Top RN to MSN Online Programs for 2023

For registered nurses (RNs) looking to move into leadership or advanced practice nursing, a master’s degree may be the way to go. Explore the best RN to MSN programs, and see if an online or blended program might work for you.

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Michael Hoffman

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A former practicing attorney, Michael Hoffman has years of experience as a freelance journalist specializing in the research and writing of higher education content – from online learning to financial aid, and everything in between. Michael is a graduate of the University of California, Santa Barbara and the Santa Barbara College of Law. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael practiced for several years as a civil litigator in Los Angeles and worked in Santa Monica, California as a development executive for a major film producer.

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The best online RN to MSN degree program for you will be whichever one best suits your life. Consider your family obligations, work schedule, career goals, and study preferences. There are a number of additional factors that any program you consider should satisfy: affordability, curriculum comprehensiveness, proper accreditation, and more. We’ve surveyed the wide range of online RN to MSN programs out there to bring you our list of the best of 2023. We have provided detailed profiles of each school’s program to give you a solid grasp of what they offer and help you decide which one you want to look into further.

Online RN to MSN Program Details

As with most professionals, moving up the career ladder for a registered nurse almost always means heading back to school to get an advanced degree. Often, that’s a Master of Science in Nursing. An MSN degree is the gateway to positions in management, education, and advanced practice, and can also mean a substantial boost in salary. According to job market compensation website PayScale, for example, the current average annual salary for RN’s in the United States is $63,000, while the average annual salary of individuals who hold a MSN degree currently stands at $92,000.

But what about the RN who doesn’t hold the bachelor’s degree that’s often a prerequisite to admission into an MSN program? Fortunately, today there are now many high-quality, fully-accredited online RN to MSN programs that offer qualified candidates nurses a way to skip the Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree and go directly to earning their MSN. These online “bridge” programs are designed with the working RN in mind, offering practical curriculums, flexible study schedules, and faster completion times than traditional MSN programs.

There are a lot of questions that need answering before settling on the right online RN to MSN program. Consider asking the following questions. After reading through them, you can find answers below. We’ll break down the many components that make up an online RN to MSN program.

  • What subjects are covered in the curriculum, and what specializations are offered?
  • Are all of my courses available online, and how does online study work?
  • Is there a required in-person clinical experience, and can I complete it in my hometown?
  • Are there separate bridge and degree programs, or are the bridge elements incorporated into the actual MSN degree program?
  • How long will it take to earn my degree?
  • How much is this all going to cost me?

The RN to MSN Curriculum

In academics, RN to MSN students encounter a curriculum that includes core nursing topics in both theory and practice, as well the subjects of clinical systems and organizations, lab sciences, leadership, and more. Some schools separate bridge and MSN degree coursework into separate programs, while others combine all it into a single curriculum. Also, completion of some programs will result in the award of both BSN and MSN degrees, while others award an MSN only.

Here’s a sample of the types of courses a RN to MSN curriculum is likely to include:

General Education

Most bridge programs include foundational coursework similar to what is typically found in a BSN or other bachelor’s degree program. Part of that coursework is non-nursing general education courses in liberal arts subjects like English, math, and the natural and social sciences. Here are a few examples:

  • English Composition:
    Introduction to college-level writing (grammar, structure, proper style, etc.) and basic research skills.
  • Introduction to Sociology:
    Coverage of foundational topics such as social behavioral norms and their deviations, and social structures such as families, workplaces, schools, and political institutions.
  • U.S. Government:
    Survey of the U.S. Constitution, the structure and function of government branches, policy making, and citizen participation in the political process.

Health Sciences

Coursework in the health sciences covers a broad range of topics, such as anatomy, physiology, psychology, public health, pharmacology, occupational therapy, speech pathology, and many others. Most RN to MSN curriculums include a number of health science courses in areas that directly complement nursing practice.

  • Human Anatomy and Physiology:
    Introduction to the fundamental structures and functions of the human body, including the skeletal, muscular, nervous, and endocrine systems.
  • Microbiology:
    Overview of microbiology concepts, methods, and applications from the clinical perspective, including a discussion of microorganisms and the roles they play in the causes and treatments of diseases.
  • Pharmacology:
    Discussion of the therapeutic and adverse affects of drugs (anesthetics, muscle relaxants, pain medications, psychoactive medications, etc.) on the various systems of the body.

