The Complete Guide to DNP Programs: Online, Campus, and Hybrid

The Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) is one of two terminal degrees in the field of nursing. It is designed to help equip advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) and nurse administrators with the requisite skills to implement the latest evidence-based medical care practices and help lead teams of medical professionals across a variety of health care settings. While its counterpart, the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Nursing, is focused on research and tailored for prospective nurse scientists and scholars, the DNP is a practice-based doctorate. Previous doctoral degrees in the field, such as the Doctor of Nursing (ND) and Doctor of Nursing Science (DNS), are no longer offered by most schools, with the majority of programs adopting the DNP or PhD model.

DNP programs build on the knowledge gained in a traditional nursing master’s program by providing instruction in evidence-based practice, clinical program development, quality of care improvement, and leadership in health care settings. While the Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree has long been the standard entry-level credential for APRNs, the increasing need for leaders who know how to design, assess, and implement complex patient care has brought about a change in nursing education at the graduate level.

Why Should Students Earn a DNP?

On October 25, 2004, the member schools of the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) voted to endorse the AACN’s Position Statement on the Practice Doctorate in Nursing, which called for changing the current entry-level education requirements for APRNs from a master’s degree to a doctorate by the year 2015. However, as of February 2017, this goal has not been fully realized. Today, most states still only require a master’s degree in nursing in order to obtain licensure. However, it is expected that the DNP will eventually become the preferred preparation for specialty nursing practice and high-level nurse administration.

Other advanced nursing organizations have followed the AACN’s recommendation and begun moving towards making the DNP an entry-level education requirement for advanced nursing practice. The American Association of Nurse Anesthetists (AANA) has recommended transitioning to the DNP (or DNAP, Doctor of Nurse Anesthesia Practice) by 2025, while the National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists (NACNS) is looking to make the DNP an entry-level requirement by 2030. If and when these changes are enacted, it is not expected that APRNs practicing with a master’s degree will be required to earn a DNP in order to maintain their certification and continue to practice, as they will be grandfathered in. Currently, it is entirely up to students whether they pursue a DNP program or an MSN program. While the rise in DNP education and DNP-educated nurses has been substantial in recent years, students may be able to become certified APRNs and enter the workforce more quickly by earning an MSN. Students who decide to pursue an MSN first can always earn a DNP later through an MSN to DNP program.

There are several factors driving the transition to doctoral-level training for APRNs. Rapid advancements in both health care technology and the knowledge underlying nursing practice have led to a shortage of nurses equipped with the skills to implement the latest methods and advancements in patient care. This, coupled with growing concerns and regulations surrounding patient safety and care quality, has brought about a demand for nursing faculty and personnel who can assess issues and improve outcomes at both the direct care and health care systems levels. With APRNs taking on more responsibilities on the health care team, and their overall role in health care expanding, it is expected that their level of educational preparation will need to rise in order to match that of other health care professionals in advanced clinical and leadership positions.

The AACN’s Essentials of Doctoral Education for Advanced Nursing Practice states that all programs culminating in a DNP degree must cover eight fundamental competencies central to all advanced nursing practice roles. While the depth to which each competency is addressed depends on the specific program focus, all DNP programs must prepare graduates in the following competencies regardless of their specialty:

  1. Scientific underpinnings for practice
  2. Organizational and systems leadership for quality improvement and systems thinking
  3. Clinical scholarship and analytical methods for evidence-based practice
  4. Information systems/technology and patient care technology for the improvement and transformation of health care
  5. Health care policy for advocacy in health care
  6. Interprofessional collaboration for improving patient and population health outcomes
  7. Clinical prevention and population health for improving the nation’s health
  8. Advanced nursing practice

Types of DNP Programs: Campus-Based, Online, and Hybrid

Students interested in pursuing a DNP degree can choose from several different delivery options, ranging from traditional campus-based programs to programs with fully online instruction. These options give students the flexibility to pick a program that fits their particular learning style and allows them to balance school with other responsibilities like work or family. Below are the four main types of DNP program delivery options:

