Choose the Best Online RN-to-MSN Program for You

You’re a registered nurse (RN) and looking to enhance your expertise. What is the next logical step for your career? You might consider pursuing a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN).

Earning an MSN degree can help increase your experience and knowledge of nursing, which may benefit you as you advance in your career. An MSN degree may provide you an opportunity to specialize within your nursing career. For example, you could be an advanced practice nurse practitioner (APRN), able to carry out more involved and advanced clinical work with patients.

RN-to-MSN bridge programs may provide a clear pathway to accelerating your nursing career to the next level. Designed for registered nurses who are looking to specialize in their nursing career, these programs give you the chance to build on the skills you’ve already accumulated.

Accredited RN-to-MSN Online Programs

The RN-to-MSN programs below are either accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) or the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE).

The programs below may require a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree or associate in nursing degree with an active registered nurse (RN) license. Be sure to check with your preferred program for more information. If you do not have a BSN degree but have your RN license, you may consider an RN to BSN program.

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Things to Consider When Choosing a School With an RN-to-MSN Program

With the many accredited RN-to-MSN online programs listed above, it becomes apparent that there are a lot of things to consider when choosing a school with an RN-to-MSN program. But the options don’t need to become overwhelming. By focusing on your professional goals, program accreditation and specializations, you can narrow the pool of potential RN-to-MSN programs to a manageable few, then select the one that’s just right for you.

Goals

When choosing a school with an RN-to-MSN program, start by considering your goals. If you’ve yet to become an RN, take a step back and consider how to become a nurse and learn more about the array of online nursing programs and nursing degrees

If you’ve already begun your nursing career as an RN, where do you want to go from here? RN-to-MSN programs may prepare you for careers as an advanced practice registered nurse, such as nurse anesthetist, nurse midwife or nurse practitioner. 

Is there a particular population you would like to work with, such as women? If so, the RN-to-MSN program for you should include a women’s health nurse practitioner specialization. If you first consider your goals, then the RN-to-MSN program that is right for you will become more apparent.

Program Accreditation

Program accreditation is one of the foremost things to consider when choosing a school with an RN-to-MSN program. The CCNE and ACEN are two agencies that accredit MSN programs. Both the CCNE and ACEN are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and Council for Higher Education Accreditation as accrediting bodies. Accreditation by the CCNE and ACEN is a voluntary process for programs with the public interest in mind. The RN-to-MSN programs listed above are accredited by CCNE or ACEN.

Specializations

Specializations are an important consideration when choosing a school with an RN-to-MSN program, as they dictate not just the program’s curriculum, but the nursing roles you may be qualified to pursue following graduation. RN-to-MSN programs may prepare you for particular nursing roles by offering different academic tracks that build upon the common core curriculum with electives on specialized knowledge, techniques and skills. Depending on the school, RN-to-MSN programs may offer the following specializations:

Education Requirements

RN-to-MSN programs generally require at least an associate degree. Most MSN programs require applicants to have a license as a registered nurse (RN) in their state. Nurses who have an RN license may be better positioned to enter the MSN program of their choice. Nurses with an associate degree or a nursing certificate might need to complete transitionary undergraduate coursework once admitted to an MSN program.

Typically, MSN program applicants must submit letters of recommendation and transcripts showing previous academic work. While admission requirements vary by program, competitive MSN applicants often have a minimum GPA of 3.0 from their associate or bachelor’s degree programs.

RN-to-MSN Curriculum

RN-to-MSN curricula vary depending on the program or specialization you choose. Specializations may include a family nurse practitioner or adult-gerontology primary care nurse practitioner concentrations. 

Generally, RN-to-MSN online programs consist of core courses grounded in theory and practice. Courses may include pathophysiology and practicums that allow students to apply theory to practice.

Quality accredited programs typically require students to complete a specific number of clinical practice hours at approved clinics, hospitals and nursing teaching facilities.

Certificate and Licensure

Advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs), including nurse practitioners, require at least a master’s degree, according to the American Nurses Association (ANA). While licensure requirements for APRNs may vary state to state, a license issued by the state you wish to practice in and a national certification may be required. Be sure to check with your state’s board of nursing.

Learn more about nursing licensure requirements in your state.

Scholarships for RN-to-MSN Program Students

There are scholarships for RN-to-MSN program students that may help finance your education. Ask your prospective program about the options, but consider the following as well:

Learn more about nursing scholarships and financial aid.

Should I Pursue an RN-to-MSN?

RN-to-MSN programs are necessary for nurses who want to become authorities in their fields. If you want to gain expertise, become a specialist working with specific populations and earn a higher salary, an RN-to-MSN program may be the best pathway for you.

The median annual wage for specialized nurses who must hold an MSN to practice was $117,670, according to 2020 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) for nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives and nurse practitioners. The lowest paid 10% earned less than $84,120, while the highest 10% earned more than $190,900.

When considering this, note that the entry-level educational requirements for nurse practitioners (NP) will change by 2025. In 2018, the National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties (NONPF) committed to making the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree the new threshold requirement for entry-level nurse practitioner education. A DNP is the highest practice-based degree that can be earned in the field of nursing. Its curriculum is designed to support the complex, ever-changing health care process—enabling nurses to tackle clinical and administrative leadership roles. 

