With the increasing demand for highly educated advanced practice nurses (due to a nationwide nursing shortage), RN to MSN online programs have become common. The best online MSN programs allow nurses to have quite a few advantages. Because the nursing field requires most nurses to work 12-hour shifts around the clock, online MSN programs offer schedule flexibility that is unmatched by the traditional programs found across the nation. With this field being in high demand for most states, attempting to change schedules to fit a school schedule can be nearly impossible for most nurses, and allow them to keep their current schedules or remain working with an open availability schedule.
This flexibility allows nurses to maintain a solid self-pacing environment, where they can work ahead at their own pace to keep up with their education and their work schedule. With nursing schedules being demanding and changing, not all enrolled nursing students will have the same schedule, allowing them to pace their coursework and studying to fit their personal pace. That means that working nurses who want to enhance their career have a wealth of options – all just as high in quality as the best traditional nursing school.
Our Method: Ranking the Best Online MSN Programs
Best Health Degrees editors jumped into ranking the top RN to MSN online programs by researching every accredited, trusted nursing school offering a fully online or hybrid MSN program. With a large and diverse list to work from, editors ranked programs according to factors that help students know the quality and return on investment: Cost, Graduation Rate, Job Placement, Salary Potential, and Student Satisfaction. Data comes from IPEDS, College Scorecard, and Niche.
1. Ohio State University
Ohio State University offers an online MSN with 4 different concentrations. The most unique concentration offered by Ohio State is the Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner specialization. While many MSN programs do offer a Nurse Practitioner specialty, it’s usually the family medicine focus. Students who are interested in the best online MSN programs for going into mental health may want to add Ohio State to their list of the top RN to MSN online programs. Ohio State also offers a Neonatal Nurse Practitioner specialization in its MSN program.
Ohio State is well-known for having one of the largest and most powerful alumni networks of any American university. Ohio State alumni fund scholarships and offer career advice to students and recent grads. There are so many Ohio State alumni out there that graduates anywhere in the country can likely find an alumni mentor.
Degree: MSN – 4 concentrations
2. University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus
The University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, which is part of the University of Colorado-Denver, offers an online MSN with 3 concentrations: Family Nurse Practitioner, Informatics and Leadership. The concentration in Health Informatics is rarely offered by other MSN programs, and it makes the program at UC Denver quite unique. Health informatics, which involves creating and managing databases of patient information, is a highly sought after specialization in today’s increasingly digitized healthcare landscape. MSN candidates who want to go into this lucrative field should put UC Denver’s MSN program on their list of the best online MSN programs along with other top RN to MSN online programs that offer this specialization.
UC Denver, and the Anschutz Medical Campus in particular, are known as leading centers of healthcare research. MSN candidates who want to be involved in cutting-edge research may want to consider this program. They will get to work with the latest healthcare tech, which will prepare them for jobs at the forefront of the industry. The Anschutz Medical Campus has received $400 million in research grants.
Degree: MSN – 3 concentrations online: FNP, Informatics, Leadership
3. University of Pittsburgh
The University of Pittsburgh offers an online MSN program with three different specializations. Perhaps the most unique of these specializations is the Clinical Nurse Leader focus. While many MSN programs prepare nurses to enter management roles, these programs usually focus on administrative roles. Few train nurses for clinical management roles as the program at Pitt does. Nurses who want to advance to management roles but still work in the clinical side of nursing should consider Pitt to be one of the best MSN programs for their needs, and one of the top RN to MSN online programs overall.
Pitt is considered to be one of the most prestigious public universities in the country. It especially shines in the amount of cutting-edge research conducted at the university. Most of this research is in STEM fields like nursing, which increases the prestige of such programs. Pitt is often ranked in the top 25 public universities in the country.
Degree: MSN – 3 concentrations
4. University of Massachusetts Amherst
The University of Massachusetts-Amherst has an Internet-based MSN program that offers three specializations. The most distinctive specialty in the MSN program is the Nursing Education focus. This degree track prepares students to teach nursing students. While it seems like this degree track would be common, few programs actually offer it. Nurses who want to educate students in their field may want to add UMass Amherst to the list of top RN to MSN online programs that they’re applying to, as it is one of the best online MSN programs available. The MSN program at UMass Amherst also offers a more general Nursing Science focus.
UMass Amherst offers a combination of prestige and relatively low tuition that is difficult to find in the New England region. While there are many prestigious universities in this area of the country, most of them are expensive private institutions. UMass Amherst is relatively affordable, especially to Massachusetts residents.
Degree: MSN – 3 concentrations
5. University of Arizona
The University of Arizona has an MSN program that students can complete online. This program is unique because it allows students to progress straight from their RN license to their MSN degree. Most MSN programs are designed to take students who have a BSN and help them achieve an MSN degree. Of course, Arizona’s MSN program is also open to students who do have a BSN. Practicing RNs with an ADN degree can achieve their BSN and then go onto their MSN degree seamlessly in this program. RNs without a BSN should consider Arizona as one of the best online MSN programs, especially as one of the top RN to MSN programs.
Arizona is known for offering its students generous financial aid. This is especially true for students of color and students in the STEM fields (like nursing). Nursing students of color may be able to get a significant portion of their tuition costs covered. Arizona’s RN to MSN program can be completed in as little as 24 months.
Degree: RN to MSN
6. University of Texas Medical Branch
The University of Texas Medical Branch has an online MSN program with 7 specialties. This alone makes the program unique, as few programs will have as many or more specializations available to students. The only exception on this list is UTA. The most distinctive specialties available at UTMB include 2 different gerontology tracks and a Neonatal Nurse Practitioner track. Students who want to go into one of these specialties should add UTMB to the best online MSN programs that they are considering applying to, right alongside the other top RN to MSN online programs in the country.
UTMB is a public university, and it has the sort of affordable tuition that you might expect from a public institution. Students from Texas can especially benefit from this low tuition rate. Graduate medical tuition can be prohibitively expensive, but not at UTMB. UTMB’s associated John Sealy Hospital is one of the leading trauma centers in the country.
Degree: MSN – 7 concentrations
7. University of Texas at Arlington
The University of Texas at Arlington has an online MSN program with an impressive list of nine different concentrations. Perhaps the most unique concentration offered at UTA is the Pediatric Acute Care Nurse Practitioner focus. This concentration prepares nurses to help treat children with a variety of different serious health concerns. Nurses who want to work with kids will consider top RN to MSN online programs at UTA to be some of the best online MSN programs.
The University of Texas at Arlington plays a crucial role in providing affordable public higher education to the massive Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area, growing from a small regional public college to an influential R1 research university along with the city. UT Arlington is particularly important for healthcare, graduating more nurses than any other nursing school in the state.
Degree: MSN – 9 concentrations
8. University of Nebraska Medical Center
The University of Nebraska’s online MSN program has seven different concentrations, including one or two that are rarely seen in other MSN programs. For example, the program at Nebraska includes a rare specialization in women’s health. Prospective MSN students who want to go into this area of practice can go ahead and put Nebraska on the shortlist of top RN to MSN online programs along with some of the best online MSN programs that have a women’s health focus.
Nebraska’s Medical Center is affiliated with various hospitals and clinics. These affiliations help MSN students get the experience they need in their chosen concentration. Other MSN programs may not be able to offer certain specializations because they can’t get their students the right clinical experience. Another unique specialty in Nebraska’s MSN program is the Acute Care Gerontology focus.
Degree: MSN – 7 concentrations
9. University of Cincinnati
The University of Cincinnati has an Internet-based MSN program with several different concentrations. One of the most popular concentrations offered in the MSN program is the Midwifery focus. While this is a popular area of practice for nurses who hold MSN degrees, few online programs offer it. Nurses who want to go into midwifery can rest assured that Cincinnati is one of the best online MSN programs, especially when you look at the top RN to MSN online programs.
Cincinnati is one of the most prestigious public universities in the region. It is often ranked in the top 75 public universities in the country. Students in Ohio can benefit from the exemplary reputation of the University of Cincinnati in the state. The MSN program is affiliated with the Academic Medical Center, which features highly experienced teaching nurses and cutting-edge equipment.
Degree: MSN – 6 concentrations
10. Florida Atlantic University
Florida Atlantic University has a highly regarded online MSN program. Perhaps the most unique aspect of this program is its Advanced Holistic Nursing concentration. Many students are interested in learning more about holistic healing, but few MSN programs at accredited universities offer this concentration. When one looks at the list of the best online MSN programs, including the top RN to MSN online programs, it’s hard to find a holistic healing concentration.
Florida Atlantic University, as a public university, offers graduate students in Florida a great deal. Also, FAU strives to get graduate students as much financial aid as possible. MSN students from Florida should consider FAU as a high-quality choice for applicants on a budget. FAU’s College of Medicine is one of the newest in the country, and it shows in the cutting-edge equipment available to nursing students.
Degree: MSN – Advanced Holistic Nursing
11. University of Hawaii at Manoa
The University of Hawaii at Manoa has an Internet-based MSN program that is a little different than the other programs on this list. Hawaii’s program is unique because it is focused on the community health concerns that nurses will face in the state. Even though it is one of the best online MSN programs and one of the top RN to MSN online programs, Hawaii’s program is best for students living in the state.
The School of Nursing at Hawaii, which offers the nursing degrees, is quite prestigious. Students can benefit from an academically rigorous program, which contributes to the nursing school’s high ranking. Many rankings put the school of nursing among the top 100 in the country. The MSN at Hawaii requires students to complete a capstone project in their local community.
