Best Online Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) Programs in 2021

Best Online Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) Programs in 2021

Doctor of nursing practice (DNP) programs prepare nurses for advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) roles like nurse practitioner, nurse midwife, and nurse anesthetist.

Graduates with a doctorate of nursing practice hold the highest degree in their field and enjoy strong job prospects. APRNs earn a median salary of nearly $116,000 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), with much faster than average projected job growth between 2019-2029.

Before pursuing a DNP, registered nurses should consider their career goals. DNP programs emphasize practice and clinical skills, training nurses for careers in healthcare organizations. In contrast, a Ph.D. in nursing emphasizes research and prepares graduates for academic and research careers.

This article introduces the best online DNP programs in addition to common courses and potential careers and salaries for graduates.

Accredited Online College Programs

Question Answer
What is an APRN? An APRN provides primary and specialty care for patients. Nurse practitioners, nurse midwives, and nurse anesthetists qualify as APRNs.
How long does it take to earn a doctorate in nursing practice? A DNP program generally takes 3-4 years to complete, depending on the specialty area and the nurse’s prior education. In addition to coursework, DNP students complete clinical requirements.
What is the difference between nursing practitioners and registered nurses? Nurse practitioners are advanced practice registered nurses, and they must hold a graduate degree. Registered nurses only need an undergraduate degree to practice.
Do you need a doctoral degree to become an APRN? Nurses can become APRNs with a master’s degree; however, some employers prefer candidates with a doctorate for advanced practice roles.

Best Online Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) Programs in 2021



With so many options, how can nurses identify the best DNP programs? Our list ranks the top online DNP programs for 2020 to help nurses find the best fit to reach their career goals. After reviewing our ranking, prospective students can also research national certification pass rates, job placement rates, and admission requirements to narrow their choices.

  • Clemson University
    Location

    Clemson, SC

    Tuition

    $$$$$

    A major public college in South Carolina, Clemson offers an online doctor of nursing practice focused on healthcare policy and advocacy, evidence-based practice, nursing leadership, and inter-professional collaboration. The program trains advanced practice nurses to apply research to clinical leadership and practice. This post-master's program only admits students with a master's in nursing or another closely related graduate degree.

    DNP candidates must complete at least 35 credits and 1,000 hours of clinical practice (practice hours from a master's degree apply toward this total). The program uses a part-time format, which takes a minimum of six semesters to complete. Along with academic coursework, candidates must complete a practice integration project that addresses an issue in contemporary nursing practice.

    Coursework occurs primarily online, but students must also attend on-campus immersion sessions each summer on the Clemson campus. Lasting 1-2 days each, these campus activities include a program orientation and a research symposia.

  • Drexel University
    Location

    Philadelphia, PA

    Tuition

    $$$$$

    One of Philadelphia's top private colleges, Drexel hosts one of the best online DNP programs in Pennsylvania. The program trains nurses to serve as executives and clinical leaders, evaluating care delivery approaches and translating the latest nursing research into effective clinical practice.

    The 45-credit program covers key topics in nursing research, methods, policy, and practice. Courses include health policy and economics, quantitative methods in nursing inquiry, biostatistics, and clinical and applied nursing ethics. Students also complete at least 500 clinical hours, with experiential requirements spread across four courses and a final nursing project.

    Drexel requires students to attend a one-day campus orientation at the beginning of the program, which includes introductory program information and social opportunities with peers and faculty. Candidates can also complete an optional global engagement opportunity, which includes a weeklong residency at a partner college in another country.

  • East Carolina University
    Location

    Greenville, NC

    Tuition

    $$$$$

    A public college based in Greenville, North Carolina, ECU offers one of the state's best online DNP programs. Focusing on care for underserved rural populations, the school's DNP offers five professional concentrations: nurse anesthetist, adult-gerontology, family nurse practitioner, advanced registered practice nurse, and nursing leadership. The advanced practice and leadership programs require applicants to hold master's degrees, while the other programs admit bachelor's degree-holders.

