Best Online Doctor of Nursing Practice Programs 2021

Best Online Doctor of Nursing Practice Programs 2021

A doctor of nursing practice (DNP) degree is the most advanced nursing degree available. A DNP satisfies the academic requirements for advanced clinical and leadership roles in the medical profession.

The clinical components of a DNP curriculum require hands-on, in-person learning experiences, but non-clinical course requirements can be completed online — a plus for learners with career and family obligations.

DNP programs appeal to graduates and nurse professionals with bachelor’s or master’s degrees in nursing. The clinical components of a DNP curriculum require hands-on, in-person learning experiences, but non-clinical course requirements can be completed online — a plus for learners with career and family obligations.

DNP credentials offer promising job prospects. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 32% occupational growth for health services managers and a 45% growth for advanced practice registered nurses, far outpacing the 4% national average growth rate projected for all occupations.

This guide ranks the best DNP online programs for 2021 and reviews what attending a DNP program online entails.

What to Expect From Online DNP Programs

Distance learning programs at accredited schools generally mirror their brick-and-mortar counterparts in terms of length, course requirements, and available concentrations. But the two delivery formats differ in several key ways, such as costs, faculty support, and access to local networking events.

Learn More About a DNP in General

How Is an Online DNP Different From an On-Campus Program?

A DNP degree requires a minimum of 1,000 clinical practice hours, so schools cannot offer this degree 100% online. However, learners can complete the non-clinical requirements online, and some schools permit candidates to satisfy their clinical training at local healthcare facilities. This means students may be able to work full time while completing their degree.

Pursuing a DNP online can also help reduce program expenses. Many universities charge lower tuition rates for their distance learning programs. Plus, students can lower or eliminate expenses for relocation, unused campus amenities, and commuting.

Below, we compare how online and on-campus DNP programs stack up against each other. As demonstrated by the table below, the two delivery formats are vastly similar.

Comparing online DNP programs to on-campus DNP programs

Online DNP Program On-Campus DNP Program
Required Credits With a bachelor of science in nursing: 65-95 credits and at least 1,000 clinical practice hours
With a master of science in nursing: 33-43 credits and at least 500 clinical practice hours
With a bachelor of science in nursing: 65-95 credits and at least 1,000 clinical practice hours
With a master of science in nursing: 33-43 credits and at least 500 clinical practice hours
Length With a bachelor of science in nursing: 3-4 years
With a master of science in nursing: 1-2 years
With a bachelor of science in nursing: 3-4 years
With a master of science in nursing: 1-2 years
Admission Requirements Advanced practice registered nurse or registered nurse credentials Advanced practice registered nurse or registered nurse credentials
Student Demographics Mostly advanced practice registered nurses and registered nurses with prior professional experience Mostly advanced practice registered nurses and registered nurses with little or no relevant work experience
Discounted Tuition Rate Yes, often No
Delivery Format Primarily online On campus

Featured Online Programs

Find a program that meets your affordability, flexibility, and education needs through an accredited, online school.

Delivery Formats for Online DNPs

Programs that allow students to complete clinical practice hours at local healthcare facilities often require on-campus presence for clinical coursework and other hands-on activities.

But online DNP students can complete non-clinical coursework remotely. DNP schools may also offer courses in a hybrid model, which pairs online learning with traditional on-campus courses.

DNP online programs use virtual learning platforms like Canvas and Blackboard to deliver content. Distance learning courses may take place either synchronously or asynchronously.

Synchronous online classes require students to attend live lectures at specific times and participate in peer discussions. Sessions usually take place via Zoom or similar remote conferencing platform.

Learners taking asynchronous courses complete all modules on their own schedules by viewing pre-recorded lectures and presentations and completing virtual assignments.

Asynchronous online programs allow working students to use evenings and weekends to study, which frees up time for prior daytime commitments. However, this delivery format also may comprise less direct faculty guidance. Before signing up for an asynchronous online program, prospective students should consider whether the level of interaction matches their learning style.

Accreditation and State Authorization for Online Degrees

Prospective DNP students should only attend institutions with accreditation from one of the six regional accrediting commissions. These agencies assess colleges and universities to ensure they satisfy stringent educational standards. Some institutions may hold accreditation from national agencies. However, national accreditors tend to specialize in the academic assessment of technical and religious schools.

Because regional accreditors hold schools to higher standards, institutions with this seal of approval enjoy higher recognition. Regional accreditation also ensures access to federal financial aid for eligible learners, cross-institutional credit transfer, and eligibility to sit for certification and licensure exams.

