Becoming a nurse practitioner can be a challenging and rewarding career path for those who want to go beyond Registered Nurse status. The regulations governing nurse practitioners vary from state to state. In California, applicants for NP licensing must have completed a graduate level program to culminate in a Master’s of Science in Nurse (MSN) or Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP). Some NPs will instead complete a certificate program, if they already have an advanced degree.
For practicing nurses, of which many aspiring NPs are, online courses can be a more flexible way to pursue graduate education. California has a number of online options for NP education that have been approved by the Board of Registered Nursing to prepare nurses for NP licensing. It is important that students understand the NP application process – both for the graduate programs and ultimately for the NP license itself. Most programs require some degree of campus attendance, but that may simply be a beginning of semester orientation, making the overall program quite convenient and flexible no matter where in California you live.
Keep reading to find out more about the specific requirements for nurse practitioner education in California and where to start looking for online degree options.
While nurse practitioners in California may deviate from an exact path, depending on their educational requirements or career goals, the basic steps necessary to become a nurse practitioner in California are outlined below. Note that some programs offer concurrent bachelor’s and master’s programs specifically designed for those wishing to pursue a career as an NP who have no formal nursing training, in which case steps 1 and 3 are completed in parallel. Depending on the track a nurse chooses, from start to finish the process to become a nurse practitioner in California can take between 7 and 9 years to complete.
STEP 1: Undergraduate Education (duration: 2 – 4 years)
After high school, aspiring nurse practitioners will need to earn a Bachelor’s Degree. If attending a four-year university is not possible out of high school, students may obtain an associate’s degree from a community college first, fulfilling basic foundational requirements, before applying to a university program. A bachelor’s degree from a university approved by the California Board of Nursing (BoN) is a prerequisite for becoming a nurse practitioner, although it is not required for an RN license.
STEP 2: RN Licensure (duration: less than 1 year)
Upon successful completion of an associate’s or bachelor’s degree program, apply for an RN licensure through the California Board of Registered Nursing. Applicants must submit:
After submitting these materials, applicants will sit for the licensing exam. Successful applicants will then be granted an RN license that is valid in the state of California.
STEP 3: Post-Graduate Education (duration: 2 – 4 years)
Most nurse practitioners in California choose to complete, at minimum, a Master’s in Nursing degree. Some NP’s choose to obtain a Doctorate, which is a program that can take anywhere from 3 to 10 years depending on a program’s requirements and the student’s ability to finish a thesis project. During the nurse’s graduate education, he or she will need to choose a specialization if they want to obtain advanced NP credentials in such areas as Family Practice, Adult-Gerontology Acute Care, or Women’s Health.
STEP 4: Obtain Nurse Practitioner License (duration: less than 1 year)
After successfully completing a nurse practitioner degree, nurses are eligible to apply for a nurse practitioner license through the California Board of Registered Nursing. The application process does not include an examination.
STEP 5: Obtain Nurse Practitioner Furnishing Number (duration: less than 1 year)
Nurse Practitioners in California are able to prescribe medications to patients, but must first obtain a furnishing number, followed by a DEA registration number. Nurses must submit an application along with proof that they have completed an approved pharmacology course within the last 5 years or else have clinical experience in furnishing medications during the previous 5 years.
Admissions requirements for any online program may differ from other programs, even within the same state. However, there are certainly commonalities among online NP programs in California in terms of those requirements.
Application ProcessMost admissions processes begin with an online application that includes basic information about the student, transcripts from prior nursing education at a California Board of Nursing approved program and proof of an existing RN license in good standing in the state of California. There is also generally a statement of purpose and resume portion of the application. Those schools that have a minimum GPA set that standard at 3.0, although West Coast University has a minimum of 2.7. Other schools have no strict GPA requirement, although undergraduate coursework is still considered during the application process.
GPA + Test ScoresMost nurse practitioner programs do not require graduate admissions exams such as the GRE, but some do. Four of the Brandman University NP programs require the GRE and a minimum analytical writing score of 4.0. None of the other online California programs require any graduate testing for admission.
Most online programs follow the same track as traditional programs with courses in the fall and spring. Some programs only accept applications for the fall semester while others allow applicants to apply for admission in either the fall or spring semester.
Other Common Admissions RequirementsIn some NP programs, students are admitted on a conditional basis. That is, they are allowed to begin the NP program and are only invited to continue on their chosen track if they meet certain requirements in terms of courses and experience. In such programs, nurses may be required to submit a portfolio of work at some point during the program in order to be invited to continue.
The easiest and most common way to become eligible for a nurse practitioner license in California is by attending a program that is approved by the California Board of Registered Nursing. This approval is not referred to as accreditation, but indicates that a program meets the Board of Registered Nursing’s educational standards as specified in the California Code of Regulations Section 1484.
However, there are other bodies that provide academic accreditation to online NP programs in California, namely the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) and the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC). A school that has been accredited by one or both of these bodies does not necessarily conform to the California Board of Registered Nursing requirements, although matriculating students may still be able to apply for licenses if they meet other requirements, such as clinical competency recommendation from a physician.
Diana Lithgow, PhD, FNP-C, RN, MSN is the Assistant Dean of Distance Education as well as a Professor of Nursing at Western University. Dr. Lithgow is one of the founding members of the California Association of Nurse Practitioners (CANP) in Orange County. In addition to her teaching and administrative work, she is still a practicing professional in the community, seeing clinic patients every week.