  • Campus DNP Programs: In a traditional classroom-based DNP program, students travel to campus to attend courses and participate in any training labs. For some programs, classes may be offered in the evenings or on weekends, allowing working professionals to continue full-time employment while pursuing their degree. Campus-based programs are a good fit for students who prefer learning in a traditional classroom structure, and benefit from face-to-face interaction with instructors and classmates.
  • Online DNP Programs with 100% Online Instruction: Many schools now offer DNP programs with entirely online instruction. Coursework is delivered either asynchronously with pre-recorded lectures that students can access anytime, or synchronously through live video lectures and virtual classrooms that allow students to interact in real time. Students can expect to participate in any orientations and webinars online as well. Programs with 100% online instruction are ideal for students with busy work schedules, those who do not live near a university that offers DNP programs, or those otherwise unable to travel to campus on a regular basis.
  • Online DNP Programs with Limited Campus Visits: Some online DNP programs require students to attend a limited number of campus-based workshops, orientations, or immersion events. The number of campus visits required varies by program, and each visit may take place over several days. Online MSN to DNP programs are less likely to require campus visits compared to online BSN to DNP programs, however some schools require all DNP students to present their final DNP project defense in person. These programs are ideal for students who want the benefits of online education while still being able to meet with instructors and classmates a few times a year.
  • Hybrid DNP Programs: Sometimes called blended programs, hybrid degree programs mix online learning with campus-based training. There are generally two types of hybrid DNP programs: those where students complete some classes on-campus and other classes online, and those where students take courses that feature both an online and on-campus component. Hybrid programs are designed for students who appreciate the flexibility of online learning, but still want regular in-person interactions with faculty and classmates. Typically, these programs are more ideal for students who live close to the university.

Students should note that schools have different definitions of the terms “online” and “hybrid,” and that some programs referred to as online DNP programs may require multiple campus visits each semester. OnlineFNPPrograms.com defines online DNP programs as those that require three or fewer campus visits per year. This way, prospective students understand roughly how much travel will be required for a particular program before they apply. All DNP students are required to complete at least 500 hours of clinical practicum during their program. These hours are also required for online students, who typically complete them at a local medical facility.

Currently, there are more online DNP programs (both those with 100% online instruction and those that require limited campus visits) at the MSN to DNP level than at the BSN to DNP level. This is mainly due to two reasons: 1) in general, BSN to DNP programs are newer than MSN to DNP programs; and 2) BSN to DNP programs contain traditional MSN-level coursework that requires more hands-on training, like Advanced Health Assessment and clinical specialty courses.

DNP Degree Paths

DNP programs can be grouped into three main categories based on a student’s current level of education. Within each of these categories, there are a number of different paths students can take depending on their chosen specialty, desired career, and how the program is specifically structured at the school they choose to attend. However, most programs will fall under one of these three categories:

  1. BSN to DNP Programs: These programs are for registered nurses (RNs) with a Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing who wish to earn a DNP without first completing an MSN program.
  2. MSN to DNP Programs: These programs are for RNs who already possess a Master of Science in Nursing and want to subsequently earn a DNP.
  3. RN to DNP Programs: These programs are for RNs who have completed an ADN program and want to earn a DNP without first completing a BSN or MSN program. While these programs do exist, they are not as common as BSN to DNP or MSN to DNP programs. In addition, some of these programs require RNs to have earned a non-nursing bachelor’s degree in addition to their ADN.

Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing to Doctor of Nursing Practice (BSN to DNP) Programs

With the AACN’s recommendation to raise the entry-level educational requirement for APRNs to the DNP, more schools have begun offering BSN to DNP programs to help RNs take a direct approach to obtaining their doctorate in the field. While these programs are still not as widespread as MSN to DNP programs, they are becoming more common as schools start to combine BSN to MSN and MSN to DNP programs.

A post-baccalaureate DNP program typically takes four years to complete on a traditional academic calendar. Full-time programs with year-round instruction can be completed in three years. Students who attend part-time can usually complete a BSN to DNP program in four to six years depending on how many courses they take per term. Some BSN to DNP programs award students both an MSN and a DNP degree upon graduation, while others only award the DNP.

