handle the rigors of graduate school, especially if you do not have a nursing background.

Personal statement

Outside of the interview, the personal statement provides the only opportunity for applicants to present a side of themselves they can’t otherwise show.

How to stand out

Applicants should carefully consider what to write and spend plenty of time revising the essay. Admissions officials will notice if an essay contains mistakes.


Non-nursing applicants should pay close attention to prerequisites. Without having any academic or clinical nursing experience, admissions officers want some way to ensure incoming students have the fundamentals necessary.

How to stand out

You may have already taken these courses, and if you’re your grades are already established. But most non-nursing students will need to take most or all of these courses. This is actually a great opportunity for you to show what you’re capable of and what kind of academic performance the program can expect from you once you’re admitted.

Cost and the MSN Online

The cost of an online MSN degree is comparable to many other graduate level degrees, including traditional on-campus MSN programs. In some cases they are about the same price. The exact cost for each student depends on many factors, one of the largest being whether the you have in-state status for tuition purposes. In some schools where online students all pay the same rate, this doesn’t matter. At other schools, in-state residency may significantly lower tuition. The following are examples of what you can expect to pay for an MSN degree.

1 1. University of Central Florida, Nursing, MSN $5,073.46/year (in-state) and $10,769.71/year (out-of-state) or $327.32/credit (in-state) and $694.82/credit (out-of-state).
2 2. University of Cincinnati, Master of Science in Nursing $15,594.00/year (in-state) and $15,894.00/year (out-of-state) or $724.00/credit (in-state) and $739.00/credit (out-of-state).
3 3. Duke University, Master of Science in Nursing $21,228.00/year and $1,769.00/credit.
4 4. University of Alabama in Huntsville, Master of Science in Nursing $12,360.00/year and $412.00/credit.
5 5. University of Arizona, Online RN to MSN $17,200.00/year and $800.00/credit.

For information on how to pay for an online MSN program, check out the following pages: