What is an Online RN to MSN Program?
Definition of an Online RN to MSN Program
Like their campus counterparts, online RN to MSN programs are designed for current RNs who don’t have a BSN, but who would like to earn an MS or MSN in a field of advanced nursing. There are:
- Online RN to MSN programs for current RNs with a diploma or associate’s degree in nursing (e.g. ASN or ADN)
- Online RN to MSN programs for current RNs with a bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing field (e.g. BS or BA)
Some of these programs will omit a bachelor’s degree component (RN-MSN); others can help you earn a BSN along the way (RN-BSN-MSN).
Despite the name, online RN to MSN programs are never completely 100% online:
- You may be able to take all of your courses through distance learning, but you’ll still be required to complete your practicums at a healthcare site/s.
- Some online RN to MSN programs will also include mandatory on-campus components.
Note: Transcripts don’t identify if a degree is online or on-campus. Your MSN diploma will simply say you’ve earned an MSN.
Definition of a Hybrid RN to MSN Program
Hybrid RN to MSN programs contain a mixture of online courses and on-campus courses. You can often take the majority of your classes online, but you will have to travel to campus for a few weekends or evenings each month.
- Hybrid programs are built to accommodate working professionals—you’re unlikely to get classes in the middle of a weekday, but it always pays to check the schedule.
- Certain RN to MSN programs involve a lot of clinical work & direct care (e.g. nurse practitioner specialties, nurse midwifery, etc.)—a hybrid program may be an ideal way to mix convenience with in-depth, in-person training!
We’ve noticed that lots of regionally accredited universities & colleges have gone over to an online or hybrid format for their RN to MSN programs. It makes perfect sense, since the prime audience is you—the working RN!
Note: Unsure about the MSN? Have a look at our encyclopedic guide to RN to MSN Programs for advice on choosing a program and planning for a master’s degree.
How Does an Online RN to MSN Work?
Online RN to MSN Overview
Strong, accredited online RN to MSN programs have identical standards to on-campus programs, including the same:
- General timeline
- Admissions requirements
- Undergraduate prerequisites
- Foundation courses
- Concentration courses
- Assignments & assessments
- Practicum hours
We dig deep into all these aspects in our guide to RN to MSN Programs and on each specialty page.
Online RN to MSN Program Format
Online RN to MSN programs are structured just like on-campus RN to MSN programs. That means your studies will be split into 2 major phases:
- Undergraduate Phase: You’ll be required to earn good grades in a set number of upper-level undergraduate courses from the university. In the case of a distance learning program, these courses are almost always offered online, so you can work while you study.
- Graduate Phase: You’ll be able to take all (or almost all) of your standard MS or MSN courses online. You can fulfill your practicums in your home community, but you’ll often be expected to find the preceptor and arrange the setting. You’ll also have to pay for transit costs to the site.
In a lot of cases, online courses will be offered in an asynchronous format (i.e. you can log into the course at any time), but check the curriculum. Some schools like to include synchronous elements such as real-time lectures, group projects & discussions, and real-time tests & exams.
Online RN to MSN Program Timeline
Generally speaking, the undergraduate phase will take 6 months to 2 years and the MS or MSN portion will take anywhere from 1-3 years to complete, but this depends on:
- What undergraduate qualification you hold (e.g. diploma vs. non-nursing bachelor’s degree)
- What program you are in (e.g. RN-MSN or RN-BSN-MSN)
- How many credits you can transfer & how many you need to earn
- Whether you’re studying full-time or part-time
- Your choice of specialty
A lot of online students decide to work full-time or part-time while they are studying, so this can stretch the timeline out!
Online RN to MSN On-Campus Components
Schools of Nursing may decide to incorporate on-campus components into their online RN to MSN programs, even in the undergraduate phase. For example:
- Direct Care: Many online RN to MSN programs that deal with direct care & APRN licensure (e.g. nurse practitioner specialties, nurse midwifery, etc.) will include campus-based orientations, training workshops, weekend intensives, and simulations. Schools are deliberately preparing you for clinical work.
- Indirect Care: Online RN to MSN programs that deal with indirect care (e.g. nursing administration, nursing informatics, nursing education, etc.) are much more variable. Some programs include orientations & networking opportunities, but plenty of programs require no on-campus visits. However, you’ll still be expected to complete internships and/or practicums in your home community.