BSN to DNP programs can consist of anywhere from 65 to 95 credit hours, depending on the school and particular specialty being pursued. The AACN requires that post-baccalaureate DNP students complete at least 1,000 clinical practicum hours over the course of the program, and many programs require more. Students complete their clinical hours under the supervision of preceptors, and may be required to complete several different rotations based on their specialization.

Campus-based students can expect to complete these clinical hours locally. Many schools have relationships with local medical facilities, and can help match students to preceptors in the area. Others require students to secure their own placements. In most cases, online students complete their clinical practicum hours at a facility in their home area or a nearby community. As with campus-based programs, some schools match online students to preceptors and locations in their area, while others require students to find their own placements. Depending on the program, students may be able to complete these practicum hours at their current workplace, although restrictions may apply.

Upon enrolling in a BSN to DNP program, students are generally required to select a specialty area in which to focus, much like they would in a BSN to MSN program. It should be noted that some programs require students to apply to a specific specialization, and students are either accepted or denied admission into that specific specialization. BSN to DNP concentrations fall under two main categories: direct care, which includes training for future clinical APRNs; and indirect care, which focuses on roles in organizational leadership, administration, informatics, or health policy. Direct care specializations include:

  • Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner
  • Adult-Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner
  • Certified Nurse Midwife
  • Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist
  • Clinical Nurse Specialist
  • Family Nurse Practitioner
  • Neonatal Nurse Practitioner
  • Pediatric Acute Care Nurse Practitioner
  • Pediatric Primary Care Nurse Practitioner
  • Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner
  • Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner

While less common than APRN specialties at the BSN to DNP level, nursing leadership or other indirect care specializations may be available at some schools. Common concentrations include but are not limited to:

  • Nursing Administration
  • Health Care Systems
  • Public or Community Health Nursing
  • Nursing Informatics
  • Clinical Research Management

Some schools offer a General Nursing track as well, but these are rare at the BSN to DNP level and more common in MSN to DNP programs. For more information about individual APRN and nursing administration specialties, check out our Complete Guide to MSN Programs.

BSN to DNP Curriculum

While curriculum will vary by school and program specialty, BSN to DNP students can expect to study several key subject areas while pursuing their degree. Classes that comprise BSN to DNP programs typically cover all the nursing principles, methods, and standards of care taught at both the MSN level and the DNP level. Below are a few course topics commonly found in BSN to DNP programs.

MSN Courses:

  • Theoretical Foundations of Nursing Practice
  • Leadership in Advanced Nursing
  • Fundamentals of Health Informatics
  • Health Care Policy and Economics
  • Health Systems Innovation and Improvement
  • Health Promotion and Disease Prevention for Diverse Populations
  • Ethics in Advance Practice Nursing
  • Advanced Physiology/Pathophysiology
  • Advanced Pharmacology
  • Advanced Health/Physical Assessment
  • Clinical Specialty Courses

DNP Courses:

  • Evidence-Based Practice (EBP) for Nursing
  • Clinical Leadership in Complex Systems
  • Epidemiology and Population Health
  • Management and Analyses of Health Data
  • Health Informatics
  • Health Care Quality Improvement
  • Health Care Economics and Financial Analysis
  • Advanced Health Policy and Advocacy

As the focus of MSN courses in most BSN to DNP programs is advanced specialization, students can also expect to take courses that prepare them for the highest level of practice or leadership in their particular specialty. For example, a student specializing in nurse midwifery will study how to best care for women during pregnancy, and assist with labor and delivery. Nurse midwife programs often cover comprehensive antepartal and perinatal care, the psychological impact of pregnancy and childbirth, child delivery, post-partum care, caring for newborns, and advanced health assessments and services for women at all stages of life.

Master of Science in Nursing to Doctor of Nursing Practice (MSN to DNP) Programs

While BSN to DNP programs are relatively straightforward, there are several different types of MSN to DNP programs, which can make researching these programs difficult. Additionally, it is often difficult to discern different types of programs and their specific structure based on program name alone, as the terminology is not consistent from school to school. While MSN to DNP programs may be referred to by several different names, the curriculum in these programs is often largely the same. For the most part, programs only differ by one or two courses, regardless of their specific focus.

