Nurses seeking to advance their credentials and potentially qualify for more responsibility and higher pay may choose to enroll in an online nurse practitioner (NP) program. According to the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP July 2016), there are over 222,000 NPs in the United States, and this figure is expected to rise significantly in coming years. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS Dec. 2015) predicts that openings for nurse practitioners in the U.S. will swell 35 percent between 2014 and 2024, much more robust growth than the average projected for all occupations during that time period (7 percent).
To prepare for this career in demand, online programs can be ideal for people who work full-time, take care of family, or have other commitments which necessitate flexibility in scheduling. These options may also be desirable for nurses who want to work with a specific patient population, such as children, adults, or the elderly. While most online nurse practitioner programs are designed for licensed registered nurses (RNs) with an undergraduate nursing degree, some so-called accelerated programs are available to RNs who have a bachelor’s degree in another field, but these programs may require the completion of additional prerequisite courses.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2015) estimates that nurse practitioners earn an average annual salary of $101,260, much higher than the mean annual salary for all occupations in the U.S. at $48,320 (BLS May 2015). As mentioned above, the BLS (May 2015) also reports that nursing is a career on the rise, predicting a 35 percent increase in job openings for NPs between 2014 to 2024, leading to the creation of 44,700 new jobs nationwide. Finally, there are a multitude of opportunities available online from the master’s to the doctoral level.
Students can find a variety of online master’s of science in nursing (MSN) programs which allow them to compete the requisite coursework to become advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs), a classification that comprises NPs, nurse anesthetists, nurse-midwives, and clinical nurse specialists. There are also post-master’s graduate certificates available online, providing specialized learning to practicing NPs looking to advance their skills in fields such as pediatrics, gerontology, or women’s health. Candidates are advised to examine all their options for a graduate education, particularly the doctorate of nursing practice (DNP) degree. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) states that the DNP designation is “a vision for the future of specialty nursing education,” recommending that the new bar for advanced practice nursing be set at the DNP by 2015. For aspiring nurse practitioners seeking a terminal degree which is more practice-centered than the research-focused PhD programs, pursuing an online DNP nurse practitioner program can be an appropriate investment in one’s future. It’s important to note that there are both generalist and specialized DNP programs, and that only the latter may include an NP specialization (e.g., adult-gerontological, pediatric, women’s health, etc).
Students should be aware that clinical hours and practicums are still part of these online programs, meaning that while much of the coursework can be completed online, the supervised clinical hours need to be completed at a healthcare service site. That said, there’s often flexibility in arranging the location for these hours and programs can often approve preceptorships located conveniently close to students’ homes.
Online and hybrid programs can be ideal for working registered nurses (RNs) and other nursing professionals looking to expand their knowledge of a particular area. With more advanced credentials, not only can aspiring advanced NPs have the skills necessary to work with more complex cases and help people, but they may also qualify for higher pay and more leadership responsibilities.
Online nursing programs have a variety of instructional formats:
Synchronous learning is one example of online learning. This is a form of live communication where people log in from different locations at the same time. One example of this typically web-based format is a “fixed time online course” where students are required to log in at a set time for assignments, lectures, meetings, and other course requirements.
Asynchronous learning is even more flexible as students are given weekly or monthly deadlines to complete coursework. They need not be online at a specific time, but must complete assignments within a given timeframe. One example of this type of learning is the “open schedule online course”.
Hybrid programs combine traditional on-campus or in-clinic learning with online learning. The online learning component may be synchronous, asynchronous, or a combination of the two, which is also true of fully online programs.
While online NP programs may offer some synchronous and asynchronous learning experiences, many also require an on-campus orientation or a limited number of campus visits, and all of them require a clinical preceptorship for hands-on training that must be completed on-site, typically at a facility convenient for the student (please confirm preceptorship and campus visitation requirements with the school prior to enrolling).
Please note that when pursuing any online program, it’s important to check that there aren’t enrollment or preceptorship restrictions based on location. States have different rules governing their regional commissions on higher education. Excluded states are generally listed on program websites under “state authorization” tabs. Otherwise, it’s advisable to reach out to program coordinators to fully understand restrictions for a particular state of residence.
Requirements to be admitted into an NP online program in a specialization will vary, but students typically need to have a bachelor’s of science in nursing (BSN), or in some cases an associate degree in nursing (ADN), with some experience. Some schools, such as Drexel University Online, may allow registered nurses (RNs) with a bachelor’s degree in another area to be admitted, but they review these applications on an individual basis. Other online post-master’s NP certificate programs such as the one at John Hopkins University require applicants to have completed a master of science in (MSN) nursing degree prior to enrollment. Also, applicants typically must have at least one-to-two years of work experience in a relevant clinical setting.
