Nurse Executive Programs

Nurse Executive Programs

A nurse executive degree delivers the academic credentials needed to pursue leadership roles in healthcare facilities, nonprofit health organizations, and government agencies.

Nurse executive programs often appeal to nurse practitioners (NPs) looking to advance to executive healthcare roles. Frequent responsibilities of nurse executives include supervising other nurses and healthcare staff, overseeing regulatory compliance, and making financial decisions.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 32% jobs growth rate for healthcare executives from 2020-2030, far outpacing the national average for all occupations.

Graduates from nurse executive programs enjoy a bright job outlook. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 32% jobs growth rate for healthcare executives from 2020-2030, far outpacing the national average for all occupations.

This guide reviews the admissions process, cost expectations, and program requirements for nurse executive programs.

Read the Specifics: What to Expect | Cost | Why Get This Degree? | Selecting Your Program | FAQs

What to Expect From Nurse Executive Programs

Nurse executive programs cultivate the organizational skills needed to qualify for managerial and leadership roles in the healthcare industry.

Timeline expectations vary among degree levels. Most master’s in nurse executive leadership require at least 30 graduate credits and take approximately 1-2 years for full-time students to complete. Some also require practicums at healthcare facilities.

Cost expectations depend on school type and location, delivery format, and program duration. However, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reported an average cost of $19,314 for graduate tuition and fees across public, private, and nonprofit institutions for the 2018-19 school year.

A typical nurse executive program curriculum comprises courses in leadership, healthcare policy, and patient safety. Learners can complete electives in marketing strategies, human resources management, and financial analysis and reporting.

Nurse executive programs may also require learners to complete clinical components. For example, a doctor in nursing practice (DNP), requires 1,000 total clinical practice hours.

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Admission Requirements and Prerequisites

Nurse executive programs typically require at least a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) and registered nurse (RN) credentials. Many institutions offer accelerated tracks for graduates with master of science in nursing (MSN) or master of health administration (MHA) degrees. Some schools only accept applicants with considerable work experience in clinical nursing roles.

GPA expectations vary across schools and degree levels. However, many nurse executive programs require a minimum 3.0 GPA. Some executive tracks require candidates with GPAs below 3.0 to submit standardized test scores — typically from the GRE. Extensive professional nursing experience and a GPA above 3.5 may enhance admission chances.

Generally, master’s-level nurse executive program applicants must submit a CV, official BSN transcripts, reference letters, personal essays, evidence of licensure, a statement of purpose, and a nonrefundable admission fee.

DNP nurse executive programs require a resume, transcripts, letters of reference, and a statement of purpose. Each applicant must also submit a writing sample, evidence of licensure, and a nonrefundable application fee. Program committees may contact candidates for interviews.

Degree and Specialization Options

Most nurse executives hold MSNs or DNPs. Schools often feature nurse executive programs as specialties within MSN or DNP programs. However, MHAs, MBAs in healthcare management, and Ph.D. programs in nurse leadership or health administration also provide the expertise needed to succeed in nurse executive roles.

MSN and DNP programs generally require students to hold BSNs, RN licensure, and clinical experience. Admission to MHA and MBA programs do not typically require a nursing degree, which may make them better suited to healthcare management careers than nurse executive roles.

Some nurse executive programs offer opportunities for further specialization in financial operations, human resources, or marketing. MSN or DNP programs that provide nurse leadership as a concentration may not offer other specializations. However, these programs typically allow students to concentrate in specific leadership areas by combining electives.

Comparing Similar Degrees

Aspiring nurse executives may wonder whether to pursue an MSN, DNP nurse executive program, or a different path entirely. Alternatives to MSN and DNP nurse executive degrees include MHAs and Ph.D. in nursing leadership degrees. In addition, some schools offer BSN-to-DNP and MSN-to-DNP pathways.

Below, we compare these executive tracks.

Degree Length Credit Load Average Tuition and Fee Cost Examples of Classes
MSN 1-2 years At least 30 credits Approx. $20,000 or more Pharmacology, financial management, conflict resolution, human resources management
MHA 1-2 years At least 30 credits Approx. $20,000 or more Patient safety, patient care delivery systems, healthcare governance
BSN-to-DNP 3-4 years 65-95 credits Approx. $60,000-$80,000 Anatomy, physiology, seminar in organizational leadership, corporate compliance
MSN-to-DNP 1-2 years 33-43 credits, not including the MSN Approx. $20,000 or more Pharmacology, healthcare policy, information technology, marketing strategies
Ph.D. in Nursing 3-5 years 75-150 credits Approx. $100,000 Epidemiology and population health, healthcare economics, prospectus seminar
Source: NCES

These programs provide the academic credentials needed for securing an executive nurse role — provided that they offer a leadership track or nurse executive specialty. The different degree levels align with more advanced professional roles. For example, graduates with DNPs typically pursue roles with higher starting salaries and greater job responsibilities than individuals with BSNs.

Before deciding on a program, consider your economic resources, academic interests, and experience, along with available financial aid opportunities.

Popular Courses for Nurse Executives

Nurse executive programs typically include core essentials, electives, and specialization courses. Core requirements focus on principles of leadership, conflict resolution, and healthcare ethics. Electives and concentration courses cover financial management, regulatory compliance, and human resources management.