In general, MSN to DNP programs are broken into two categories based on their curricular focus: direct clinical practice or nursing administration and leadership. Some schools may offer distinct tracks for nurse practitioners who want to pursue a DNP in direct patient care versus one that focuses more on leadership in health care systems; however, others just offer one type of program that includes training in both areas. Within those two categories, the following degree programs are available to students depending on their educational background:

  • MSN to DNP General/Leadership
  • MSN to DNP General/Leadership (APRN certification required)
  • MSN to DNP Nurse Executive
  • MSN to DNP Clinical Practice (APRN certification required)
  • MSN to DNP with a Specialty
  • MSN to DNP with a New or Second Specialty (APRN certification required)
  • MSN to DNP in the Same Specialty (certification in the same specialty required)

Post-master’s DNP programs typically take one to two years of full-time study or two to three years of part-time study to complete. MSN to DNP programs generally require 35 to 43 credits to graduate. Most schools require students to fulfill 500 post-master’s clinical practicum hours through their DNP program. This requirement assumes that students completed at least 500 clinical practicum hours during their MSN. In all, DNP candidates must complete at least 1,000 post-BSN practicum hours in order to qualify for their doctoral degree, and MSN graduates can typically apply at least 500 master’s-level hours to this total.

Training in these programs aims to augment students’ previous graduate-level education with the competencies, advanced skills, and clinical hours necessary to meet the AACN’s Essentials of Doctoral Education for Advanced Nursing Practice. Students can expect to complete many of the DNP core courses listed in the BSN to DNP section above, as well as one or two specialization courses depending on the program’s focus, and a final DNP capstone project that synthesizes everything they have learned in the program.

Below are detailed descriptions of each type of MSN to DNP program, including the types of specialties that are offered under these program categories and the professional responsibilities they prepare RNs and APRNs for post-graduation.

MSN to DNP General/Leadership Programs

This degree path helps prepare future nurse leaders to manage complex health care systems, promote innovation in the nursing field, and influence policy. Graduates are trained to take on advanced leadership roles in health care, design and improve programs of care delivery, and develop new nursing competencies. Admission to this degree track generally falls under one of two categories:

  • MSN to DNP General/Leadership: Students can apply to these programs with either an advanced practice MSN or a master’s degree in nursing in an area such as nursing administration, clinical nurse leader, health informatics, or public health nursing. RNs with a BSN and a non-nursing graduate degree, such as a Master’s of Business Administration, may also be considered by some programs on a case-by-case basis. While students in these programs are often master’s-prepared RNs, this degree path alone does not prepare graduates to become nurse practitioners.
  • MSN to DNP General/Leadership (APRN certification required): These programs require students to possess an advanced practice MSN from an accredited nursing program, as well as current national APRN certification.

The primary difference between these two types of MSN to DNP programs is that one requires applicants to be certified APRNs, while the other does not. The curricula for these programs tend to be quite similar in that they both cover the AACN’s fundamental DNP competencies. The best way to determine if an MSN to DNP Leadership program requires an APRN certification is to look at the specific admission requirements for each program, as these vary by school. In contrast to Clinical Practice DNP programs (discussed below) that concentrate slightly more on direct patient care and specialized nursing practice, the Leadership DNP focuses more on addressing health care problems and delivery at a systems level. Despite this difference, Leadership DNP and Clinical Practice DNP programs are largely the same in terms of curriculum, and tend to only differ by one or two courses.

MSN to DNP Nurse Executive Programs

In addition to Leadership DNP degree programs, there are also MSN to DNP Nurse Executive programs, which train students for roles as nurse managers, supervisors, department directors, chief nurse executives, or other related administrative positions. RNs can typically apply with either a master’s degree in nursing or a graduate degree in a field such as business administration or public health. APRN certification is typically not required for admission to these programs, however some schools prefer students to hold national certification of some kind, whether it be in advanced practice nursing or their particular field of focus (e.g. public health, executive leadership, or administration).