Other requirements for admission into a specialized online nurse practitioner school may include:
Please note that Graduate Record Examination (GRE) or Miller Analogies Test (MAT) scores are not always required, although some schools such as Georgetown University advise students to contact the admissions department if they believe the scores would strengthen their applications. Other schools such as Brandman University do require GRE scores and place a special emphasis on the Analytical Writing Section, calling for a score of at least 4.0. And still other schools such as Loyola University in Chicago waive the GRE requirement for applicants with a GPA of at least 2.7.
The length of these programs will depend on the educational attainment of the applicant (e.g., AA, BSN, MSN) and the degree desired (e.g., MSN, DNP).
Prior to enrollment in a program, aspiring nurse practitioners (NPs) are advised to check the accreditation status of their programs. This process can hold nursing programs accountable and ensure quality control in curricula, faculty, student outcomes, and other measures of career readiness for all graduates. Please note that the programs discussed in this guide have all been accredited by one of the agencies listed here.
The two most common organizations for NP program accreditation include the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) and the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing, Inc. (ACEN). Approval from one of these agencies is generally the most important type of accreditation to seek in a program, although some schools may boast institutional accreditation as well.
Institutional accreditation applies to the university as a whole, and is generally bestowed by one of six regional organizations: the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (HLC-NCA), the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE), the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU), the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), or the Commission on Colleges for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).
For example, Indiana State University’s online MSN program for family NPs is accredited by both programmatic and institutional bodies: the ACEN and the HLC-NCA. Benedictine University’s online MSN program, by contrast, is accredited by both the CCNE and the HLC-NCA.
Overall, it’s wise to ensure that a program is accredited by at least the CCNE or the ACEN prior to enrollment. Graduating from a properly accredited program may be a prerequisite to further education, specialty certification, or employment.
There are many factors which influence the cost of an online NP program at any level (e.g., MSN, post-master’s certificate, DNP). These variables include:
Many schools disclose how much programs cost in their “Tuition & Fees” or “Gainful Employment Disclosure” sections. Distance-based nurse practitioner schools also have various ways of pricing programs. Some have interactive tables (Indiana University-Purdue University), and others have static charts (Ohio State University). Some list their prices per semester (Duke University online MSN programs), while others list their prices per credit (Drexel University) or for the entire program (Duke University online post-graduate certificates).
Please note that many tuition and fee overviews include additional expenses a student may incur such as student registration, books, background checks, drug testing, health insurance, test proctoring fees, student services, transportation to clinical rotations, lab kits, uniforms, technology fees, graduation fees, and other miscellaneous expenses. Additionally, some programs offer discounts to military personnel or school alumni.
Here is a comparative overview of pricing among popular online nurse practitioner programs listed with prices for the 2016-2017 school year:
Price of Online MSN Programs for Aspiring Nurse Practitioners
Price of Online Post-Master’s NP Certificate Programs
Price of Online DNP Programs in NP Specialties
In addition to applying for the national Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), students are encouraged to consult their school’s web-based financial aid resources. For example, Duke University provides a DUSON Graduate Financial Aid Application and various merit- and need-based scholarships. There are also various national organizations which provide grants and scholarships to qualifying online NP students:
To learn more about how to fund an online nurse practitioner program, please check out the NP scholarship page.
Specialized nurse practitioner programs afford you the flexibility to study partially or primarily online in order to complete an advanced nursing degree at the master's or doctoral level. Clinical hours do require an on-site component, but the bulk of the work can be completed or delivered through a high-speed Internet connection.
Online adult-gerontology nurse practitioner (AGNP) programs typically take from one to four years to complete, depending on the student’s degree status (e.g., RN, BSN, ASN, MSN) and whether it’s a degree-granting or certificate program, the latter typically being of shorter duration and generally offered to holders of more advanced degrees. For those with a BSN, one of the most common starting points, these programs typically take two years to complete. There are two sub-specialties of adult gerontological care: adult gerontological primary care nurse practitioner, and adult gerontological acute care nurse practitioner.
For working registered nurses (RNs) with a passion for promoting the health and preventative care of adult patients, enrolling in an adult-gerontological primary care nurse practitioner (AG-PCNP) program can be a way to advance one’s knowledge and qualifications. These specialists work in a variety of settings, including community health clinics, hospitals, and public health organizations. Some may choose to further specialize in care for HIV/AIDS patients.
According to the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP July 2016), 16.8 percent of NPs work in adult care and 4 percent specialize in adult-gerontology primary care.
