The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) recommends that all advanced practice nurses, including nurse practitioners (NPs), earn a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree. The DNP provides an alternative to the research-based PhD and arms NPs with advanced skills in clinical practice and leadership.
Across the country, DNP programs are growing rapidly. In 2006, a mere 20 DNP programs graduated 1,874 students. By 2015, 264 programs graduated 22,563 students. Doctor of Nursing Practice programs are currently available in 49 states and Washington, D.C. The number of DNP programs offered online has grown quickly too, providing more choice and flexibility to students focused on advancing their degree.
Nursing schools across the country have listened to the AACN and developed DNP programs to suit the needs of the diverse nursing discipline. Which DNP program you choose depends on your current level of nursing education: either Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN), Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), or Master of Science in Nursing (MSN).
Many DNP programs include the option to specialize as a nurse practitioner, and are effectively an alternative to MSN nurse practitioner programs, with a more advanced terminal degree. Examples include Duke University’s Hybrid Online MSN to DNP – Neonatal Nurse Practitioner program and Bradley University’s Online BSN to DNP – Family Nurse Practitioner program. Such programs are the focus here.
This article opens with an overview of the admission requirements, clinical specialty options, courses and curriculum, duration, and accreditation for online DNP programs. Because the requirements vary based on your current level of nursing education (i.e. ADN, BSN, or MSN), each will be discussed separately. The article concludes with a discussion of three example programs for each type of online DNP program.
Admission into these programs (sometimes called RN-to-DNP nurse practitioner programs) are highly competitive because there are few programs and many applicants. Requirements include a registered nurse (RN) license and an associate’s degree or diploma (ADN) in nursing. Most schools require an undergraduate grade point average of at least a 3.0 on a 4.0 scale and an above average Graduate Record Exam (GRE) score. Other admission requirements include letters of reference, a curriculum vitae, an interview, and a statement of professional goals.
To be accepted into an online BSN-to-DNP nurse practitioner program, you need an RN license and a BSN. Some schools recommend that applicants have at least one year of previous nursing experience; however it is usually not a requirement. Most schools require an undergraduate grade point average of at least a 3.0 on a 4.0 scale, three letters of reference, a curriculum vitae, an interview, and a statement of professional goals.
Most online MSN-to-DNP nurse practitioner programs are designed for currently practicing NPs who want to earn their DNP as recommended by the AACN. Requirements include an RN license, NP license, and certification in your medical speciality. Most schools require an undergraduate and graduate grade point average of at least a 3.0 on a 4.0 scale, three letters of reference, a curriculum vitae, an interview, and a statement of professional goals.
Some online MSN-to-DNP nurse practitioner programs accept students with an MSN who are not licensed NPs. These applicants usually possess an MSN in administration, education, or informatics. This type of MSN-to-DNP program provides a path for these applicants to become an NP. Admission requirements for these programs are similar to those listed above; however, these applicants do not need to submit an NP license or specialty certification.
Most schools, regardless of the applicant's current level of nursing education, require the applicant to declare their clinical specialty prior to admission. In general, the clinical specialty options are limited for students in RN-to-DNP nurse practitioner programs. While the speciality options vary by school, usually the choices are limited to family and adult-gerontology. Those who are interested in focusing on a different medical specialty may want to first earn their BSN and then apply to BSN-to-DNP nurse practitioner programs.
Different schools offer different specialties; therefore, applicants should seek out schools that offer their desired clinical focus. Examples of clinical specialities for nurse practitioners include psychiatry, acute care, family, adult gerontology, neonatal, pediatrics, and women’s health. Some nurse practitioners also choose to subspecialize. If you are interested in a subspeciality such as dermatology or orthopedics, your options will likely be more limited, and may require additional research on your part.
Most MSN-to-DNP nurse practitioner programs accept NPs who are already certified in their clinical specialty; therefore, applicants do not need to declare a medical focus. Some MSN-to-DNP programs offer non-NP tracks in informatics, health policy, ethics, education, leadership, or business.
Other schools allow their MSN-to-DNP students to earn an additional NP certification while completing the traditional DNP courses, for example, a family nurse practitioner (FNP) in this DNP program might wish to simultaneously take the courses necessary to become board-certified in psychiatry (PMHNP). Those MSN-to-DNP nurse practitioner program applicants who are not yet NPs must declare a clinical specialty.
Coursework for online RN-to-DNP nurse practitioner programs varies by school and chosen medical specialty. Students will take a set of courses that bridge the gap between a tradition ADN and BSN. These courses might include Nursing Theory, Statistics, and Nursing Research. Next, students begin traditional NP courses such as Pathophysiology, Pharmacology, and Differential diagnosis. Students also complete their specialty courses, which vary depending on their area of focus. FInally, students complete traditional DNP courses such as Health Economics, Informatics, and Health Policy.
BSN-to-DNP nurse practitioner programs encompass all courses that a student would normally take in an MSN program in addition to the new courses required by the DNP. Students complete core NP courses such as Comprehensive Health Assessment and Pharmacology along with their speciality courses, which vary depending on medical focus. Psychiatry students, for example, would complete courses in psychopharmacology, neuroscience, and psychotherapy. These programs also encompass the new DNP course requirements such as Informatics and Leadership.
MSN-to-DNP programs usually only include the new DNP course requirements. These programs are much shorter than the RN-to-DNP and BSN-to-DNP because the students are already practicing NPs. Courses cover topics like health economics, leadership, informatics, and health policy. For those applicants who already have an MSN but are not yet an NP, your MSN-to-DNP nurse practitioner program will progress similar to the BSN-to-DNP programs.