MSN to DNP Clinical Practice Programs

This degree path is for certified APRNs who want to pursue their DNP in advanced clinical practice. To enroll, students must already be a certified nurse practitioner or clinical nurse specialist, and have earned their MSN in an advanced nursing practice specialty from a nationally accredited program.

While Leadership DNP programs focus slightly more on indirect care topics such as nursing administration and health informatics, Clinical Practice DNP programs emphasize advanced methods of direct patient care. Despite this difference, there is significant overlap between the two types of programs. In general, Clinical Practice and Leadership DNPs only differ by one or two courses. For the Clinical Practice DNP, those one to two courses are clinically focused. For example, The Ohio State University offers two MSN to DNP programs, one with a Clinical Expert track and one with a Nurse Executive track. These tracks differ by just two courses: students in the Clinical Expert track take a class in “Health Promotion in the Age of Personalized Health and Health Care” plus an elective, while students in the Nurse Executive track take classes in “Nurse Executive Leadership” and “Organizational Culture.” All other courses are the same between the two tracks.

In addition to receiving the highest level of training in direct patient care, clinical practice students can expect to gain a solid foundation in organizational leadership, health care policy, informatics, and research methods, as well as the other DNP core competencies outlined by the AACN. Through both coursework and clinical practice hours, students learn how to apply this knowledge in the field, using advanced health assessment, complex data and technology, and clinical decision making to improve care quality and outcomes for patients in different populations.

MSN to DNP with a Specialty Programs

These programs are for students who want to specialize in a particular area of advanced practice nursing and earn a DNP at the same time. They are typically open to any master’s-trained nurse (clinical nurse leader, nurse administrator, or nurse educator) looking to gain APRN certification. In addition to the core DNP curriculum, students in these programs will be trained in an advanced practice specialty, which involves taking MSN-level courses in that particular specialization.

These types of MSN to DNP programs can be found for almost all APRN specialties, including:

  • Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner
  • Adult-Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner
  • Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist
  • Clinical Nurse Specialist
  • Certified Nurse Midwife
  • Family Nurse Practitioner
  • Neonatal Nurse Practitioner
  • Pediatric Acute Care Nurse Practitioner
  • Pediatric Primary Care Nurse Practitioner
  • Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner
  • Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner

It should be noted that some schools that offer MSN to DNP programs with a specialty actually require students to have already earned an APRN certification in a different specialty. Programs with this requirement are often referred to as MSN to DNP programs with a new or second specialty (see below), but unfortunately, not all schools use this terminology. Therefore, students need to look at specific admission requirements for MSN to DNP programs with a specialty to determine if an APRN certification is required for admission. (Schools that require an APRN certification for their MSN to DNP program with a specialty often recommend non-APRN MSN students to enroll in their BSN to DNP program instead.)

In general, the difference between programs that do or do not require an APRN certification is the number of core MSN-level courses required in the program. Typically, MSN to DNP programs with a new specialty that require APRN certification do not require students to take courses they already completed during their first APRN MSN program, such as Advanced Health Assessment or Advanced Pharmacology. Programs that do not require an APRN offer these courses for students who have not already completed them as part of their first MSN program. In MSN to DNP programs with a specialty, students typically need to complete both MSN and DNP clinical practicum hours in order to meet all national certification and state licensure requirements for the new specialty.

MSN to DNP with a New or Second Specialty Programs (APRN certification required)

There are also options for certified APRNs who want to earn their DNP along with a certification in a new or second specialty area. These programs are more or less a post-MSN certificate program combined with an MSN to DNP program. The difference between them and the specialty programs described above is that they require an APRN certification for admission and typically do not require students to take specific MSN courses they already completed during their first APRN MSN program (like Advanced Health Assessment or Advanced Pharmacology). Students still need to complete both MSN specialty clinical practicum hours and DNP-level clinical practicum hours in order to meet all requirements for national certification and state licensure in the new specialty.