After completing an accredited program, prospective AG-PCNPs may be eligible for certification exams offered by the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) or the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners (AANP).
Some typical courses in an accredited online AG-PCNP program include:
Here are five featured online MSN nurse practitioner programs with the AG-PCNP specialization:
Online acute care adult-gerontology nurse practitioner programs help nurses to advance their assessment, physiological, and pharmacological knowledge while also becoming more skilled in treating patients who have acute, chronic, or critical conditions.
According to the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP July 2016), 7.7 percent of NPs work in acute care, including those who specialize in pediatric care. Registered nurses with acute care experience may be interested in advancing their skills. These programs are designed to prepare RNs for the advanced care of adults in specific areas, including cardiovascular, oncological, and other types of specialized assistance.
One possible path is to become an adult-gerontology acute care nurse practitioner (AG-ACNP), an option achieved with a variety of online programs. The coursework and clinical components typically take two years to complete and are designed to prepare students for the Adult-Gerontology ACNP exam for board certification offered by the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC). Additionally, students can become eligible for credentialing from the American Association of Critical Care Nurses (AACN).
Please note that some programs require students to have their advanced cardiovascular life support (ACLS) certification prior to admission.
Some of the typical courses of the AG-ACNP programs may include:
Here are five featured online MSN nurse practitioner programs with the AG-ACNP specialization:
Lastly, explore the various distance-based schools and pathways to joining the adult-gerontology NP specialty on the online AGNP programs page.
For those interested in providing comprehensive, family-focused primary care, an online family NP program can help to advance one’s skills and earning potential. According to the AANP (July 2016), 55.1 percent of NPs work in family care. There are a variety of online family NP programs accommodating different points of academic entry. Some of these programs grant a master of nursing (MSN) degree, and others may culminate in a doctor of nursing practice (DNP) degree. Upon graduation, students may be eligible to sit for the Family Nurse Practitioner Board Certification (FNP-BC) examination offered by American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC).
In these programs, students can expect to take courses such as:
Here are four featured online MSN nurse practitioner programs with the FNP specialization:
To learn more about the array of schools in the family health specialization which provide distance-based coursework, visit the online FNP programs page.
Neonatal nurse practitioners (NNPs) work in hospital intensive care units for newborns and help safeguard life from the very beginning. According to the AANP (July 2016), only 1.7 percent of NPs work in neonatal care, but they typically have more years of practice than many other NP professionals—an average of 16 years—indicating that there’s higher job retention and perhaps job satisfaction within this subspecialty. These nurse specialists are typically certified through the National Certification Corporation (NCC) after successfully passing an exam.
In these programs, aspiring NNPs can expect to have coursework in:
Please note that in addition to normal program requirements, applicants to online neonatal NP programs typically need to have certification through the Neonatal Resuscitation Program or an equivalent credential, as well as a commitment to complete their clinical requirements in level II or level III neonatal intensive care units (NICUs).
Here are four featured online MSN nurse practitioner programs with the NNP specialization:
For an overview of the various web-based schools and points of academic entry for neonatal NPs, please visit the online NNP programs page.
Online pediatric nurse practitioner programs can take from one to four years to complete, depending on the student’s highest degree attained (e.g., RN, BSN, ASN, MSN). Completion times also depend on whether it’s a degree-granting or certificate program—many schools offer both options—the latter typically being shorter and offered to holders of more advanced degrees looking for training in a specific area. For those who have BSNs, a common prerequisite to admission, these programs typically take two years. Other common admission criteria include at least one year of experience working in pediatrics and the Pediatrics Life Support (PALS) certificate.
There are two sub-specialties of pediatric NP programs: pediatric primary care nurse practitioner and pediatric acute care nurse practitioner.
For aspiring advanced practice nurses with a passion for promoting the health of infants and children, enrolling in a pediatric nurse practitioner primary care (PNP-PC) program can prepare them for the range of delicate situations and conditions during this vulnerable stage of life.
According to the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP July 2016), 6.4 percent of NPs work in pediatric primary care, with a further 1.7 percent specializing in working with neonates.
Upon graduating from an accredited PNP-PC program, candidates may be eligible to sit for certification examinations given by Pediatric Nursing Certification Board (PNCB) or the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC).
Some typical courses in a PNP-PC program may include:
Here are five featured online MSN nurse practitioner programs with the PNP-PC specialization:
For nurse practitioners with experience giving complex, acute, or emergency treatment to infants and children, pursuing an advanced credential in pediatric acute care may be advisable to advance one’s skills. Graduates of these pediatric acute care nurse practitioner (PNP-AC) programs may be eligible for certifications from the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC), the American Association of Critical Care Nurses (AACN), or the Pediatric Nursing Certification Board (PNCB).