    While the programs primarily offer course content online, candidates may need to visit campus for occasional residency sessions. These in-person intensive sessions offer workshops, hands-on learning activities, and opportunities to collaborate with peers and faculty. The school offers top-notch facilities for nursing students, including a sophisticated simulation laboratory.

    Applicants to all nursing tracks must hold a current, unencumbered North Carolina nursing license (or a license from a compact state). Applicants also need a minimum 3.2 GPA.

  • Florida International University
    Location

    Miami, FL

    Tuition

    $$$$$

    Miami-based FIU hosts one of Florida's top online DNP programs, emphasizing evidence-based practice, patient safety, and culturally competent care. The curriculum highlights the integration of nursing research into clinical practice, with a focus on practice quality improvement, testing and innovation in care delivery models, scholarship in nursing practice settings, and examination of healthcare outcomes.

    DNP candidates complete 36 credits total, with both full-time and part-time enrollment options available. Typical courses include health finance and economics, organizational dynamics of health systems, healthcare informatics, and scientific and theoretical foundations for advanced nursing practice.

    The DNP program uses a primarily online format that offers flexibility for working nurses. However, candidates must attend up to three on-campus sessions each semester. These short residency sessions feature clinical activities, in-person class sessions, and opportunities to meet with peers and faculty members.

  • George Washington University
    Location

    Washington, DC

    Tuition

    $$$$$

    Based in Washington, D.C., GW hosts some of the best online DNP programs in the country, with several options available for both bachelor's and master's degree-holders. The school's post-bachelor's programs focus primarily on advanced practice nursing, while its post-master's programs focus on nursing policy and leadership.

    Post-bachelor's candidates can pursue concentrations in adult gerontology (acute or primary care), family nurse practitioner, and psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner. Post-master's candidates can choose from concentrations in executive leadership, nursing practice, and health policy.

    GW's nursing programs use a hybrid format that blends online courses with select campus sessions. These campus experiences may include testing and clinical training sessions. However, the majority of course content occurs online.

  • Johns Hopkins University
    Location

    Baltimore, MD

    Tuition

    $$$$$

    One of the country's top-ranked colleges for healthcare education, Johns Hopkins hosts several of the best online DNP programs. Nursing candidates can choose from eight DNP tracks, including pediatric primary care, clinical nurse specialist, family primary care, and adult-gerontological primary care. The school also offers an executive track that trains nurse leaders, along with dual-degree options that combine the DNP with an MBA or a master of public health.

    Johns Hopkins' DNP programs emphasize nursing science and theory, evidence-based practice, analytic principles, and leadership, preparing nurses to lead healthcare organizations and influence healthcare policy. The programs focus on advanced practice, training nurses to translate the latest research into practical, actionable healthcare strategies. Near the end of the program, all DNP candidates must complete an application-oriented capstone project that uses research and practice to address an issue in contemporary nursing.

  • Maryville University of Saint Louis
    Location

    Saint Louis, MO

    Tuition

    $$$$$

    A private college based in St. Louis, Missouri, Maryville offers two of the state's best online DNP programs: a general DNP and a DNP with a nurse practitioner credential. The program offers five concentrations: family nurse practitioner, adult gerontology primary care, adult gerontology acute care, pediatric nurse practitioner, and psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner. All program tracks require applicants to hold a master's degree in nursing.

    Both the general DNP and nurse practitioner track prepare candidates for advanced healthcare roles in management, academia, advanced practice nursing, and healthcare policy leadership. The nurse practitioner pathway also prepares students to sit for specialized credentialing examinations, such as pediatric nurse practitioner and family nurse practitioner.

    Both program pathways and all concentration options occur entirely online, with no campus visits required. Candidates can complete the general DNP path in 20 months and the nurse practitioner path in three years.

  • Missouri State University
    Location

    Springfield, MO

    Tuition

    $$$$$

    A public college based in Springfield, MSU offers a post-master's doctor of nursing practice that serves working nurses. This fully online program emphasizes management, leadership, and evidence-based practice, with a special focus on providing care for vulnerable and underserved patient populations.

