Online Direct Entry MSN Programs for Non-Nurses

Research top schools, earn your master’s online, and jumpstart your nursing career.

The Best Online Direct-Entry MSN Programs for 2020

Earning an MSN through an online direct-entry program is a great way to launch your nursing career if you have a bachelor’s degree in different area, but finding the right school isn’t always easy. To help get you started, we’ve researched direct-entry MSN programs for non-nursing majors offered online by schools throughout the U.S. and evaluated them based on a variety of factors, including accreditation, affordability, and curriculum comprehensiveness. The result is our list for the top online direct-entry MSN programs for 2020. Here’s a closer look at three of the very best:

Marquette University

Marquette University’s full-time, five-semester (19-21 month) direct-entry MSN program prepares students to sit for the NCLEX-RN licensure examination and jumpstart their advanced professional nursing careers. The program’s curriculum is offered in a blended study format that combines fully-online nursing theory courses with in-person nursing skills and simulation lab work on Marquette’s Nursing School campus located in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin. Students additionally complete a minimum of 700 clinical practicum hours at healthcare facilities located throughout southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois. Because of the in-person requirements, all students must currently reside in or relocate to the Pleasant Prairie/Kenosha, Wisconsin area for the program’s duration.

Admission requirements include a non-nursing bachelor’s degree from a regionally-accredited college or university, earned with a minimum 3.0 GPA. Applicants with a GPA below 3.2 must also sit for the Graduation Records Examinations (GRE) test. All applicants must additionally complete six prerequisite courses, as well as submit three letters of recommendation, an updated resume, and personally-written admissions statement.

University of South Alabama

Ohio State University

Direct-Entry MSN Online Program Overview

Direct-entry MSN programs for non-nursing majors are designed for career changers and other individuals who have a bachelor’s degree but no prior nursing experience. These programs provide a straight path to becoming a professional nurse while awarding an advanced degree at the same time. And online direct-entry MSN programs offer an additional level of flexibility and convenience not available with traditional fully on-campus programs. It’s important to understand, however, that all direct-entry MSN programs, whether they feature online study or not, require on-campus attendance for certain classes and labs. On-campus attendance is most typically required in the pre-licensure phase of the degree program, but some on-campus visits may be required during the program’s graduate-level phase as well. Additionally, students must complete a substantial number of clinical hours at health care facilities either in close proximity to the school or in or around the student’s local community.

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FAQs About Online Direct-Entry MSN Programs

How long will it take to earn my MSN degree in a direct-entry program?

Program lengths vary, with most designed to be completed in approximately two to three years of full-time study. There are, however, programs available that can be completed in as little as 18 months of full-time work (Marquette University’s, for example) to four years or more for programs with part-time study options. Total credit requirements also vary, sometimes substantially – 70 to 80 total credit hours is common, however, with the bulk earned on undergraduate-level courses.

How much does a direct-entry MSN online program cost?

Total costs can vary significantly from program to program. Generally speaking, programs offered by private institutions tend to be more expensive than those offered by public schools. Below are the current (as of fall 2019) tuition costs for three online direct-entry MSN programs. Keep in mind, however, that total costs will likely include additional fees.

Sentara College of Health Sciences


Total Credits: 80

$520/credit

Ameritech College of Healthcare


Total Credits: 95

$751/credit

Trinity College of Nursing & Health Sciences


Total Credits: 74

$59,280 (fixed total cost, including books and fees)

Will I earn both a BSN and MSN degree as part of this program?

It depends. Some programs, such as those offered by Ameritech College of Healthcare and the University of South Alabama, award BSN degrees after successful completion of the pre-licensure component of their curriculums. Other programs only award an MSN upon successful completion of the entire degree program. Examples of MSN-only programs include those from Ohio State University and the University of Illinois at Chicago.

When will I earn my nursing license in a direct-entry MSN program?

Direct-entry MSN students do not earn their RN licenses by completing their degree programs. However, properly-accredited programs qualify students to sit for the NCLEX-RN licensure exam, often upon successful completion of the pre-licensure component of the curriculum. Students who pass the NCLEX-RN exam may then apply for their RN licenses in the jurisdiction(s) of their choice.