Most students complete RN-to-DNP nurse practitioner programs in four to six years, completing 80 to 100 credit hours, and over 1,000 hours of supervised clinical practice in the process. These clinical hours must be completed in person at a clinical site or through the school if it features a medical center.
BSN-to-DNP nurse practitioner programs vary in length depending on the school and medical specialty. Most programs range from 70 to 100 credit hours and require over 1000 clinical hours. Most students complete these programs in 3 or 4 years of full-time study.
For NPs who already have an MSN, the final step toward completing the DNP may just be 36 to 47 credit hours. These courses are usually completed in two years. MSN-to-DNP programs require up to 1,000 clinical hours, but some of these can be transferred from a previous MSN degree.
All DNP programs require the completion of a final research project that demonstrates clinical scholarship. Schools might refer to this project as a scholarly project, capstone project, thesis, dissertation, or final project.The DNP Project can take many forms, and students will work on it throughout their entire program. The project must focus on a change that impacts health care outcomes for a particular population.
Both traditional and online DNP programs, regardless of the applicant's current level of nursing education, are accredited by either the the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing, Inc. (ACEN). Accreditation ensures that the program meets high standards of quality, rigor, and value. You can search for accredited programs through the CCNE and ACEN websites. Students can use these organizations’ search pages to specifically narrow their search to doctoral level programs.
In addition to the distance-based DNP programs profiled in the following section, NursePractitionerSchools.com maintains a database of all online NP programs in the United States. This is updated every year. “Online” is defined as requiring nine or fewer visits throughout the program’s duration.
The Delta State University RN-to-DNP program encompases nine semesters, 95 credit hours, submission of a research manuscript, and 1,140 precepted clinical hours. Students in this program usually graduate in four years and become family nurse practitioners (FNP). Delta State University uses innovative technology to promote distance education. Their online program requires one to three on-campus visits per semester.
The University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) College of Nursing offers a unique RN-to-DNP program with an exceptionally wide variety of medical specialities including adult-gerontology acute and primary care, family, neonatal, women’s health, pediatric acute and primary care and psychiatry. In addition to having an RN license and ADN, this program requires applicants to also have a non-nursing bachelor’s degree. Furthermore, applicants with a grade point average less than a 3.25 must take the Graduate Record Exam. The program averages around 85 credit hours and 1,000 clinical hours. Students also have the opportunity to take advanced courses in the subspecialty areas of population health, health systems leadership, and informatics.
Frontier Nursing University's RN-to-DNP program is perfect for those who wish to become a family nurse practitioner. For RNs with less than one year of experience, the admissions committee considers other experiences such as working as a doula, childbirth educator, or lactation consultant. Uniquely, graduates of this program are awarded both an MSN and a DNP. The program stretches 87 credit hours and over 1,000 clinical hours. Their coursework is delivered using top-of-the-line distance education technology. They collaborate with clinics, hospitals, and preceptors in communities across the United States to help students complete their clinicals.
The University of Florida BSN-to-DNP program is 76 credit hours and 1008 clinical hours. Full-time students can expect to complete the program in 2.5 years, while part-time students usually complete the program in 4 years. THe University of Florida is consistently ranked in the top ten percent of all graduate nursing programs in the nation, and their graduates exceed the state and national pass rates for licensure and certification exams. They offer the following specialities: adult gerontology acute care, family, pediatric acute and primary care, and psychiatry.
The University of Michigan-Flint BSN-to-DNP program encompasses up to 91 credit hours and over 1,000 precepted clinical hours. They offer specialty tracks in adult gerontology acute and primary care, family, and psychiatry. The program is challenging but prepares top-of-the-line NPs. Most students graduate in four years of full-time study. Students complete this program in a distance-learning, or online, format. They are required to visit campus about once per year to complete patient simulations and and other hands on education.
The University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing offers a BSN-to-DNP program with specialty tracks in adult-gerontology acute and primary care, family, neonatal, psychiatry, and pediatric primary care. The U.S. News & World Report ranked this DNP Program 8th nationwide. Admission to this school is extremely competitive with strict grade point average and Graduate Record Exam requirements. The program encompasses an average of 95 credit hours and over 1,100 precepted clinical hours. Most students complete the program in four years.
The Duke University MSN-to-DNP program consists of 15 courses and 35 credit hours, and it is usually completed in 18 months. All students are required to complete a DNP project over four semesters. This research study must address a practice issue affecting groups of patients, health care organizations, or health care systems. Duke University is well-known for their innovative use of technology to promote distance education. In fact, the U.S. News and World Report ranked them as the fifth best online graduate school of nursing. All of Duke’s DNP courses are offered online.
Because the University of South Carolina is ranked number one by the U.S. News and World Report for online graduate nursing programs, admission to their MSN-to-DNP program is highly competitive. The program encompasses 33 credit hours and the completion of a DNP research project. The entire curriculum is completed online with the exception of one on-campus orientation for new students. Their DNP program is well-known across the country as the flagship program of the south.
The Johns Hopkins School of Nursing is an incredible, internationally recognized program. The U.S. News & World Report ranked them as the number 1 accredited graduate nursing program in the country. Additionally, the school’s DNP program was ranked No. 2 in the first-ever DNP rankings by U.S. News & World Report. The program includes 40 credit hours and 15 courses, usually completed in six semesters or two years of full-time study. Every course is completed online with a total of two weeks of on-campus meetings.
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.