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A Master of Science in nursing (MSN) degree prepares students for advanced career opportunities in healthcare, nursing, and education. Licensed registered nurses (RNs) and undergraduates with a Bachelor of Science in nursing (BSN) can take the next step in their careers as nurse educators or nurse practitioners, including family nurse practitioners (FNPs).

Completing an MSN program takes one and a half to three years, depending on your area of study and whether you enroll in a full-time or part-time program. For example, the BSN to MSN track requires 30 to 40 credits, and up to 84 credits are necessary for an RN to MSN degree track.

The average salary for a nurse educator is $84,380, and $128,490 for a nurse practitioner. In 2022, yearly tuition averaged $20,513. Tuition and fees vary between public, private, and online institutions.

How to Choose a Master of Science in Nursing Program

Choose your area of study

Nursing students have many specialties and career trajectories. Your area of study will influence your choice since degree offerings vary by school.

Most programs offer an MSN degree with varying nurse practitioner options, including:

  • Adult gerontology acute care nurse practitioner
  • Adult gerontology primary care nurse practitioner
  • Family nurse practitioner (FNP)
  • Pediatric nurse practitioner (PNP) primary care
  • Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP)

Some programs have specialties for advanced leadership or educator roles, such as:

  • Nurse educator (MSN-NE)
  • Nurse informatics
  • Public health nursing
  • Nurse leadership

Research schools and programs

Begin the application process by researching accredited institutions and programs. Accreditation can impact your financing, transfer credits, and the perceived validity of your education. Nursing programs receive accreditation from the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE). Accrediting bodies review institutions and programs to verify the quality of education.

Your research should include a tour of the campus and facilities. It’s a great way to understand the culture and how the school supports its students. Visit the school’s website and contact the program administrator for an appointment to discuss details like funding options and practicum assistance.

Prepare for tests and applications

To apply for an MSN degree program, you’ll need a BSN from a regionally accredited school, a hospital diploma or Associate of Science in nursing degree, and two years of full-time experience working as a registered nurse within the past five years. Some programs only accept RN licensure from approved states.

Other requirements of an application include:

  • Transcripts
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Personal essays

Short-listed applicants may need to complete a post-application interview. The application process varies by school — contact the admissions counselor for the most accurate information.

Select your program

Before making your final selection, review your goals and needs. Add any new information that may have come up during the process, including employment or housing, full-time or part-time enrollment, and lifestyle changes that might impact your program choices.

Many MSN programs offer online study options. Consider whether synchronous or asynchronous online classes are a good fit.

Carefully review partnership practicum options. Some schools partner with clinics or hospitals and pair students with practicum programs.

Determine how you’ll pay for your degree

Complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to see how much state, federal, and school financial aid you can receive. If you’re employed, ask your employer about a tuition reimbursement program. These programs are often performance-based and may involve a guaranteed employment term after graduation.

You can also explore potential grants and scholarships available through non-profit and community organizations. Review their values and principles to ensure they align with your goals.

Best 50 Accredited Master of Science in Nursing Degree Programs

Best Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) Degree Programs_2024 badge

Emory University

University of Pennsylvania, School of Nursing

Johns Hopkins University

Duke University

Vanderbilt University

The Ohio State University, College of Nursing

University of Michigan

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

University of Alabama at Birmingham

NYU Rory Meyers College of Nursing

Case Western Reserve University

Rutgers University-Newark

University of Virginia

University of Illinois Chicago

The George Washington University

The University of Texas at Austin

University of Rochester

University of California, Davis

Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center

University of Maryland, Baltimore

Purdue University

University of Miami

CU Anschutz

UTHealth Houston

Boston College

Michigan State University

George Mason University

Marquette University

University of San Diego

University of Missouri

Yale University

Troy University

Pennsylvania State University

University of South Carolina

University of South Florida

University of Arizona

University of Texas Arlington

University of Texas Medical Branch

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How we rank schools

This list features some of the best Master of Science in nursing (MSN) programs at top colleges across the country. Each school featured is a nonprofit, accredited institution — either public or private — with a high standard of academic quality for postsecondary education. The programs on our list are accredited by agencies like the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) and the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN), both reputable organizations that assess nursing programs for educational excellence and a commitment to quality education.

We evaluated each school’s program on admission, retention, and graduation rates as well as tuition costs, faculty, reputation, and the resources provided for on-campus students. Then, we calculated the Intelligent Score on a scale of 0 to 100. Read more about our ranking methodology.

Next, we compared this comprehensive list of MSN programs to a list of aggregated college rankings from reputable publications like U.S. News & World Report, among others, to simplify a student’s college search. We pored through these rankings so students don’t have to.

What Can You Expect From a Master of Science in Nursing Program?

Students in an MSN program can expect to learn how to perform diagnostic and therapeutic interventions and plan and evaluate care for critically ill patients. Students with a specialty in nursing education will advance their teaching skills. For example, nurse informatics students will focus on technological applications that support and shape healthcare and health information. Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner students will continue to advance their healthcare knowledge, focusing on neuroscience, psychotherapy, and psychopharmacology.

In addition to their coursework, students should plan for a minimum of 500 hours of practicum work, direct care hours, clinical hours, teaching experience, or practice in a leadership role in a healthcare facility, depending on their area of study.

Potential courses you’ll take in an MSN degree program

  • Transforming Nursing and Healthcare Through Technology. This course teaches nurse informatics as a competency and a specialty. Students learn how informatics improves healthcare outcomes in organizations, consumer health settings, and public health.
  • Interprofessional Organizational and Systems Leadership. This course teaches theory-based leadership competencies to create organizational cultures that achieve quality patient outcomes. Students also examine evidence-based strategies for building collaborative interprofessional teams and healthy work environments.
  • Policy and Advocacy for Improving Population Health. This course explores the policy process’s impact on healthcare cost, quality, delivery, and access. Students study healthcare issues on state and federal agendas and analyze the governmental response through regulation and legislation.
  • Advanced Pharmacology. This course focuses on pharmacotherapeutics through the lens of clinical decision-making by practical nurses. Students examine laws surrounding prescriptive authority and decisions relating to safety, quality, outcomes, and costs.
  • Quality and Safety in Population Health. Students examine theoretical frameworks for population health and improvement. The course explores the impact of community-based health and risk mitigation strategies and equitable health policies to support equity, diversity, and inclusion.

Master of Science in Nursing Degree Frequently Asked Questions

How do I apply to an MSN degree program?

Most institutions and programs use an online application system. Schools usually require your official transcripts to come directly from the issuing institution, but some may accept copies during the initial application process. Speak with an admissions counselor to ensure you have the correct materials before submitting your application.

Be prepared to submit up to three letters of recommendation and a personal essay. The essay should outline your academic and work achievements, what makes you a good candidate for their program or school, and how it supports your career goals.

How much does an MSN degree cost?

The average tuition cost for an MSN degree program is $20,513. Tuition costs vary between private, public, in-state, and out-of-state institutions. In addition to tuition, you can expect to pay for a clinical course fee, uniforms, specialty tools related to healthcare, texts, and course materials. You can also include housing, transportation, meals, and personal expenses.

How long does it take to earn an MSN degree?

There are two primary track options for master’s in nursing students: BSN to MSN and RN to MSN. The RN to MSN tracks are more intensive and require more credits for graduation.

The credit requirements vary significantly, ranging from 30 to 80, depending on the program and your previous education. Typically, it takes 18 months to three years to complete an MSN degree program with full-time enrollment. There are fast-track online options that can shorten the study time, but practicum and clinical hours will take one to two semesters to complete.

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