Most direct-entry MSN programs do not qualify students to sit for nurse practitioner (NP) certification exams. However, some programs, like Ohio State University’s, offer a Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP) specialization option that qualifies graduates of the full MSN curriculum (with specialization) to obtain FNP certification. If a program you are considering does not specifically offer an NP specialization option, ask if you may be able to tailor your MSN studies to qualify for NP certification.

Does my bachelor’s degree need to be in a healthcare related field?

No. In fact a primary characteristic (and selling point) of direct-entry MSN programs is that they accept students whose previously-earned bachelor’s degrees are in majors other than nursing, or even another healthcare-related field.

Are there any other prerequisites I need to complete before enrolling in this program?

Practically all online direct-entry MSN programs require applicants to complete a set of prerequisite courses prior to admission, with a total of five to nine being typical. The courses cover medical and science subjects like anatomy, biology, physiology, chemistry, and psychology. Some programs additionally require courses in statistics and English composition. Prerequisite programs are typically available from the same schools that offer direct-entry MSN degrees. However, prospective MSN students will likely be able to complete the prerequisite courses at another college or university. Many community colleges offer these courses as well.

What You’ll Learn in an Online Direct-Entry MSN

Since direct-entry MSN programs are designed for individuals with no prior background in nursing, students in these programs receive a solid education in foundational nursing concepts and practices, as well as specialized knowledge and skills that prepare them for advanced practice and leadership roles in the profession. By the end of the program, students should be able to:

Demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of professional knowledge and the application of critical-thinking skills to improve healthcare outcomes throughout the nursing process.

Provide safe, efficient, and respectful patient-centered care through all levels of care across diverse patient populations.

Provide efficient, effective, and ethical management of healthcare resources across the spectrum of care settings.

Demonstrate the ability to assume leadership roles in a range of healthcare systems and settings.

Demonstrate comprehensive communication skills, both written and oral, in leading interdisciplinary healthcare teams.

Common Courses

Policy and Ethics in Healthcare Practice

This course provides an examination of the moral behaviors and ethical principles underlying professional nursing and healthcare practices. Issues of ethical decision-making and policy development are considered in relation to a variety of contexts, such as quality care, patient safety, healthcare financing, and the application of relevant laws and regulations.

Pathophysiology

Nursing Informatics and Quality Improvement

Leadership and Management in Advanced Nursing

Evidence-based Nursing Practice

How to Check Accreditation for Direct-Entry MSN Programs Online

Accreditation of colleges and universities – and the programs they offer – is the means by which students and the public are assured that the schools and programs meet important standards of academic quality. There are two basic types of accreditation: institutional and programmatic. Institutional accreditation is administered by several national and regional agencies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. Programmatic accreditation of direct-entry MSN programs in the U.S. is administered primarily by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE), although programs may also be accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN).   

It is critical that prospective students confirm both institutional and programmatic accreditation of any and all degree programs they are considering. Accreditation information can typically be found on program and school websites. You’ll also find accreditation information by visiting the CCNE and ACEN websites, or by using the search feature on the DOE’s Database of Accredited Institutions and Programs (DAPIP) webpage.

Next Steps After Earning Your Direct-Entry MSN Online

Earning a direct-entry MSN requires a major commitment of time and effort. But the doors that your degree can open for you make that commitment well worth it. Here’s a look at what you’ll be doing next once you have your degree in hand.

Passing the NCLEX-RN Exam and Getting Your Nursing License

Chances are good that you will sit for the NCLEX-RN examination following completion of the pre-licensure component of your direct-entry MSN program. If not, then taking and passing the exam will be your first order of business upon graduation. The NCLEX-RN examination is a national exam, so you may sit for it at any exam location that is most convenient to you regardless of where you earned your degree or where you intend to practice.

After passing the exam, your next step will be to apply for RN licensure in the state (or states) in which you intend to practice. While passing the NCLEX-RN exam is a requirement for RN licensure in all U.S. states, it is not the only requirement. Each state has its own unique set of licensure requirements, so be sure to contact the board of nursing in each state you intend to practice for detailed licensure information.