When searching for the best program for their needs, students should also factor in field-specific accreditation. The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education and the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing confer accreditation upon academically qualified DNP programs. Approval from these agencies signals that a DNP program satisfies the highest program-specific standards in the country.

Aspiring DNPs should also confirm that any out-of-state universities of interest hold state authorization. Schools with this credential can educate online students who officially reside in a different state. Learners may also want to confirm that out-of-state programs allow remote learners to complete clinical practice hours close to home at local healthcare facilities.

How Much Will an Online DNP Degree Cost?

According to data from NCES, graduate tuition and fees averaged $19,314 for the 2018-19 school year. This amounts to nearly $80,000 in tuition and fees alone for a four-year graduate program. Other expenses can include the costs of technology, textbooks, and on-campus visits.

However, many universities charge less for their online programs, and some public schools offer in-state rates to all remote learners, regardless of residency. According to NCES, in-state tuition and fees for graduate programs averaged $12,171 for the 2018-19 academic year. Private institutions, too, increasingly offer a tuition discount to their online students.

Fellowships, scholarships, and grants can help offset the expenses of a DNP degree and do not need to be paid back, so be sure to apply for these and other institution-based financial assistance programs. But be judicious when accepting federal loans, as graduate student loans start accruing compound interest from the first day of the program.

Explore Financial Aid Options

Why Get Your DNP Degree Online?

According to NCES, nearly 7 million learners attended an online class at a degree-granting college or university in fall 2018. As the demand for distance learning grows, nursing schools increasingly offer DNP programs online. These programs allow enrollees who reside in one state to study in another, as long as the school has state authority.

Earning a DNP online requires students to become proficient in a variety of online communication, conferencing, and remote access applications. As many organizations continue to allow personnel to work from home post-pandemic, and healthcare entities deliver more services via telehealth, this skill set can give graduates who seek employment in clinical settings a head start.

The flexibility of online DNP programs provides opportunities for remote learners to work full time while completing coursework. Together with the potentially lower costs of remote education and savings on relocation and communing, this advantage can help keep net program costs to a minimum.

The disadvantages of pursuing a DNP online include less access to on-campus networking events, less faculty guidance, and costs for extra commuting and traveling to complete clinical and other in-person requirements.


  • Discounted tuition rates at many schools
  • Asynchronous classes that enable students to meet other commitments
  • Greater proficiency in the area of telehealth
  • Opportunity to earn a DNP in a different state without relocation


  • Potential for extra costs associated with housing and travel to satisfy in-person degree requirements
  • Less faculty contact in distance learning courses
  • Less access to on-campus networking events
  • Potential for additional travel or commutes to satisfy clinical and hands-on requirements

Selecting Your Online DNP Program

Our list of top DNP online programs provides an excellent starting point on the quest for the right nursing school. But aspiring DNPs should also factor in considerations like cost, career services, location, and course/concentration offerings. We review these program considerations below.

  • Cost/Financial Aid: To keep program expenses to a minimum, students should consider attending schools that offer discounted tuition rates and allow distance learners to complete clinical practice hours at local healthcare facilities. Applying for fellowships, scholarships, and grants can also help keep costs down.
  • Career Services: Top DNP online programs offer a variety of career services, such as placement services, mock interviews, and resume workshops. Prospective online students should confirm their short-listed programs allow them to access these career-enhancement options from a distance.
  • Location: Learners who plan to pursue an online DNP program in another state should confirm that their chosen schools hold state authorization. Selecting an online DNP program with minimum on-campus requirements can further help ensure a streamlined educational experience.
  • Course/Concentration Offerings: Aspiring DNPs should also confirm their academic and career interests are covered by any online DNP programs of interest.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can you get a DNP online?

    Yes, you can get a DNP online. But even if you choose to attend an online DNP program, you must still complete clinical practice hours and other hands-on activities in person.

  • Do DNPs get paid more than NPs?

    Yes, DNPs tend to make more money than NPs. The higher salaries of DNPs reflect their greater expertise. Salaries can vary with occupation, job location, and specialization.

  • How long does a DNP program take?

    Students with a bachelor of science in nursing can complete a DNP in 3-4 years of full-time study. With a master of science in nursing, most learners finish in 1-2 years full time.

  • What are the requirements for a DNP?

    Earning a DNP degree with a prior bachelor’s in nursing typically requires completing 65-95 graduate credits and at least 1,000 clinical practice hours.

The Top 5 Online DNP Programs for 2021

Our rankings below explore the five best online DNP programs for 2021. All schools included in this year’s rankings offer remote or hybrid delivery with limited in-person requirements. They also boast regional accreditation from one of the six recognized accrediting agencies. Some of the programs also hold relevant field-specific accreditation. Click below to learn more about these five online DNP options.