Additional Programs

There are additional programs that may be of interest to students researching RN-to-MSN programs. These include:

  • Accelerated RN-to-MSN Program: For registered nurses looking to earn their Master of Science in Nursing faster than traditional on-campus college programs. Learn more about accelerated nursing programs.
  • Direct-Entry Master’s in Nursing Program: For non-nursing degree-holders looking to earn their MSN to become registered nurses or advanced practice registered nurses. Learn more about direct-entry master’s in nursing programs.
  • Dual Nursing Degree Program: For those looking to earn both an MSN and a degree in a complementary field, such as health care administration, public health, business administration or public administration, there are dual nursing degree programs.
  • RN-BSN-to-MSN Program: For registered nurses looking to earn a bachelor’s and master’s in nursing degree, a BSN-to-MSN bridge program may be their preferred pathway.
  • RN-to-Nurse Practitioner Program: RNs looking to become nurse practitioners may consider pursuing an MSN online nurse practitioner (NP) program.
  • RN-to-Family Nurse Practitioner Program: RNs seeking to become family nurse practitioners, who provide primary clinical care to everyone from infants to the elderly, may pursue an online Family Nurse Practitioner program.

Learn more about other online nursing programs and nursing degrees, including other online MSN programs

What Is a Post-Graduate Certificate in Nursing? 

Post-graduate certificates in nursing are programs designed for nurses to further their education after they’ve already obtained their MSN or DNP. This may help equip them to specialize in an area that might not have been covered in depth during their graduate studies. This specialization may be clinical or in more of a leadership or management capacity. Numerous schools offer programs like these. Some of the many examples of specialties with a corresponding postgraduate certificate include:  

  • Adult-gerontology nurse practitioner.
  • Emergency nurse practitioner. 
  • Family nurse practitioner.
  • Women’s health nurse practitioner.
  • Nursing education.
  • Health care policy. 
  • Nursing leadership. 
  • Health systems and administration. 

The number of credit hours and corresponding time it takes to complete a post-graduate certificate in nursing is likely to vary depending on the institution offering it as well as the subject matter, but generally, it takes one to two years. Post-graduate nursing programs require a clinical experience component, much like any other accredited nursing degrees, according to the CCNE Clinical Practice Experiences FAQ. The time it may take to complete this experience may impact completion time for the post-graduate certificate.

Requirements for admission to a post-graduate certificate program in nursing may also vary by institution and subject matter. Some common requirements may include:

  • MSN or DNP from an ACEN- or CCNE-accredited institution.
  • 3.0 GPA on a 4.0 scale.
  • Active, unencumbered RN license. 
  • APRN license.
  • Clinical hours.
  • Letters of recommendation.

Be sure to check with your desired institution and program when weighing your options to make sure you will meet application requirements.

FAQs

What is RN to MSN?

An RN-to-MSN program is a bridge graduate nursing program designed to pave a clear path from registered nurse to advanced practice registered nurse to qualify for advanced nurse practitioner careers in the field.

How long is an RN-to-MSN program?

RN-to-MSN programs vary in length. Generally, accredited online nursing programs last two to three years. Whether you pursue your degree in a full- or part-time program will determine the duration of study.

What is an RN-BSN-to-MSN program?

An RN-BSN-to-MSN program is a combined bachelor’s and master’s in nursing program for RNs. It is intended for RNs who have only completed their associate degree in nursing, but would like to obtain their BSN and MSN.

What is an RN-to-NP program?

An RN-to-NP program is a postgraduate degree program for RNs seeking to become nurse practitioners (NPs). NP programs are master’s degrees that help prepare RNs for licensure and practice as advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs).

How is course content delivered in an online RN-to-MSN program?

Course content is delivered in an online RN-to-MSN program via one of two general methods: synchronously or asynchronously. Synchronous delivery relies on audio, video and/or text-based telecommunications platforms, which allow students and instructors to interact in real-time. Asynchronous delivery is self-paced, allowing students to listen to recordings, watch videos, or read texts at their convenience.

Will an online RN-to-MSN program help me get a job?

While completing an RN-to-MSN program does not directly correlate with securing a job, it may help prepare you for licensure at the APRN level with your state. Check with your state’s board of nursing for licensure requirements for APRNs.

What will I learn in an RN-to-MSN program?

What you will learn in an RN-to-MSN program will differ based upon your school and concentration, but all master’s programs in nursing should include the following, as stipulated by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing:

1. Background for practice from sciences and humanities.
2. Organizational and systems leadership.
3. Quality improvement and safety.
4. Translating and integrating scholarship into practice.
5. Informatics and health care technologies.
6. Health policy and advocacy.
7. Interprofessional collaboration for improving patient and population health outcomes.
8. Clinical prevention and population health for improving health.
9. Master’s-level nursing practice.

What is the difference between an RN-to-MSN and a traditional MSN program?

The difference between an RN-to-MSN and a traditional MSN program lies primarily in the admissions criteria. RN-to-MSN programs accept RNs who may have only completed their associate degree in nursing, while traditional MSN programs require applicants to have a bachelor of Science in nursing.

Can I complete an RN-to-MSN program without a nursing degree?

You may complete an RN-to-MSN program without a bachelor’s in nursing degree, but an associate in nursing degree is often the minimum educational qualification. Students with no educational background in nursing may instead want to consider a direct-entry master’s in nursing program.

Last updated October 2021.