Common courses in nurse executive programs include:

  • Healthcare Quality and Safety: This core class provides an in-depth understanding of evidence-based practice, quality improvement, and patient and employee safety. Enrollees explore patient care workflows, healthcare ethics, patient care delivery systems, and information technology.
  • Healthcare Policy and Patient Privacy: Coursework covers healthcare policies, FDA regulations, patient privacy, and regulatory compliance. Learners also study key differences between federal, state, and local healthcare regulations.
  • Healthcare Leadership: This core class covers the basics of effective healthcare management. Students emerge with an in-depth understanding of adaptable leadership skills, professionalism, and effective communication.
  • Financial Analysis and Management: This elective cultivates the quantitative and analytic skills needed to monitor a health organization’s financial transactions, develop cost-reduction proposals, and make financial decisions in tandem with other organizational leaders. Learners study topics like cash flow analysis, operating efficiency, and risk management.
  • Human Resources Management: This elective explores basic human resources management concepts in healthcare facilities, including constructive performance review, effective leadership styles, and employer best practices. Enrollees learn to supervise healthcare staff, and oversee recruitment processes, and handle employee disagreements.

How Much Will a Nurse Executive Program Cost?

According to NCES data, the average graduate tuition and fees reached $19,314 for the 2018-19 academic year. Students can expect to pay $20,000-$40,000 for MSN, MHA, and MSN-to-DNP nurse executive programs.

These figures cover only the cost of tuition and fees. To calculate total educational costs, learners should also factor in expenses related to relocating, textbooks, technology, and commuting.

According to NCES data, the average graduate tuition and fees reached $19,314 for the 2018-19 academic year.

Private and out-of-state public tuition rates exceed in-state public school costs on average. However, many public universities charge in-state tuition rates to remote learners, regardless of residency.

Some schools allow doctoral students with MSN or MHA degrees to apply previously earned graduate credits in healthcare management or nurse leadership toward their doctorates, which can help to reduce costs.

To help finance their degree, prospective students can explore financial aid such as grants, fellowships, and scholarships. However, at the graduate level, federal loans accrue compounding interest from the beginning of the degree, making this a potentially riskier option.

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Why Get a Degree to Become a Nurse Executive?

Earning a degree from a nurse executive program can open the door to fulfilling, lucrative nursing and healthcare leadership positions. Some NPs in clinical roles pursue executive tracks to qualify for executive roles in their current workplaces.

Others attend nurse executive programs to boost their competitiveness for nursing and healthcare leadership positions. Some professionals pursue these degrees to improve access to healthcare for underprivileged individuals.

Key advantages of earning a degree from a nurse executive program include:

  • Greater Salary Potential: A degree from a nurse executive program can lead to higher earning potential. The BLS reported a median annual salary of $104,280 for healthcare administrators as of May 2020.
  • Strong Job Outlook: Nurse executives enjoy strong employment prospects. BLS projections indicate a 32% increase in the demand for healthcare directors from 2020-30.
  • Opportunities to Contribute to Social Causes: Nurse executive roles in nonprofit organizations or government agencies provide real opportunities to improve health inequities and access to healthcare for individuals with financial needs.

Learn More About Nurse Executive Certifications See How Location Affects Salary for Nurse Executives

How to Select Your Nurse Executive Program

Each student has unique preferences and career aspirations. Prospective enrollees should consider school prestige when researching programs, along with institutional and field-specific accreditation, school location, and state authorization.

  • Regional Accreditation: Confirm that your prospective schools hold accreditation from one of the six regional accreditors. Regional accreditation allows for cross-institutional credit transfer, provides access to federal financial aid, and meets the academic requirements for nurse executive certification exams.
  • Field-Specific Accreditation: Accreditation from the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing or the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education ensures eligibility for nurse executive certification. This status also boosts your competitiveness for in-demand nurse leadership positions.
  • School Location: A program’s location can influence total education costs, eligibility to sit for certification exams, and access to job fairs and career-advancement workshops that cover the location where you plan to apply for jobs.
  • State Authorization: If you wish to enroll in an online nurse executive program in a different state from where you reside, ensure that the school holds state authorization. State authorization ensures that the school’s remote course offerings meet interstate criteria for distance learning.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do you become an executive nurse?

    To become an executive nurse, you will need a master’s or doctorate with a nurse executive or healthcare administration specialty. Prerequisites include a BSN, RN licensure, and 1-2 years of clinical nurse experience.

  • Are nurse executive programs online?

    Many schools offer nurse executive programs through remote learning. Online degrees are often indistinguishable from on-campus degrees from the same school. Online nurse executive programs may provide greater affordability, convenience, and flexibility than in-person alternatives.

  • What is an MSN nurse executive track?

    An MSN nurse executive track is a specialty within MSN programs. Admission requirements for this type of executive nurse program include a BSN, RN licensure, and 1-2 years of clinical experience.

  • What is a DNP nurse executive track?

    A DNP nurse executive track is a specialty within DNP programs. Many DNP programs in executive leadership require applicants to hold MSNs and several years of clinical nursing experience. However, schools design their BSN-to-DNP bridge programs in executive leadership for RNs with BSNs.


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