MSN to DNP in the Same Specialty Programs (certification in the same specialty required)

Some MSN to DNP programs require that students have an MSN and national certification in the same specialty as the DNP program. These programs are not as common as the other MSN to DNP programs listed above, and can be difficult to identify based on name alone. In general, if a DNP program includes a specialization in the name (for example, MSN to DNP Family Nurse Practitioner), there is a high probability that it requires APRN certification in that same specialty. Students should be sure to carefully review the admissions requirements of any DNP program with a specialization in the name before applying to see if that program is an MSN to DNP new specialty program or an MSN to DNP same specialty program.

These programs include many of the same courses found in any MSN to DNP program, however, they typically include one or two courses focused on the particular specialty being pursued or have focused clinical practicums in that specialty. For example, the University of South Alabama offers MSN to DNP programs for Advanced Nursing Practice Roles that require students to have earned an MSN in the same specialty as the DNP program. The main difference between the different programs (i.e. MSN to DNP FNP versus MSN to DNP PACNP) is one lecture class and the clinical practicum courses. Students in the MSN to DNP FNP program take “Family NP Project Planning & Development,” while students in the MSN to DNP PACNP program take “AC Pediatric NP Project Planning & Development.” All of the other lecture classes are the same between the different specializations.

Registered Nurse to Doctor of Nursing Practice (RN to DNP) Programs

This DNP path is for RNs who possess an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) and want to earn a doctorate in the field without pursuing a separate BSN or MSN first. RN to DNP programs are relatively rare compared to BSN to DNP or MSN to DNP programs, and may be structured in several different ways. Some programs confer all three degrees – BSN, MSN, and DNP – as students progress through the program, while others only lead to an MSN and/or DNP. In most cases, it will take over four years of full-time study for RNs to complete their DNP on this path. Part-time options are also available, and can take as many as six years to complete.

Admission to an RN to DNP program generally requires an ADN from an accredited nursing program, a cumulative GPA of at least 3.0, current RN licensure, one year of nursing experience, and three professional references. However, requirements vary depending on the specific program structure. For example, some programs require prospective students to possess a non-nursing bachelor’s degree in addition to their ADN. Programs that do not award a BSN typically require students to complete a bridge year before starting the MSN curriculum. During this time, students take courses intended to bridge the educational gap between ADN and MSN instruction. Other programs may simply require students to complete several prerequisite courses before entering the RN to DNP program.

PhD-DNP Dual Degree Programs

A select number of students may be interested in earning both a DNP and PhD in nursing. Dual doctorate programs are designed for those who wish to combine advanced skills in clinical practice with the research and development of nursing science by earning terminal degrees in both facets of the field. While rare, some schools do offer this option to highly motivated students, giving them the chance to earn both doctorates in fewer credit hours than it would take to purse them individually.

Coursework is often completed concurrently, and students are expected to complete two research projects before graduating: the DNP project and a PhD dissertation. Some schools allow these two projects to focus on the same topic, with the DNP project serving as a pilot study for the PhD dissertation. Dual doctorate applicants typically must satisfy the admission criteria for both the school’s DNP and PhD programs.

DNP Projects

A major component of all DNP programs is the DNP project, an original work that serves as a capstone, demonstrating a student’s mastery of the topics and practices covered in the DNP curriculum. This project typically spans multiple semesters, and is developed over several practicum courses, with one course taking place each semester.

The goal of the DNP project is for students to address an issue currently affecting nursing practice, health care leadership, or a particular patient population. Projects can be conducted at the student’s place of employment, which is ideal for working nurses pursuing their DNP online. Upon successful completion of their DNP project, students may have the option of submitting their project manuscript to a scholarly journal for publication.

After identifying the particular problem they intend to focus on, students use evidence-based research and their own practice experience to produce a deliverable product that not only advances current nursing methods or theory, but demonstrates they are ready to lead or practice at the highest level of their chosen specialty. Examples of potential DNP projects include:

  • Practice change initiative
  • Pilot study
  • Program evaluation
  • Quality improvement project
  • Evaluation of new practice model
  • Consulting project
  • Integrated critical literature review

Often, this idea is developed, refined and fully designed during one or two practicum courses. At this time, students must typically present an oral defense of their thesis. The project is then implemented and evaluated in additional practicum courses. Upon completion, students may be required to give a final defense of their project before their DNP project team. Online students may need to travel to campus in order to complete these oral presentations, however some schools allow them to do so via video conference or telephone. While developing their project, online students can expect to have access to the same school resources as on-campus students, such as the school’s digital library or career services, if available.