In these programs, candidates can expect courses such as:
Here are five featured online MSN nurse practitioner programs with the PNP-AC specialization:
Finally, be sure to reference the detailed guide to distance-based pediatric NP programs (both acute and primary care) on the online PNP programs page.
Psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioners (PMHNPs) provide holistic care to patients suffering disorders of the body and mind. These specialists diagnose diseases, prescribe medications, and provide therapy paying thought to both the physiological and psychological underpinnings of problems.
According to the AANP (July 2016), 4.2 percent of NPs work in the psychiatric subspecialty of nursing. Following completion of these programs, students may be eligible for PMHNP certification through the ANCC.
In an online psychiatric NP program, students can expect to take a number of classes such as:
Here are six featured online (and hybrid) MSN nurse practitioner programs with the PMHNP specialization:
To discover the broad range of distance-based schools in the psychiatric NP specialty, check out the online PMHNP programs page.
Women’s health nurse practitioners (WHNPs) deliver primary healthcare to women throughout their lifespan. From adolescence to the childbearing years and beyond, these specialists can provide assistance with family planning, uro-gynecology, and fertility management, among other services. There’s a wide array of online WHNP schools to train these valuable specialists and meet the healthcare needs of women across the country.
According to the AANP (July 2016), 5.8 percent of NPs work in the women’s health subspecialty of nursing. Upon graduation from a qualifying program, candidates may be eligible for certification through the National Certification Corporation (NCC).
Aspiring WHNPs can expect to take courses such as:
Here are five featured online MSN nurse practitioner programs with the WHNP specialization:
Check out the variety of distance-based schools with accredited NP programs in women’s health on the online WHNP programs page.
In order to enroll in an online master of science in nursing (MSN) program, students typically must be registered nurses (RNs) with one-to-two years of clinical experience. Many programs require that candidates have completed their bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degree, but other related college degrees may qualify with extra coursework.
Schools typically require their applicants to submit the following:
Please note that Graduate Record Examination (GRE) or Miller Analogies Test (MAT) scores may required for applications, particularly for students who think the scores would enhance their qualifications or for those who haven’t achieved a minimum GPA (e.g., 3.0).
In online MSN programs, students can expect to take courses such as the following:
Upon graduation from a qualifying program, candidates may be eligible to pursue certification, a process which normally involves an exam and application. There are a variety of certifications available depending on one’s specialization or MSN program track. The most common certifying agencies for MSN graduates include:
These online programs, also known as “bridge” or “blend” programs, may award both BSN and MSN degrees upon completion. These programs are designed for RNs with associate’s degrees looking for an accelerated route to higher credentials. The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) provides a comprehensive list of RN-to-MSN program options, including on-campus (i.e., traditional), hybrid, and online learning formats.
Some of the featured online RN-to-MSN programs include:
A majority of online MSN programs require applicants to have a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degree and an unencumbered RN license prior to applying. BSN programs provide both a strong foundation of didactic coursework and clinical hours to prepare students for the rigors of an online graduate nurse practitioner program. In addition to the advanced practice registered nursing (APRN) specializations (e.g., AGNP, PNP, WHNP)—the focus of this article—there are also BSN-to-MSN programs which focus on administration or education. Please note that a majority of the specialized online NP programs profiled above are BSN-to-MSN.
Here are four additional online BSN-to-MSN programs for aspiring NPs with various specializations:
These online NP programs are open to RNs who hold bachelor’s degrees in a non-nursing discipline. Although many online programs call for candidates to have a BSN prior to enrollment, some accept non-BSN bachelor degree holders who are willing to take extra qualifying coursework. Other programs require non-BSN candidates to submit a clinical practice portfolio to demonstrate nursing experience and competencies.
Here are four additional online BSN-to-MSN programs for aspiring NPs with various specializations:
These online NP programs are open to RNs who hold bachelor’s degrees in a non-nursing discipline. Although many online programs call for candidates to have a BSN prior to enrollment, some have options for non-BSN bachelor degree holders who are willing to take extra qualifying coursework. Other programs require non-BSN candidates to submit a clinical practice portfolio to demonstrate nursing experience and competencies.
Some of the featured online MSN-NP programs for non-BSN bachelor’s graduates include:
Nurses with either an ADN, BSN, or MSN degree will find doctor of nursing practice (DNP) programs specifically designed to bridge the gap between their current level of education and that required to earn a DNP. There are both generalist DNP programs, and others which deepen a student’s understanding of a particular NP specialization (e.g., women’s health).