We favor online RN to MSN programs that include on-campus components. After all, nursing is a hands-on medical discipline that requires skills in negotiation, networking, and team-building! But campus trips will cost money and time. Draw up a comprehensive budget of all your expenses.
Note: When it comes to APRN state licensure & national certification, the key requirement will be your total number of clinical practicum hours, not these extra campus components.
Online RN to MSN Delivery
Every School of Nursing is going to have their own online classroom delivery system (e.g. Ohio State’s Carmen), so we suggest you take a little time to explore the distance learning section of the university’s website. Your online experience may include:
- Pre-recorded or live lectures
- Live video interactions
- Online tests & exams
- Class discussion boards
- Open forums
- Regular emails & chats
- Required supporting materials (videos, reading, or other media) that you work through on your own time
To get a real sense of the flow, ask the program coordinator if you can take a course tour or sit-in on a live class.
Note: Not sure if you can handle distance learning? You could consider taking one online continuing education course from the same university before you commit to a fully online RN to MSN program.
Online RN to MSN Technology Requirements
You should be able to find info about technology requirements in the distance learning section of the university’s website or the program’s FAQs.
At baseline, a school might expect you to have:
- Current Mac or PC
- Stable, high-speed internet connection
- Current web browser
- Relevant & up-to-date plugins (e.g. Java, Flash, etc.)
Occasionally, you may be expected to install additional classroom software, but a lot of universities & colleges have moved to web-based delivery systems.
Online RN to MSN State Licensure & National Certification
Before you fall in love with a specific online RN to MSN program, it’s important to know that every state has specific laws & regulations that govern educational providers, including rules regarding distance learning programs. That means:
- States have the power to authorize (or not authorize) out-of-state Schools of Nursing that want to offer online programs to their residents.
- Mainly, states want to verify that distance learning programs are meeting the same quality standards as in-state programs.
- As of July 2018, a U.S. Department of Education rule requires institutions to be authorized in each state where students are enrolled in order to participate in federal student financial aid programs.
How to Handle State Authorization
State authorization is a messy area, involving all kinds of reciprocity agreements and exemptions, so it’s probably easiest to:
- Create a shortlist of your favorite online RN to MSN programs.
- Consult the State Authorizations or State Regulations page on the School of Nursing website.
- Talk to the program coordinator to make double-sure you’re eligible to apply.
- Check with your State Board of Nursing if you’re planning to pursue APRN licensure (see below).
Your choice of specialty will also affect the availability of online programs:
- Indirect Care: Online RN to MSN programs that deal with indirect care (e.g. nursing administration, nursing informatics, etc.) and don’t involve licensure are usually open to nursing students in many states.
- Direct Care: Online RN to MSN programs that deal with direct care & APRN licensure (e.g. nurse practitioner specialties, nurse midwifery, etc.) may have more restrictions when it comes to accepting out-of-state students, due to the clinical training that’s required.
In some cases, you may discover that a program simply can’t accept you.
APRN State Licensure Requirements
Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (i.e. APRN) or Advanced Registered Nurse Practitioner (e.g. ARNP) state licensure is required for the following fields:
- All Nurse Practitioner Specialties
- Nurse Midwife
- Clinical Nurse Specialist (APRN in Most States)
- Nurse Anesthetist (doctorate also required)
Please make sure your online RN to MSN will meet APRN licensure requirements in your home state before you apply!
State Boards of Nursing have specific rules & regulations regarding distance learning programs & clinical training experiences. It’s important that your online program is authorized by your home state and meets all the criteria for preceptorships and clinical placements. Online RN to MSN program websites often provide a warning on this issue:
e.g. “X College is unable to ascertain licensure requirements in every state. It is up to the individual student to be aware of and abide by licensure requirements in the states in which the student chooses to obtain licensure and employment.”
Most schools suggest that you contact the State Board of Nursing directly.
Online RN to MSN Programs & National Certification
We provide detailed info on national certification requirements (mandatory & voluntary) under each RN to MSN specialty page. You can also read more about its importance in our guide to RN to MSN Programs.
