RN-to-MSN Degree Programs Available Online

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The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) supports the career ladder concept for practicing RNs, understanding that education enhances both clinical competency and patient care. RN-to-MSN programs are designed specifically for RNs who received their initial nursing preparation by earning a diploma or through an associate degree (ADN) program.

From the American Nurses Association (ANA) to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) to the Institute of Medicine (IOM), the research is clear: Quality patient care depends on a highly educated nursing workforce. From lower mortality rates and fewer medication errors to better quality outcomes and more positive patient experiences, a better educated nursing workforce means better healthcare for our country.

The Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) has long been the standard degree required for advanced practice nursing and nursing administrative/leadership roles and is therefore the degree most often sought out by practicing registered nurses (RNs) who want to take their career to the next level. The RN-to-MSN degree has become a very popular pursuit among nurses with an ADN or diploma who have their eye on a graduate degree, as it allows them to build upon their previous nursing education and experience and earn both a BSN and MSN in one streamlined program.

What it an RN-to-MSN Degree Program?

RN-MSN programs build on the skillset and knowledge of practicing RNs and prepare them for a higher level of nursing practice. The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) accredit all RN-to-MSN programs in the U.S. These programs may go by a number of titles, including:

  • ASN-MSN
  • RN-BSN-MSN
  • ADN-MSN
  • RN to BSN to MSN
  • RN-BSN/MSN

According to the AACN, the number of CCNE-accredited RN-MSN programs has more than doubled in the past 15 years, rising from 70 programs in 1994 to 214 programs as of 2014. The AACN’s 2014 survey of nursing school also revealed another 31 new RN-MSN programs are in the planning stages.

These programs prepare nurses to assume roles that require graduate preparation, such as:

  • Advanced practice registered nurse (APRN)
    • Clinical nurse specialist (CNS)
    • Certified nurse-midwife (CNM)
    • Certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA)
    • Certified nurse practitioner (CNP)
  • Nursing administrator
  • Clinical educator
  • Nurse researcher
  • Nurse executive
  • Clinical nurse leader
  • Informatics nurse
  • Health policy consultant

RN to MSN programs also serve as an important first step for nurses interested in doctoral study.

RN to MSN programs combine the components of both the BSN and MSN, taking about three years of full-time study to complete, depending on the student’s previous coursework. Many of these programs are offered in a largely online format or blended classroom/online format. Online programs have become increasingly popular among students of RN-to-MSN programs, as they better accommodate the busy schedules of working RNs.

Institutions offering RN-MSN programs build the BSN content into the front end of the program, allowing students to transition to the MSN component of the program after they have mastered the upper-level basic nursing content of the BSN.

The Components of the RN-to-MSN

Depending on the institution, students of RN-to-MSN programs may specialize their degree on a clinical nursing role (CNM, CNS, CNP, CRNA, clinical nurse leader, etc.) or a non-clinical nursing role (nursing administration, nursing informatics, nurse educator, etc.).

Students must choose a program that offers their chosen MSN specialty/track. For example, some colleges and universities may only offer RN-MSN programs in an advanced nursing role, while others may offer a wider selection, including such MSN specialties as case management, infection prevention, and organizational leadership.

Students choosing an APRN specialty for their RN-MSN program must also choose a population focus, such as:

  • Adult
  • Family Across the Lifespan
  • Gerontology
  • Acute Care
  • Primary Care
  • Women’s Health-Gender Related
  • Neonatal
  • Pediatric

Many RN-MSN programs allow students to select a delivery format that best fits their personal needs and wants. While some programs are offered only as campus-based, full-time programs, perhaps just as many offer their programs in one or more of the following formats:

Online Programs: Online degree programs are becoming increasingly popular, particularly among working professionals who desire a flexible learning environment to fit their job responsibilities. Online programs allow RNs to complete most or all of the didactic components of the program through interactive, online study and then complete the clinical or practice requirements at partner sites close to home. Depending on the MSN specialization/track chosen, some programs require students to attend a campus-based immersion experience, which serves as an opportunity to meet with faculty and peers.

Part-Time Programs: Part-time programs provide an additional degree of flexibility for busy working professionals who desire a more relaxed curriculum. These programs typically take about four years to complete.

Accelerated Programs: Accelerated RN-MSN programs put RNs on the fast track to their MSN through a more demanding curriculum. These programs can be completed in as early as two years.

Admission Requirements: Candidates must meet a number of strict admission requirements when applying to an RN-MSN program. In addition to selecting an MSN specialty/track (or choosing a generalist MSN), candidates must often submit the following to the college or university:

  • Proof of current and unencumbered RN license
  • Transcripts of all undergraduate coursework
  • Letters of professional recommendation
  • Personal essay/statement
  • Current resume detailing all past nursing experience
  • GRE scores

Admission into many RN-MSN programs requires a minimum undergraduate GPA and at least a few years of experiencing working as an RN.

Curriculum Requirements of RN-to-MSN Programs

An RN-MSN program usually consists of about 60 credits, depending on the chosen MSN specialty (about 35 credits are at the graduate level). Students are able to transfer most or all of the prerequisite courses from their prior nursing degree. These include:

  • Anatomy and physiology
  • Microbiology
  • Chemistry
  • Sociology
  • General psychology
  • Developmental psychology
  • English composition
  • Health assessment

The first year of coursework includes completing the BSN requirements, which often includes study in topics such as:

  • Nursing role development
  • Evidence-based practice
  • Information systems in healthcare
  • Concepts in population health
  • Nursing practice and clinical reasoning
  • Patient safety and healthcare quality

Some colleges and universities confer a BSN to students upon completion of the required undergraduate coursework, while others confer the BSN and MSN at the end of the program.

The MSN curriculum includes:

  • Graduating Nursing Core:
    • Clinical prevention/population health
    • Evidence-based practice
    • Informatics
    • Interprofessional collaboration
    • Organizational and systems leadership
    • Policy and advocacy
    • Program evaluation for improving patient and population outcomes
    • Quality and safety
  • Direct Care/APRN Core: Essential for providing direct patient services at an advanced level
    • Advanced health/physical assessment
    • Advanced physiology and pathophysiology
    • Advanced pharmacology
  • Functional Areas Content: Includes the didactic and clinical requirements associated with the chosen MSN specialty; most programs require about 500 hours of clinical rotations suited to the chosen MSN specialty.

Upon graduation, students focusing their MSN program on an APRN role are required to take and pass a national certification examination recognized by their state Board of Nursing and apply for state licensure in a recognized APRN role and population focus before they can begin practicing as an APRN.

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