    Students complete 29 course credits and 528 clinical rotation hours. Courses cover topics like technology for transforming nursing and healthcare systems, health policy to improve health disparities, and finance management and entrepreneurship for advanced nursing roles.

    During the program's final semester, candidates complete a comprehensive project. Requiring at least 192 clinical hours, this culminating experience requires students to synthesize major program principles in service of a scholarly research project that examines a nursing issue in their clinical placement environment (most commonly their current place of employment).

    All applicants must hold credits in graduate-level statistics, healthcare informatics, and epidemiology.

  • Mount Carmel College of Nursing
    Location

    Columbus, OH

    Tuition

    $$$$$

    A private Catholic college dedicated to nursing and healthcare education, MCCN enrolls about 900 students annually. The school offers one of the top online DNP programs in Ohio. Distance learners choose from fully online concentrations in executive leader or leader in clinical practice.

    All candidates complete a minimum of 37 credits, including courses in transformative leadership, ethical practices and policies in global/population health, and information technology and data-driven decision-making in nursing. Candidates must also complete 500 clinical practice hours, divided among several courses. Full-time students can complete the program in as few as 18 months.

    MCCN's DNP program uses a cohort format in which students complete most courses together in a set sequence. The school also provides comprehensive support in the form of academic coaches and other mentorship opportunities.

  • Nebraska Methodist College of Nursing & Allied Health
    Location

    Omaha, NE

    Tuition

    $$$$$

    A private college in Omaha dedicated to healthcare education, NMC offers some of the top online DNP programs in Nebraska. The school's doctoral programs include tracks in family nurse practitioner, adult-gerontology primary care, adult-gerontology clinical specialist, and public health policy. NMC enrolls both bachelor's and master's degree-holders.

    The family nurse practitioner and adult-gerontology tracks serve candidates with bachelor's in nursing degrees. These programs comprise 75 credits and require students to complete 1,080 clinical contact hours. Full-time candidates can graduate in three years, while part-time candidates typically graduate in 4-5 years.

    The public health policy program serves master's-degree holders, training students to lead, manage, and improve healthcare policy and delivery systems. The program takes two years to complete with full-time enrollment. NMC also offers a DNP track for advanced registered practice nurses, which enables full-time candidates to earn their doctorate in 24 months.


  • Our Methodology, Explained


    Grad School Hub compiles rankings based on public data released from educational, commercial, and government databases. Sources such as the National Center for Education Statistics and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics play a significant role in how we source our educational data. After collecting insight for each institution, we organize information into five weighted categories.

    Metric Data Used Percentage
    Academic Quality Full-time faculty percentage, student-to-faculty ratio, student retention and graduation rates 30%
    Affordability Tuition rates, median student debt, and financial aid 10%
    Reputation Admission and enrollment rates 30%
    Program Offerings Number of program options 20%
    Online Enrollment Score Portion of learners taking at least one online course 10%

    A more comprehensive evaluation of how each category is determined and scored is accessible on our Ranking Methodology page.


What Do APRNs Do?



APRNs provide primary and specialty healthcare for patients. They take medical histories, conduct physical exams, and create patient care plans based on their assessments. APRNs hold a high level of responsibility within healthcare organizations.

Nurse practitioners act as primary care providers for adults and children. In hospitals and doctors’ offices, they perform health assessments, order diagnostic tests, and design treatment plans based on test results. Depending on their focus area, nurse practitioners may also provide acute, emergency, or psychiatric-mental healthcare for patients.

Nurse anesthetists specialize in pain management. They determine a patient’s anesthesia needs before a surgical procedure and administer general or local anesthesia. Nurse midwives specialize in women’s health. They care for pregnant women, provide family planning services, and deliver babies.

Advanced practice nurses rely on strong critical thinking and problem-solving skills to create care plans and improve patient outcomes. They also depend on their interpersonal and communication abilities to connect with patients. APRNs act as leaders in healthcare organizations, so the ability to direct and lead staff helps them succeed.