View our ranking methodology

  • Bradley University

    Peoria, IL

    This private university offers more than 130 undergraduate, graduate, and continuing education programs online and at its campus in Peoria, Illinois. Bradley's fully online DNP programs, accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education, provide students with flexible plans of study and 24/7 access to course materials.

    The DNP family nurse practitioner track for bachelor's-level registered nurses (RNs) requires approximately 12 semesters of coursework. The curriculum emphasizes health promotion, disease prevention, anticipatory guidance, counseling, and end-of-life care to clients across the lifespan.

    The DNP in leadership track, designed for master's-level RNs, prepares nurse practitioners for supervisory roles in healthcare administration, policy, and education. The nine-semester degree addresses the growing need for doctoral-level nurses to fill top administrative posts, advocate on behalf of the nursing profession, and educate and mentor the next generation.

    Learn more about Bradley University

  • Brandman University

    Irvine, CA

    Irvine, California-based Brandman serves a diverse student population with a focus on working professionals. This private institution has championed online education for more than two decades.

    Brandman's online BSN-to-DNP psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner degree, accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education, combines instructor-guided and self-directed online courses with a small number of immersion sessions at its Irvine campus. Students may fulfill clinical practicum requirements in their home communities.

    The curriculum comprises six sessions annually, spread evenly across the fall, spring, and summer semesters. Each trimester runs for eight weeks, enabling degree-seekers to focus on a small number of courses while completing the degree within three years. The BSN-to-DNP program trains students to deliver emergency psychiatric services, psychosocial and physical assessments, and managed patient care. The program prepares graduates to sit for the American Nurse Credentialing Center certification examination.

    Learn more about Brandman University

  • Clemson University

    Clemson, SC

    This public institution in North Carolina boasts an enrollment of over 21,000 undergraduate and graduate students. Among its over 130 graduate programs, Clemson offers an online DNP program for licensed RNs who hold a master's in nursing degree from an accredited program.

    The DNP program reflects the trend of practice-based doctoral training as the preferred educational credential for advancement into clinical leadership positions in advanced practice nursing.

    This 35-credit degree emphasizes evidence-based practice, leadership, healthcare policy and advocacy, interprofessional collaboration, and expert clinical, advanced nursing skills. The curriculum includes courses in healthcare economics and finance, outcomes management, and leadership in healthcare systems.

    Students complete the online coursework on a part-time basis across six semesters, along with three on-campus immersion experiences each July. The curriculum requires a total of 1,000 clinical hours. Each enrollee must complete a scholarly practice integration project integrating evidence-based research to advance nursing policy or resolve an issue that affects patient care.

    Learn more about Clemson University

  • DeSales University

    Center Valley, PA

    DeSales, a private institution located in Center Valley, Pennsylvania, began operations in 1964. The university offers traditional, hybrid, and online degrees, including a fully online DNP program grounded in the Oblate mission of Christian humanism.

    This DNP features two concentrations designed especially for working registered nurses with a master of science in nursing (MSN) degree. The DNP-clinical leadership program admits practicing nurses in clinical nurse specialist, nurse midwife, and nurse anesthetist roles.

    The DNP-executive leadership track is a terminal practice degree for nurses with an MSN in health administration, health policy, clinical informatics, clinical leadership/clinical nurse leader, or public health. Both pathways take seven full-time semesters or 10 part-time semesters to complete. The curriculum requires an annual on-campus residency in the summer with optional on-campus residencies in the winter and spring.

    DeSales features continuing support for distance learners, providing mentors, advisors, and tutors, and opportunities for professional networking. Tuition includes the cost of accommodations, travel, and meals for the residency.

    Learn more about DeSales University

  • Duquesne University

    Pittsburgh, PA

    This Catholic university, located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has pioneered online nursing education for over two decades. Duquesne offers an innovative online DNP program with two distinctive tracks for licensed registered nurses who hold a master of science in nursing degree.

    Both tracks require 35 credits over two years. Each online learner completes 11 courses and a practice project that highlights an area of patient care and clinical practice. All students must complete one orientation at the beginning of their studies and another to present their required research project after completing their online coursework. The curriculum features concentrations in nursing education, forensic nursing, or transcultural nursing.

    The MSN-to-DNP in clinical leadership track trains nurses to deliver evidence-based practice to diverse populations and improve health outcomes. The executive nurse leadership and healthcare management option provides the knowledge and skills to connect nursing practice to finance, budgeting, human resources, and other aspects of business.

    Learn more about Duquesne University

Featured Image: The Good Brigade / DigitalVision / Getty Images

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