Lynda Stoodley, DNP, AGACNP-C is an assistant professor and Director of the Adult Gerontology Primary Care DNP program at Brandman University. She earned her Doctorate in Nursing Practice from the UNiversity of Arizona and has worked extensively with cardiothoracic surgery patients in addition to her teaching and research publication experience.
Barbara L. Kennedy is an assistant professor and researcher in the College of Health and Human Services, School of Nursing at California State University – Dominguez Hills (CSUDH). Dr. Kennedy has an extensive education background, including a Master in Nursing degree from UCLA and a Doctorate in Nursing from Case Western Reserve University. She is an appointed member of the Institutional Review Board (IRB) of for the department of Research and Funded Projects at CSUDH and serves as Clinical Faculty for the Nursing Center for Learning, Innovation, and Research, Department of Veterans Affairs, Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System.
There are several online NP programs offered in California with one being 100% online with no campus visits required. Following is an overview of the programs.
Samuel Merritt University offers an online MSN Family Nurse Practitioner program with fully online instruction plus practicums. No campus visits are required. The program is approved by the California Board of Registered Nursing and regionally accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. Students can complete this 49-credit hour program in as little as 20 months, which also includes three semesters of clinical practicum hours. This university has been preparing professional nurses for more than 100 years, and proclaims that it is “committed to educational innovation in theory and practice to prepare highly competent professional nursing leaders who are engaged in the advancement of nursing practice and the improvement of health for diverse populations/peoples.”
Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona offers a post-master’s certificate in family nursing, which is designed for master’s prepared nurses who wish to continue working in their profession, keep family commitments, and live in the same community while pursuing a graduate education. The program requires weekend sessions at the campus twice per semester, although clinical training will remain in the students’ own community under the supervision of an approved preceptor. The College of Graduate Nursing/Family Nurse Practitioner Program received the 2015-2016 California Song Brown/Office of Statewide Planning and Development grant funding of $288,625. This money can be allocated towards student clinical rotation grants, a community outreach and liaison faculty for clinical rotations in areas of unmet healthcare needs, and improved technology for the development of a distance Interprofessional Learning Community program. This is only one of the many awards that the college has received, allowing it to support attending graduate students.
WestCoast University, based in Anaheim, offers a post-master’s certificate for graduate nursing students, a master’s degree program for those with a bachelor’s degree in nursing, and a master’s degree pathway program for applicants with an associate degree. Each of these programs focuses specifically on family nursing and includes six, 2-3 day weekend intensives on campus. West Coast University was founded in 1909 in Los Angeles, and since then has been serving students in the community for over 100 years. In 2004, the university chose to place the education of healthcare professionals as its singular focus, and in 2013 the Global Public Health Program was launched, allowing students to provide healthcare across the globe, in countries such as Panama, Costa Rica, Belize, and Moldova.
Brandman University, located in Irvine, offers a post-doctoral certificate for students who already possess a DNP. Specializations available at this school include psychiatric and mental health, family/across the lifespan, and adult-gerontology acute care. The school provides two start dates throughout the year; one in the fall and one in the spring, and the program can be completed in just 6 months. Students must attend four in-person immersions throughout the program. The university itself is accredited by the WSCUC Senior College and University Commission, and the BSN and DNP degrees are accredited by CCNE, highlighting the quality of education that students will receive at the school. Students at Brandman also have access to a wide array of resources to help them succeed, including enrollment coaches, academic advisors, and career services.
University of Southern California, located in Los Angeles, offers an online master of science in nursing degree for students who already possess a bachelor’s. The focus of this program is on family nursing, and the program is offered both full-time which can be completed in 21 months, and part-time which can be completed in 33 months. Students must attend two on-campus intensives at specific times in the program. USC has long been considered one of the best schools in the nation. The number of graduate students actually exceeds the number of undergraduates at the institution, all of whom contribute to the superb quality of education offered at the school.
The majority of online NP programs have some degree of faculty contact or campus training required in order to complete the degree. However, schools do not necessarily make those specific requirements available and indeed, they may change depending on the year, faculty availability, and other variables. In reporting on the visitation requirements, we have made an attempt to normalize the available data so that interested students can make an educated comparison of the schools. Where some visitation is required, but specifics are unclear, you will see "Limited" as a descriptor. A descriptor of ">3" means that campus requirements are fairly frequent. Finally, some schools require an in-person orientation, but some include that in the visitation numbers and some schools did not. When it was clearly required, we included it in the yearly number of required visits.
In order for a program to comply with the Board of Registered Nursing regulations, NP programs must have a clinical training component of at least 3 hours per week for the duration of each semester. Online NP programs should help students to identify acceptable clinical environments in which they can complete these hours throughout the course of the program. There is no exact numbers of hours specified in the Standards of Education, which are available in full from the Board of Registered Nursing. The BoN also offers a list of all programs in California which qualify. Programs that are not on that list may still prepare students for NP licensure, but those students will need to apply through what is known as “Method 3.” This requires that applicants receive clinical competency assessments from both a licensed nurse practitioner and a physician.
The American Association of Nurse Practitioners classify California as a “Restricted State,” which means laws restrict “the ability of a nurse practitioner to engage in at least one element of NP practice.” The California state Nurse Practice Act (NPA) limits a nurse practitioner’s ability to dispense medication and practice without direct supervision of a physician. Physicians must recommend all medications that NPs dispense and must be in contact with the nurse practitioner while he or she works. The full NP regulations are available from the BoN.