If you’re wondering about how it relates to online & hybrid RN to MSN programs:
- Most national certification bodies will expect you to have a degree from an ACEN– or CCNE-accredited School of Nursing.
- If you’re considering nurse midwifery certification, your program should be accredited by the ACNM Accreditation Commission for Midwifery Education (ACME).
Certification bodies won’t care if your MSN is hybrid, online, or on-campus, just as long as it holds the appropriate accreditation. In addition:
- National certifications in nurse practitioner specialties and other programs involving direct care often have a clinical practicum requirement (e.g. minimum of X faculty-supervised clinical hours). Make sure your online program fulfills all the criteria for these hours.
- Online RN to MSN programs should always prepare you for relevant national certifications! Most schools will state this clearly on the program website.
How to Choose an Online RN to MSN Program
Online RN to MSN Program Accreditation
We recommend you choose an online RN to MSN program that holds:
- Regional Accreditation: Regional accreditation is granted to colleges and universities—both public & private—in all 50 states. Most of these institutions are non-profit. Regional accreditation is given to an institution, so it will cover all of the programs that the college or university offers, including on-campus, hybrid, and online degrees.
- ACEN or CCNE Accreditation: An ACEN– or CCNE-accredited degree is frequently required for national certifications. Happily, many ACEN- and CCNE-accredited schools now offer hybrid & online programs.
Almost all the online RN to MSN programs in our directory hold these two accreditations. But it’s important to note that we have included a small number of programs from nationally accredited, for-profit schools (e.g. Aspen & Capella). They are ACEN- or CCNE- accredited, so we wanted to let you know they existed.
Our guide to RN to MSN Programs has more info on the:
- Benefits of regional accreditation over national accreditation
- Pitfalls of choosing a for-profit program (even if it’s cheaper)
Employers pay close attention to accreditation quality markers, especially when they’re evaluating candidates who have earned an online degree. A regionally accredited, non-profit institution with CCNE or ACEN accreditation is always your safest bet!!
Online RN to MSN Rankings
U.S. News & World Report publishes annual rankings of the Best Online MSN Programs. You can cross-check this list against our directory to make sure the School of Nursing offers an online RN to MSN option.
- Each school profile contains a detailed breakdown of the online programs, including acceptance rates, years of faculty experience, graduation rates, tuition costs, average debt rates, and more.
- Many top-ranked online programs are offered by public universities that offer in-state tuition discounts. You can get an affordable degree from a School of Nursing with a sturdy reputation!
Online RN to MSN Teaching Standards
There’s nothing worse than getting stuck with inept teachers in graduate school. To avoid the trap, examine the class schedule (where course instructors are listed) or ask the program coordinator for a list of online instructors.
Pick online RN to MSN programs that are taught by:
- Experienced, tenured nursing professors who also teach in the on-campus nursing programs
- Adjunct professors & instructors who have significant real-world experience in their field of expertise
- Teachers who are active in their specialty (e.g. publishing papers, presenting at conferences, etc.) and who receive praise on graduate student review sites
Because nursing is a hands-on discipline, we don’t mind online programs that use qualified adjuncts—they usually have the latest intelligence on healthcare developments & workplace issues. They may also be able to help when it comes to career planning & networking. Check their LinkedIn profiles to learn more about their qualifications.
Note: Minimal RN & clinical years, no training in online teaching, and dubious academic credentials (e.g. MSN from a degree mill) are big red flags!
Online RN to MSN Student Support
Support is important for any RN to MSN student, but it’s especially critical for online students. It can be a lonely and challenging process to complete a graduate degree in nursing through distance learning.
That’s why we favor Schools of Nursing that offer:
- Individual academic advisors or student service coordinators
- 24/7 technical support for distance learning students
- Online tutoring & counseling services
- Opportunities to connect in real-time with professors & fellow students during the courses
- Online student chat rooms or forums
- Virtual office hours
- Assistance with arranging practicums in your home community
- On-campus components (as long as you can afford the travel)
Online Graduate Outcomes
Unsurprisingly, online graduate programs tend to have a higher number of drop-outs than on-campus programs! You can get an inside view of an online RN to MSN’s popularity & effectiveness by asking the program coordinator for statistics on the:
- Program retention rate
- Number of job offers at graduation
- Alumni employment rate after one year
- National certification exam pass rates
- Average student debt
Pros & Cons of Online RN to MSN Programs
Pros of Online RN to MSN Programs
- Choose from flexible start dates throughout the year.