Career and Salary Outlook



Graduates with a DNP can work as nurse practitioners, nurse anesthetists, and nurse midwives. In these roles, they earn high salaries and benefit from strong job growth. The BLS projects 45% growth in APRN nursing roles between 2019-2029, which translates to nearly 118,000 new jobs.

While the BLS groups APRN salaries in one report, its data shows that nurse anesthetists earn an average salary of around $180,000 per year, while nurse practitioners earn around $110,000 and nurse midwives earn around $108,000, on average.

Bottom 10% Median Annual Salary Top 10%
$82,460 $115,800 $184,180

Source: BLS

  • Nurse anesthetists (CRNAs)

    Nurse anesthetists care for patients before, during, and after a procedure that requires anesthesia. They interview patients to understand allergies and illnesses, administer general and local anesthesia, and monitor patients during procedures. They also adjust the anesthesia and counsel patients on pain management following a surgical procedure.

  • Nurse midwives (CNMs)

    Nurse midwives provide primary maternity care for women, including prenatal care, family planning services, and delivery services. During labor, nurse midwives may provide emergency care and assist surgeons during a cesarean birth. They also offer wellness care and counsel patients on reproductive health issues.

  • Nurse practitioners (NPs)

    Nurse practitioners provide primary and specialty care for patients of all ages. They may specialize in neonatal, pediatric, or adult patients. Some NPs also train in acute care, emergency care, or psychiatric-mental health care. In these roles, NPs diagnose patients, prescribe medication, and create patient care plans.

Accreditation for Doctor of Nursing Practice Programs



Nurses considering DNP programs should always check the accreditation status of prospective schools and programs. Regional accreditation indicates that universities follow best practices for educating students and granting degrees. Only students attending accredited schools qualify for federal financial aid programs.

The best online DNP programs hold programmatic accreditation from a nursing accrediting organization. The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) and the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) grant accreditation to graduate-level nursing programs that meet high standards for training research, clinical, and academic nurses.

In addition to CCNE or ACEN accreditation, prospective applicants can look for specialty accreditation from one of the national certification organizations discussed in the next section.

Choosing an accredited nursing program will shape a nurse’s career. State licensing boards and national certification organizations require a DNP from an accredited nursing program to earn an APRN license and become board certified. Prospective applicants can look up accredited schools and programs in the Department of Education database.

Licensing for APRNs



Like RNs, advanced practice nurses must apply for a license to practice in their state. While the exact requirements vary depending on the state, most states require a graduate degree from an accredited nursing program, national certification, and a certain number of clinical hours.

In Texas, for example, the Texas Board of Nursing requires a current RN license, the completion of an accredited advanced practice nursing educational program, and national certification in the nurse’s specialty area. Texas APRNs must also complete at least 400 practice hours in their focus area and 20 hours of continuing nursing education in the past two years.

APRNs must complete national certification requirements in their focus area to earn their license. The National Board of Certification and Recertification for Nurse Anesthetists grants certification to nurse anesthetists, while the American Midwifery Certification Board certifies nurse midwives.

Nurse practitioners can earn national certification from several organizations, including the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners Certification Board (AANPCB), the American Nurses Credentialing Center, and the Pediatric Nursing Certification Board. Each of these organizations offers certifications in different nurse practitioner specialties. For example, AANPCB certifies family nurse practitioners, adult-gerontology primary care nurse practitioners, and emergency nurse practitioners.

To earn national certification, candidates must hold an MSN or DNP degree in their specialty area from an accredited program. Most certifying agencies also require at least 500 supervised clinical hours. Candidates must then pass an examination to earn national certification.

Courses in DNP Programs



DNP programs train nurses in advanced health assessment, quality improvement, and evidence-based practice. By combining classroom and clinical training, nursing students learn to improve patient outcomes and provide high-quality care.

