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RN-to-DNP degree programs prepare students for advanced clinical and leadership roles in the healthcare industry. Many graduates become nurse practitioners, who provide primary or specialty healthcare services. After completing an RN-to-DNP program, it’s also possible to become a nurse manager or nursing executive.

In 2023, nurse practitioners earned a median annual salary of $129,480. Top executives earned an average of $136,100 during the same year. This occupational category includes chief nursing officers.

It typically takes a full-time student four years to complete an RN-to-DNP degree program. For part-time students, it may take up to six years. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, tuition for a graduate degree costs an average of $19,749 per year. If it takes a student four years to complete their RN-to-DNP program, their total cost of attendance is likely to exceed $80,000.

How to Choose an RN-to-DNP Program

Choose your area of study

RN-to-DNP programs prepare students for advanced roles in nursing, so the first step is to choose a specialty. Students who want to work in a primary care setting should look for programs designed for family nurse practitioners (FNPs).

Other concentration options include neonatal nursing, pediatric nursing, psychiatric nursing, gerontology, or women’s health. If you want to provide specialty care, look for schools offering at least one of these concentrations.

Once you choose a specialty, you need to think about which type of program is the best fit for your life. RN-to-DNP programs usually have hands-on learning requirements, so you may not be able to find an online program in your area, but some schools offer hybrid options. A hybrid program includes a mix of online and on-campus learning.

Research schools and programs

The United States has more than 400 DNP programs, giving prospective students plenty of options. Before you compile a list of potential schools, look for programs that allow you to enroll without obtaining a master’s degree first.

Next, look for schools in your target area. If you want to take in-person classes, think carefully about how much time you can dedicate to commuting to campus each week. It’s also important to consider the cost of gasoline and the potential for extra wear and tear on your vehicle. If you’re interested in online classes, you don’t have to worry about the location of each campus.

Finally, narrow down your list by speaking with admissions counselors, taking campus tours, attending virtual open houses, and conducting online research. At the end of the research process, you should have no more than five options on your list.

Prepare for tests and applications

Before you enroll in an RN-to-DNP degree program, you may have to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). The GRE measures your critical thinking, verbal reasoning, and math skills. It also includes a writing assessment. If one of the schools on your list requires the GRE, join a study group or enroll in a prep course to ensure you get the highest possible score.

RN-to-DNP schools require detailed applications, so gather letters of recommendation, employment references, college transcripts, and other information well in advance of the submission deadline. You may also have to write a letter of intent or a personal statement to qualify for admission.

Select your program

Now it’s time to choose a program. The right program for your needs depends on several factors, such as how many classes you plan to take per term and whether the school offers online or in-person classes. If you plan to work full-time, consider enrolling on a part-time basis to avoid getting overwhelmed.

Determine how you’ll pay for your degree

Before you register for classes, think carefully about how you’ll pay for your RN-to-DNP degree. Graduate students don’t qualify for Pell grants or subsidized federal loans, but you may be eligible for unsubsidized loans. If you’re interested in financial aid, fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to determine your eligibility.

If you’re employed by a healthcare facility, contact your HR department to find out if your employer offers tuition reimbursement or other education benefits. You could also take out a private student loan or pay for tuition with money in your personal bank accounts.

Best 50 Accredited RN-to-DNP Programs

Top RN-to-DNP Degree Programs_2024 badge
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Johns Hopkins School of Nursing
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Emory School of Nursing
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Vanderbilt University School of Nursing
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Rush University
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The Ohio State University College of Nursing
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University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing
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University of Maryland School of Nursing
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University of Washington School of Nursing
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UF College of Nursing

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How we rank schools

This list features some of the best RN-to-DNP degree programs at top colleges nationwide. Each school featured is a nonprofit, accredited institution — either public or private — with a high standard of academic quality for postsecondary education.

We evaluated each school’s program on admission, retention, and graduation rates as well as tuition costs, faculty, reputation, and student resources. 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 RN-to-DNP degree 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 an RN-to-DNP Program?

Once you enroll in an RN-to-DNP program, you can expect to learn advanced nursing theory and clinical skills. If you didn’t take biology, organic chemistry, and other advanced science classes as an undergraduate, you may also have to take some science prerequisites.

The DNP is a doctoral degree, so you also have to do some type of research. To prepare for the research component of the program, some schools require coursework in statistics, research methods, and informatics. You should also expect to complete several immersion experiences, which give students the opportunity to practice advanced nursing skills in a healthcare setting.

If you enroll in an online program, you may need to complete a residency requirement before you graduate. How long it takes to complete your RN-to-DNP degree depends on how many credits you complete each term, how many clinical rotations your school requires, and whether you have to complete a residency or write a doctoral dissertation.

Potential courses you’ll take in an RN-to-DNP program

  • Nursing Informatics. Informatics combines computer science with information science, enabling nurses to make better clinical decisions. Students enrolled in this course learn how to create and manage databases in healthcare settings. Once they have a command of the basics, students experiment with using these databases to make decisions related to patient care.
  • Healthcare Ethics. Nurse practitioners, nurse managers, and other nursing professionals have various ethical obligations. Healthcare ethics focuses on a nurse’s duty to provide competent care, maintain confidentiality, and promote health and safety at all times.
  • Leadership and Management. RN-to-DNP programs prepare students for advanced nursing roles, all of which require strong leadership and management skills. Students learn about popular leadership theories and how to apply those theories to a variety of practical situations.
  • Evidence-Based Practice. This course covers how to use the best available evidence to make patient care decisions. Students discuss how to apply evidence in a way that respects each patient’s wishes and increases the likelihood of a positive outcome.
  • Professional Seminar. Seminars prepare RN-to-DNP students to complete their clinical rotations. At some schools, the seminar course also helps prepare students to complete a dissertation or other major research project.

RN-to-DNP Degree Frequently Asked Questions

How do I apply to an RN-to-DNP degree program?

If your preferred school requires the GRE, register for the exam as soon as possible. The earlier you take the test, the more likely you’ll receive your score well before the application deadline. Your school may also require college transcripts, proof of RN licensure, a personal statement, and letters of recommendation for a complete application.

To ensure you don’t overlook anything, speak with an admissions counselor before you submit your application. Admissions representatives understand the requirements for each program and may be able to help you overcome common obstacles.

How much does an RN-to-DNP degree cost?

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, graduate school tuition costs an average of $20,513 per academic year. You also need to consider the cost of textbooks, course materials, lab fees, and housing expenses when calculating your total cost of attendance.

How long does it take to earn an RN-to-DNP degree?

If you enroll full-time, it should take about four years to complete an RN-to-DNP degree program. It may take a little longer if you enroll in an online program with an on-campus residency requirement. Total completion time also depends on how many credits your school requires. If you decide to enroll as a part-time student, it may take as long as six years to earn your degree.

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