Career Options: What You Can Do with Your MSN Degree

Once you’ve received your license, you’re ready to move right into a challenging and rewarding job as a registered nurse. And having earned an MSN degree, you’ll likely find higher-paying positions with better career growth potential than RNs without an MSN degree. While the great majority of direct-entry MSN grads will enter careers as RN’s, others will find additional job opportunities available as well. Below are three examples of careers you might pursue as an MSN program graduate. All job outlook and salary figures are taken from the U.S. Department of Labor’s O*NET and Occupational Outlook Handbook websites.

Registered Nurse

The backbone of practically every healthcare services provider is their registered nurses. RNs coordinate and carry out patient care under the direction of physicians as part of a larger team. Specific duties include: assessment of a patient’s condition; recording patient symptoms and medical histories; observing and monitoring the patient’s condition during treatment; administering medications and treatments; teaching patients how to manage their injuries and illnesses, and much more. RNs are also often called upon to oversee other patient care team members, like nursing assistants, licensed practical nurses, and home health aides.

Job Outlook

12% (projected growth from 2018 to 2028)

Median National Salary

$71,730 (as of May 2018)

Additional Experience/Training Needed

RN’s providing specialized care may be required to complete additional training and/or professional certification.

Nurse Practitioner

Nurse practitioners provide a variety of advanced primary, acute, and specialized services to their patients, including: diagnosing acute and chronic health conditions; prescribing medications and treatments; ordering, performing, and interpreting the results of diagnostic tests; and educating patients about disease prevention and healthy lifestyles. NP’s often work autonomously, managing the patient’s overall care themselves. Specialization areas include, among others: acute care, family health, neonatal health, gerontology, oncology, women’s health, and psychiatric/mental health.

Job Outlook

28% (projected growth from 2018 to 2028)

Median National Salary

$107,030 (as of May 2018)

Additional Experience/Training Needed

Specialized certification is required. Some MSN students will be able to opt for a specialization track as part of their degree program that will prepare them to qualify for certification as a nurse practitioner. Others will need to obtain additional education and training.

Nurse Educator

Nursing educators teach patient care to nursing students in classrooms and clinical settings. Specific tasks include: developing lesson plans and presenting them in the classroom; initiating and leading classroom discussions with students; evaluating program curriculums; supervising student clinical and lab work; and creating, administering, and grading assignments and examinations. Many nurse educator careers combine teaching with academic research and/or clinical practice.

Job Outlook

11% or higher** (projected growth from 2018 to 2028)

Median National Salary

$73,490** (as of May 2018)

Additional Experience/Training Needed

Further education (doctoral degree), training and/or certification may be required depending on the academic level and setting.

**Nursing instructors and teachers, postsecondary.

Education Advancement Paths

For many individuals, earning an MSN degree will mark the end of their academic endeavors in the nursing profession. However, those with an interest in moving up into the very top-tier of nursing leadership can continue their academic studies to earn a doctoral-level degree. There are three options available for these highly-ambitious nurses:

Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)

The DNP degree is designed for nurses seeking to participate in the highest levels of clinical practice. DNP curriculums emphasize clinical and leadership knowledge and skills that allow graduates to apply the latest research findings to improve care systems and the treatment outcomes of their patients. In short, think of the DNP as the “nursing practice” doctorate.

PhD in Nursing

The PhD in Nursing prepares graduates for careers as researchers and policy-makers. PhD holders lead interdisciplinary research teams in designing and conducting academic studies meant to improve nursing and broader healthcare practices, especially in the areas of chronic illnesses and care protocols. In short, think of the PhD in Nursing as the “nursing research” doctorate.

Doctor of Education (EdD) in Nursing

Available from only a small number of schools in the U.S., the EdD in Nursing is designed for professionals specifically interested in advanced teaching, administrative and leadership positions in nursing academic or staff development settings. In other words, the purpose of the EdD in Nursing is to prepare nurses to lead the way in advocating change in nursing education.