The best online DNP programs strengthen students’ research and clinical skills through labs, practicum requirements, and projects. Most programs require 1,000 clinical hours.

Though courses vary by program and school, the following list includes common DNP classes.


  • Advanced Health Assessment

    This class strengthens students’ physical and mental health assessment skills. Nursing students learn to assess individuals based on their history, environment, and other factors. Many programs incorporate a health assessment simulation or lab that allows students to practice their assessment skills.

  • Quality Improvement

    In quality improvement classes, DNP students learn how to design and implement quality improvement plans to improve patient outcomes. The course also trains advanced practice nurses to evaluate and aggregate quality metrics to determine areas for improvement. Coursework covers the process of collecting safety information, analyzing data, and designing system changes based on evidence.

  • Applying Nursing Research

    In courses on applying nursing research, doctoral students learn to design research projects, evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of published scholarship, and develop policies based on research. The coursework prepares advanced practice nurses to translate theoretical research into evidence-based practice.

  • Nursing Informatics

    Advanced practice nurses rely on informatics to treat patients and improve health outcomes. This class teaches DNP students to analyze data and use informatics to inform decision-making. Coursework covers topics like knowledge management, databases, and electronic data mines.

  • Primary Care

    This course trains nurses in managing complex health problems. Learners study current research on health issues throughout the lifespan and the best practices for providing primary care. Most programs also include clinical hours to strengthen students’ primary care skills.

Financial Aid



Many graduate students rely on financial aid to pay for their degree, such as scholarships, grants, fellowships, and loans. Nurses enrolled in a DNP program at an accredited school can apply for federal financial aid by filling out the FAFSA.

DNP students may also qualify for financial aid through various organizations. Additionally, nurses can lower the cost of their degree by choosing an affordable program. For example, many of the top online DNP programs cost less than on-campus programs, since online learners often save on tuition, commuting, and housing costs. An online program also offers the flexibility for nurses to continue working while pursuing a doctorate.

Scholarships for DNP Programs

Professional organizations, private foundations, and private donors offer scholarships that help DNP students pay for their degree. In addition to the following opportunities, nurses should look for scholarships based on their field of study and school.

Oncology Nursing Foundation Doctoral Scholarship
Who Can Apply: The Oncology Nursing Foundation offers a clinical doctoral scholarship for nurses enrolled in an DNP program. Applicants must demonstrate an interest in oncology nursing. The scholarship requires two letters of recommendation.
Amount: $5,000-$7,500

AACN Scholarships
Who Can Apply: The American Association of Colleges of Nursing offers several scholarship opportunities for doctoral nursing students. For example, the Geraldine “Polly” Bednash Scholarship awards $5,000 to doctoral nursing students attending an AACN-member institution. The requirements vary depending on the scholarship.
Amount: $2,500-$5,000

Nurse Practitioner Healthcare Foundation Scholarship
Who Can Apply: NPHF offers scholarships for nurse practitioner graduate students, including those in DNP programs. Applicants can apply for the community service award or the gastroenterology award.
Amount: $1,000

Nurse Practitioner Scholarship
Who Can Apply: Offered by the CVS Minute Clinic, the scholarship funds students enrolled in doctor of nursing practice programs. Applicants must attend an accredited DNP program that leads to national certification and hold a minimum 3.2 GPA.
Amount: $2,500

Nursing Economic$ Foundation Scholarship
Who Can Apply: Doctoral students specializing in administration or management qualify for this scholarship. Applicants must be attending an accredited program and planning a career in nursing administration, education, or leadership.
Amount: $5,000

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Top Affordable Online Doctorates in Nursing Education in 2021

Top Affordable Online Doctorates in Nursing Education in 2021

June 24, 2021   |   Mandy Sleight

Online Ph.D. in nursing education programs prepare graduates to work at the highest levels of the field conducting research, managing healthcare organizations, and educating the next generation of nurses. A doctorate serves as the highest level of education possible for nurses, and the degree commonly leads to positions with excellent job growth projections and high […]

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