The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) called for the adoption of the DNP as the highest, terminal nursing degree for NPs by 2015. For full-time RNs who are committed to the field and want to take their careers to ultimate heights in training, evidence-based research, and experience, an online DNP program may be the right option.
Following completion of a DNP program with an NP specialization, graduates will be qualified to sit for their NP certification exam, as they would be upon graduating from an MSN-NP program. According to the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners (AANP), while the DNP credential has been recommended as the terminal credential for nurse practitioners, it is still not mandated to qualify for certification exams as of September 2015.
Finally, DNP program graduates may choose to pursue additional NP specializations via post-master’s certificate programs and can, upon completion, apply for certification in their new areas of expertise. Certifying organizations will vary by specialization and geographic area, but the most common national certification agencies include:
In order to enroll in an online DNP program, prospective students typically have completed at least a bachelor’s degree—preferably a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN)—although there are exceptions. For example, at the MGH Institute of Health Professions, founded by Massachusetts General Hospital, the RN-to-DNP program admits students with various levels of college experience. According to its web page, “RNs with other bachelor’s degrees, associate degrees in nursing, or nursing diplomas, as well as nurse educators who are not advanced practice nurses, are welcome to apply to this program as well.” These students generally have to complete additional course requirements, some of which may not be available online.
Other admission requirements for an online DNP programs might include:
In DNP programs, students typically take courses such as:
Depending on a student’s level of educational attainment, the program length and structure will vary.
For full-time registered nurses (RNs) who want to take their career to new heights, enrolling in an online RN-to-DNP program may be the perfect option. Many of these programs require applicants to have a bachelor’s degree and at least one year of experience as an RN, but there are exceptions at some schools if candidates are willing to complete extra coursework. Please note that some early program requirements for RN-to-DNP options may have to be completed in a more traditional classroom or clinical setting.
Some of the featured online RN-to-DNP programs include:
Online BSN-to-DNP programs provide students with the opportunity to pursue an advanced nursing degree while completing clinical hours at an approved site through a preceptorship located close to their homes. Students entering these programs must have achieved at least a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degree with one year of on-the-job experience to apply.
Some of the featured online BSN-to-DNP programs include:
For working RNs who have already completed their master of science in nursing (MSN) degrees, an online DNP program can help advance one’s specialized knowledge and research experience. These programs are shorter in length than the RN- or BSN-to-DNP options since candidates with MSNs already have completed substantial graduate coursework. These candidates are generally required to have advanced education or certification in a clinical specialty (e.g., NP, APRN, etc).
Please note that many of the DNP programs listed above may have accelerated curriculum options for students with MSNs as well.
Some of the featured online MSN-to-DNP programs include:
For generalist nurse practitioners or specialized NPs seeking to become certified in a new subfield, pursuing an online post-master’s NP certificate can be a convenient educational option. Most qualifying NPs have already completed core coursework in prior MSN or DNP programs, and many applicants are working NPs. To complete these programs, candidates typically complete didactic coursework online and fulfill clinical hour requirements at approved local preceptor sites.
The specialized post-master’s certificates generally involve less credits and clinical hours than traditional MSN nurse practitioner programs. Therefore, they can usually be completed in one to two years, depending on whether the student attends part-time or full-time. It’s important to note that the majority of the online MSN programs with NP specialties (profiled above) accommodate varying points of academic entry, and can be completed as post-master’s certificates. For example, Vanderbilt University offers online post-master’s certificates across all of its MSN nurse practitioner specialties, including adult-gerontology acute care (AG-ACNP), adult-gerontology primary care (AG-PCNP), family (FNP), neonatal (NNP), pediatric acute care (PNP-AC), pediatric primary care (PNP-PC), psychiatric mental health (PMHNP), and women’s health (WHNP). Particularly for working NPs or those with other time commitments, the flexibility of these online programs can be ideal.
In order to qualify for an online post-master’s NP certificate program, candidates must typically submit the following:
Some programs may have additional requirements such as criminal background checks, entrance exams, or interviews (in-person or video). It’s important to note that while most post-master’s NP certificate programs require candidates to have at least an MSN degree, others may accept other types of master’s degrees. For example, the online post-master’s NP certificate programs at Duke University are also open to people with non-MSN master’s degrees in “a discipline acceptable to the specialty faculty.”
Here are six featured online post-master’s NP certificate programs across various specializations:
To learn more about online post-master’s NP certificates, please visit the online post-master’s NP certificate page.
For RNs with an ADN degree
For RNs with a BSN degree
For RNs with an MSN degree
*Also requires a non-nursing bachelor's degree; please see the "Online Accelerated MSN - NP" programs page for more details.