The DNP project team is generally comprised of three members, with one serving as the DNP Project Chair. Most schools require that two members, including the DNP Project Chair, be doctorally-prepared school faculty. The third member may be an outside party who is an expert in the area of study. Often, this is a senior staff member at the clinic where the project is being conducted.

Admission Requirements for DNP Programs

The admissions process will vary by school, program level, and degree specialty. However, most DNP programs require a similar set of criteria. Along with a completed application and the associated fee, prospective DNP students may need any or all of the following:

  • BSN or master’s degree from an accredited school of nursing (depending on degree path chosen)
  • 3.0 GPA or higher
  • Current RN licensure in their state of practice
  • National APRN certification (if applicable)
  • Resume or CV
  • Full-time professional experience as an RN (required length of practice varies)
  • Three letters of recommendation
  • Transcripts from all previous postsecondary institutions
  • Undergraduate Statistics course with a passing grade
  • Personal essay or goal statement
  • Faculty interview (conducted by phone or in person)

Some schools recommend taking the GRE, and may even require it if the applicant’s GPA is below a certain threshold (3.25, for example). There are typically additional requirements for international applicants interested in pursuing their degree online from a U.S.-based institution.

Accreditation and Licensing Considerations for DNP Students

Before enrolling in any degree program, whether it is campus-based or online, it is important to make sure that the program is properly accredited. This ensures both the quality and rigor of the curriculum, as well as that other institutions and employers will recognize the degree as valid. In the United States, APRNs must complete a degree program accredited by either the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) in order to qualify for national certification through the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) or the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners (AANP), as well as licensure in the state where they practice.

The CCNE is officially recognized by the U.S. Secretary of Education as a national accreditation agency for baccalaureate, graduate, and residency programs in nursing. According to their Standards for Accreditation of Baccalaureate and Graduate Nursing Programs, the primary goal of CCNE accreditation is to ensure that “programs have mission statements, goals, and outcomes that are appropriate to prepare individuals to fulfill their expected roles.” They also push for ongoing improvement in and evaluation of nursing degree programs.

Recognized by both the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) as an accrediting body for all levels of nursing education, the ACEN accredits clinical doctorate, master’s/post-master’s certificate, baccalaureate, associate, diploma, and practical nursing programs. Prospective students can visit the ACEN website to search accredited programs by state, country, or type, as well as read a detailed breakdown of the organization’s standards and criteria for accreditation.

While APRN certification through the ANCC or AANP is national, students will also need to obtain licensure through their state’s board of nursing before they are able to practice. Every state has different requirements for APRN licensure, and some have especially strict regulations surrounding degrees earned through out-of-state online programs. As such, students should make sure any online degree program meets their state’s licensing requirements before they enroll.

State Authorizations for Online DNP Programs

According to the U.S. Department of Education, institutions offering online or distance education programs to out-of-state students must be authorized to do so by the state in which the student resides. While a postsecondary institution may be authorized to issue degrees in its home state, it needs this additional approval to grant a degree across state lines. This means some schools may not be able to offer online programs to students in certain states. These regulations vary from state to state and from program to program. Before applying to an online program that’s based in another state, students should check the school’s website or contact admissions staff for the most up-to-date information on whether the program is authorized to accept students from their current state of residence.

A number of states are now members of the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (SARA), a voluntary method of state oversight established to create national standards in postsecondary distance education. The goal of SARA is to make the state authorization process simpler and more consistent across the country, as well as more effective in terms of addressing quality issues in online programs. State membership in SARA does not change the fact that schools in that state must receive authorization in order to offer online education to students in another state, whether that other state is also a SARA member or not. It does, however, make the authorization process much easier. To find a list of SARA member states and approved institutions, visit http://nc-sara.org/sara-states-institutions.


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About the Author: Jake Ravani is an Editor at OnlineFNPPrograms.com, and has been writing about educational trends and online degree programs since 2010. He earned his BA in English from UC Santa Cruz.

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