12. Bradley University
Bradley University has an Internet-based MSN program with a Nurse Practitioner focus. This program is unique in that it allows students with only an ADN into the program. While this is not unheard of, it is rare for an MSN program that offers a Nurse Practitioner concentration. Students who want to advance from an ADN to a Nurse Practitioner license should put Bradley on the list of the best online MSN programs, above the top RN to MSN programs.
Bradley is the rare private university that offers affordable tuition. Graduates of Bradley benefit from the cachet that comes with a degree from a respected private university. Most MSN grads that can say this have had to pay exorbitant tuition. Bradley University is known for having small class sizes, which allows MSN students to get more personal attention.
Degree: Family Nurse Practitioner
13. Clarkson College
Clarkson College has an online MSN with several different concentrations. This MSN is one of the few offered by an institution that specializes in online education. This ensures the most effective and efficient operation possible, without the oversights that plague the online education programs of traditional universities. Clarkson has one of the best online MSN programs of all top RN to MSN programs.
Clarkson College has several affiliations that will ensure MSN students get the practical experience they need and make professionals connections. One of these associations is with the University of Nebraska Medical Center, which is one of the leading medical centers in the region.
Degree: MSN – 4 concentrations
14. University of Arkansas
The University of Arkansas has an online MSN program that offers either thesis or non-thesis degree tracks, which few programs do. The thesis for an MSN degree is usually a nursing-related research project. Students who want to be challenged academically should put Arkansas’ MSN program on their list of the best online MSN programs but not on the list of top RN to MSN programs, as applicants must have a BSN to be accepted.
Arkansas’s health sciences programs, including the MSN program, are focused on rural healthcare. This is because many residents of the state live in rural areas with little access to healthcare. Of course, MSN students do not have to go into this field of healthcare after graduation. Arkansas’ MSN program is CCNE-accredited.
15. Florida State University
Florida State University offers an Internet-based MSN program. The most distinctive aspect of this program is its focus on the Nurse Leader concentration. This is the only concentration offered by this program, while most MSN programs offer multiple concentrations. Students who want to be in nursing management should think of FSU as one of the best online MSN programs, even if it isn’t one of the top RN to MSN online programs because it doesn’t offer this degree path.
Florida State University offers a wide variety of financial aid to its students. FSU is particularly known for having many different financial aid options for students of color. FSU also offers a DNP program.
Degree: MSN Nurse Leader
Will Employers Trust an Online MSN?
One of the many questions that nursing students who are seeking online MSN programs consider is the nursing school accreditation of these programs. With the influx and need of online programs, however, the trust in this format has escalated over the years. An online MSN is equally accredited as a traditional program and is just as trustworthy by employers. Many nursing students find that their employers promote the online platform as a way to keep their staff flexible while obtaining their education.
When reviewing the nursing school accreditation what to look for during the search is the CCNE accreditation standards to determine if they align with the program curriculum of the online MSN programs. The accreditation can be either CCNE vs ACEN, which is the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education and the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing, the leading accrediting agencies for nursing programs nationally. These standards require nursing programs to include a variety of different courses from areas in their program that gives nursing students what they need to move forward with their degrees such as leadership, policy, research, and concentrations that could require a clinical portion depending on the specialization.
Do I Have to Have a Bachelor’s to Get an MSN?
Before a nursing student can obtain an MSN degree, they do need to have a completed Bachelor’s degree. However, they do have the ability to complete the RN to MSN online bridge programs that are available. These working nurses with an Associate’s degree and RN certification are able to obtain two degrees in this program, where they earn first their BSN and their MSN in the bridge.
These programs are almost always exclusively offered online as a way to accommodate working nurses who are also in pursuit of experience to compensate for their extended education. Like other online MSN programs, these RN to MSN online bridge programs offer students the ability to pace themselves and gain an affordable education at their leisure to fit their personal career goals.
RN to MSN online bridge programs are growing in popularity among working nurses because it gives that direct path to obtaining an accredited MSN degree that will amplify their nursing career. Students often determine their specialization ahead of time and pursue two degrees that allow them the ability to gain the skills and curriculum required by the CCNE and ACEN standards that are required for accreditation and licensing.
What is the Difference Between an RN and an MSN?
When comparing the RN vs MSN, there are several differences to consider between types of nursing degrees. First and foremost, the RN licensure can be obtained through an Associate degree or a Bachelor Degree. When obtaining an RN certification, a clinical rotation is required. These nursing students spend a specific amount of time and hours working in the assigned hospitals to gain the experience necessary for licensure. Also, these students are required to move forward with a passing score on the NCLEX exam required for their certification.
A review of the MSN degree shows that these nursing students have already received their RN licensure and are looking to advance into a more specialized area of nursing. Obtaining an MSN requires a licensed RN certification before admittance, and only certain MSN programs require a clinical portion of the curriculum based upon the specialization. Both of these degrees, however, enhance the skill set that they learn in the RN and the MSN later give the nursing students the ability to enhance their skills with supervising, leadership, and assisting physicians.