Nursing Theory

Nursing theory concerns the creation and structuring of nursing ideas. Studying these foundational theories helps nurses develop the knowledge and skills required to provide the best care possible for their patients. Included are “grand theories” relating to broad nursing concepts, mid-range (or narrower scope) theories, and nursing practice theories, which apply to specific nursing practice situations.

  • Nutritional Science for Health Professionals:
    Study of the scientific foundation and fundamentals of human nutrition and their relationship to food choices, food safety, health behaviors, public health, and the prevention of chronic disease.
  • Health Assessment:
    A look at the knowledge and skills associated with health promotion, prevention of disease, and the early detection of illness through the comprehensive physical assessment of the patient.
  • Community Health and Population-Focused Nursing:
    Survey of the theories and models of health promotion as they relate to cultures, communities, and other populations.

Professional Nursing & Leadership

One of the major purposes of any MSN degree program is to train students to become effective leaders in their jobs and within their professional communities. Good nursing leaders inspire their peers to work as a team to meet the goal of quality and progressive patient care.

  • Healthcare Business Dynamics:
    The application of business principles and concepts as they relate to patient-centered care across a range of health care settings, including finance, budgeting, organizational structuring, marketing, and cost-benefit analysis.
  • Policy, Politics, and Global Health Trends:
    Overview of the economic, political, and social factors influencing policies that affect acute care settings on the community, national, and global levels.
  • Quality and Safety Management:
    Examination of management strategies and the improvement of processes associated with patient safety and quality outcomes, including program planning, implementation, and evaluation.

Nursing Education

Nursing education courses explore the teaching and learning approaches necessary to design, develop, and assess nursing education programs. An MSN degree is typically a prerequisite for anyone interested in pursuing a career as a nurse educator or any other advanced professional position in nursing.

  • The Role of the Nurse Educator:
    Examination of the teaching, scholarship, and service, as well as the responsibilities of the nurse educator, in the academic and health care environments.
  • Assessment and Evaluation in Nursing Education:
    Investigation of strategies used to assess and evaluate student learning in the classroom, clinical settings, laboratories, online, and other applicable education domains.
  • Emerging Trends and Challenges in Nursing Education:
    Survey and analysis of emerging nursing education trends, technologies, and challenges in the 21st century, and the role of the nurse educator as scholar and policy advocate.

How Does Earning an RN to MSN Work Online?

Here’s a look at the specifics on studying healthcare online:

There are two basic course delivery methods: asynchronous and synchronous. Asynchronous classes allow students to access and complete their coursework at any time and at their own pace. Synchronous classes are typically livestreamed and require attendance at a specified time. Most RN to MSN programs offer their online courses asynchronously for the convenience of nurses who work evening and overnight shifts.

There are also two basic course formats: fully-online and hybrid. Fully-online courses are just that, where study is completed 100% online. Hybrid courses are those that include an in-person component, normally on the school’s physical campus. Most RN to MSN programs offer all of their classes fully-online, although some include a small number classes that will require some in-person participation.

Learning Platforms
Most online programs utilize an online learning platform, through which programs deliver course content, tests (reading materials, videos, tutorials, etc.), and facilitate communication between students, instructors, and fellow classmates. Communication methods include email, instant messaging, community chat rooms, webinars, and live cohort sessions. Popular platforms include Blackboard and Brightspace.

The RN to MSN Timeline

MSN program lengths and course sequences vary depending on many factors, including whether study is full- or part-time, concentration or specialization, and specific course availability. Some programs may additionally award credits for a student’s previous RN work experience. The fact that a program is online can also affect its length. For example, some online programs allow students to complete coursework at an accelerated pace if they choose, compared to traditional class pacing. Students pursuing an online degree without a clinical hours requirement will also be able to complete their programs in less time than a traditional program with a clinical hours requirement.