- Space your degree out over a longer time (e.g. up to 6 years).
- Opt for a public university that offers in-state tuition discounts to online students.
- Avoid commuting & parking costs.
- Study in the evenings & on the weekends.
- Set your own pace & determine the ways you like to study.
- Use your current part-time or full-time job to pay for the degree—while you study.
- Complete your mandatory practicums in your home community.
- Gain exposure to online teaching technologies that you can use as a nurse educator.
Cons of Online RN to MSN Programs
- Remaining organized can be a huge challenge, especially if you’re working.
- Tests, assignments & class deadlines are still standard.
- Despite advances in technology, it’s not the same as being in a classroom & interacting with your professors.
- Distance learners may feel overwhelmed by digital communications (e.g. emails, chats, discussion boards, etc.).
- You may need to make time to observe live lectures & collaborate with other students.
- Online RN to MSN programs, especially nurse practitioner programs, can include on-campus components.
- You’ll often be responsible for organizing all your practicum sites & preceptors.
- Making time for clinical practicums can be really tough.
Online RN to MSN Programs: Industry Reputation
Online RN to MSN Programs & Potential Employers
As we mentioned, online & hybrid RN to MSN programs are becoming increasingly common in the world of nursing. According to a 2015 survey from Aslanian Market Research and the Learning House, nursing was the second most popular major among undergraduate & graduate online learners (behind business administration).
If you’re wondering about how these programs are viewed in the industry, start with 2 resources from U.S. News & World Report:
- What Employers Think About Your Online Nursing Degree
- 4 Questions Employers Ask About Job Applicants With Online Degrees
Most of the time, employers won’t care one way or another. They may even be impressed! After all, you’re an experienced RN who had the drive to tackle a difficult master’s degree while you juggled other commitments.
Online RN to MSN Programs: How to Handle the Interview
If they do get to talking about your online qualification in the interview, hiring committees & interviewers might ask:
1. Was Your Program Accredited?
In reality, this means they’re going to be looking for evidence of:
- Regional accreditation
- ACEN- or CCNE-accreditation
- A School of Nursing with a solid reputation
If you opt to attend a nationally accredited, for-profit school, be prepared to face some hard questions about the quality & standards of your training. We talk more about this issue in our section on recommended accreditations.
2. Why Online?
If you live near a School of Nursing with a good hybrid or on-campus RN to MSN program, this question could come up! Employers will want know why you chose online when you had viable alternatives available. You could point out that:
- A flexible online RN to MSN gave you more time to work as an RN and gain clinical experience.
- The program had a superb reputation in your chosen specialty (e.g. informatics).
- You wanted experience in online teaching technologies & digital learning.
- You saved money that you’re planning on investing in future qualifications (e.g. post-graduate certificate).
3. How Much Hands-On Training Did You Receive?
This will be a big one when it comes to nurse practitioner specialties, nurse midwifery, and other programs involving direct care. Sure, you’ve got your RN experience, but employers want to see that you’ve progressed into advanced clinical practice. You might mention that:
- You tackled the same number of clinical practicum hours as students in on-campus programs.
- While you were studying, you were able to put your learning into practice in your job.
- You completed your practicums in a healthcare setting that was relevant to your community (e.g. rural health).
- Your online RN to MSN included on-campus training components.
- You’ve attained APRN licensure and/or national certification.
4. How Do I Know You’re a Team Player?
Employers are looking for job candidates who can work within a team of medical professionals and handle tough interpersonal situations without losing their cool. You’re going to have to prove that your online RN to MSN program trained you for those situations. You could note that:
- You chose to keep working in your current job & team while you were studying.
- You deliberately arranged clinical practicums that connected you to professionals & patients in new settings (e.g. NICU unit).
- Your online RN to MSN included on-campus training components.
- You learned how to develop effective digital communities through class chats & discussions.
Note: Remember that your diploma will say MSN, plain and simple. You’re under no obligation to state that it’s an online MSN on your résumé.