For an idea of program length, here is a sample timeline for a part-time online RN to MSN (FNP concentration) program:

Term Courses (Credits) Total Credits
Year 1
Advanced Pathophysiology (4), Contemporary Issues in Professional Nursing (4) 8
Year 1
Health Assessment (4), Statistics (4) 8
Year 1
Community Nursing Care (4), Research Methods (3) 7
Year 2
Management and Leadership (4), Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Health Care System (3) 7
Year 2
Advance Pharmacology I (3), Health Assessment across the Lifespan (2), Clinical Decision Making I (1), Scholarly Inquiry I (2) 8
Year 2
Primary Care Nursing I: Childbearing Family (4), Clinical Decision Making II (2), Family Theory: Health and Illness (3), Social Inquiry II (2) 11
Year 3
Advanced Pharmacology II (2), Primary Care Nursing II (4), Clinical Decision Making III (2), Health Promotion: Global Perspectives (2) 10
Year 3
Primary Care Nursing IV (4), Clinical Decision Making IV (2), Informatics (3) 9

Please note that lots of online programs feature multiple starting points throughout the year, so course sequences may be interchangeable in relation to season.

RN to MSN Program Admission

Earning an MSN degree through an online RN to MSN program means you must gain acceptance to a program. This can be a concern for those with no prior nursing or other healthcare experience. Though lack of experience can limit program options, it does not eliminate them entirely. While admission requirements vary from school to school, there are a number of general criteria you will be expected to meet regardless of where you apply:

Foundational Credential

By definition, an RN to MSN program does not require applicants to possess a BSN to be admitted. Applicants must, however, hold a properly-accredited foundational post-secondary degree or nursing diploma, earned with a stated minimum GPA. Commonly accepted credentials include an ADN, nursing diploma, or non-nursing bachelor’s degree (most often in another health care or closely-related field). That said, most do not accept a non-nursing bachelor’s degree.

A small number of programs will accept applicants who are currently working on their foundational credentials on the condition that the degree or diploma program is successfully completed prior to commencing coursework in the RN to MSN program.

How to stand out:
Earning your foundational degree or diploma at the top of your class or with honors will likely place you at the top of an admissions committee list.

RN License

Almost all programs require applicants to possess a current and unencumbered RN license, although a few may admit students on the condition that they obtain their license prior to starting their degree studies. Most programs require that the RN license be issued by a U.S. entity. However, some may accept one issued in Canada or another country.

How to stand out:
If your current RN license will soon be up for renewal, be sure to renew it as soon as possible to avoid any chance of it lapsing during the admissions process.

Nursing Experience

The majority of RN to MSN programs require some amount of prior RN work experience, typically between two and five years. A few programs do admit students with no RN experience, but students should expect to obtain a given amount of experience prior to graduation.

How to stand out:
If you are planning on obtaining your MSN in a specific area of specialization, be sure that your RN experience is in the practice of that specialization.

English Proficiency

Proof of English proficiency is additionally required by most programs for international applicants from countries where English is not the official language.

How to stand out:
Applicants who require proof of English proficiency will likely be required to submit passing scores from a designated EP testing service. Be sure to meet your RN to MSN program’s specific test requirements (both types of tests and minimum acceptable test scores) prior to submitting your application.

Other possible admission requirements

Some of the most common additional requirements include a criminal background check, CPR certification, and completion of certain general education and/or health care related college-level coursework.

How Much Does an RN to MSN Program Cost?

Cost is an important factor when considering pursuing any college degree, including an MSN earned through an online RN to MSN program. And, as with any other degree, tuition and fee costs for different programs vary significantly depending on a range of factors: program length, geographic location, school reputation, and whether the school is public or private. Additionally, online programs may be differently than their traditional counterparts.

Below are the current tuition rates for several online RN to MSN programs (as of May 2019):

1 1. Drexel University, RN to MSN Bridge/MSN $968 per credit
2 2. Fort Hays State University, RN to BSN/MSN $218.67 per credit
3 3. Gonzaga University, RN to MSN $955 per credit
4 4. Nebraska Methodist College, RN to MSN Bridge/MSN $308 per credit (bridge courses),
$565 per credit (MSN courses)
5 5. Seton Hall University, RN to MSN Bridge/MSN $1,220 per credit (undergraduate-level courses),
$1,229 per credit (graduate-level courses)

For information on how to get help pay for your online RN to MSN program, check out the following pages: