Master’s Degrees in Nursing
Accelerate Your Degree with an RN-to-MSN Program
In This Article
If you’re ready to move your nursing career forward to an advanced role in specialized clinical care or administration, an RN-to-MSN bridge program can help you achieve your goals. By using your status as a Registered Nurse (RN) as a starting point, an RN-to-MSN bridge program allows you to earn an Master’s of Science in Nursing degree without having to achieve a BSN degree first. This saves you the time and expense of earning the BSN separately because the BSN curriculum is embedded into the bridge program.
As a professional RN, you have a wide range of educational options for progressing in your education and career. We’ll help you understand how an RN-to-MSN bridge program can empower you to move your career to the next level and whether this educational choice is the best one for you.
What is an RN-to-MSN Bridge Program?
An RN-to-MSN bridge program is an advanced education option for RNs who completed their initial nursing preparation in a diploma or associate degree (ADN) program. A bridge program helps you achieve an MSN without having to spend four years earning a separate Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), which is the traditional prerequisite for an MSN.
However, that doesn’t mean that you don’t have to learn the content included in a BSN. A bridge program must provide the knowledge you need to “bridge” the gap between an RN and an MSN so you can succeed at the graduate level. You still learn the important material you would have learned if you received a BSN.
The number of RN-to-MSN bridge programs has more than tripled in the past 25 years, growing from 70 programs in 1994 to 198 programs, reports the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN). This increase reflects the growing demand for MSN-educated nurses as knowledge increases and brings changes to the health care industry.
“The emphasis in nursing today is on patient outcomes,” says Kathleen Poindexter, PhD, RN, CNE, ANEF, president-elect of the National League for Nursing (NLN) and assistant dean of undergraduate programs and faculty development and associate professor in the College of Nursing at Michigan State University. “With that advanced specialty knowledge from an MSN, nurses are better able to lead practice in cross-multiple environments to provide more cost-effective and efficient care to promote patient outcomes.”
How is a RN-to-MSN Different from a Traditional MSN Program?
Bridge programs are inherently fast-paced and intense because they’re geared toward students who are motivated and committed to completing their degree as quickly as possible. Since the program requires an RN for admission, the curriculum assumes students have a specific level of experience and knowledge. You may find it challenging if you’ve been away from the profession for a while.
In contrast to a traditional BSN-to-MSN route, an RN-to-MSN path utilizes the experience and knowledge you have as an RN so you don’t have to repeat courses you already completed.
What are the Benefits of These Programs?
A bridge program builds on previous learning to prepare you for a higher level of nursing practice. This allows you to move forward in your nursing career faster than doing so via a more traditional route. By eliminating the need for a four-year BSN, a bridge program will also save you money versus a traditional BSN-to-MSN program.
If you’re working as an RN and you know that your career goal is a specialty area that requires a minimum of a master’s degree, this program could be for you.
When determining how many “bridge” courses you need, RN-to-MSN programs vary in their approach. Some schools look at the classes you took at the associate level, then determine what you need to complete your education at the bachelor’s level before pursuing your master’s. Other programs substitute bachelor’s level courses in the same missing topic as part of the master’s program. For some programs, you may have to complete specific “bridge” courses before moving on to master’s coursework.
Programs also vary in their offering of “credit by exam” options. When available, this allows you to “test out” of certain classes by taking a single exam on a specific subject, though some programs may require that you take a short prep class before doing so.
These programs also typically offer a degree of flexibility and allow students to continue working while pursuing their degree.
Who is Best-Suited for This Bridge Program?
Your decision to pursue an RN-to-MSN bridge program should be based on whether the degree can help you get where you want to go. If you’re working as an RN and you know that your focused path or career goal is a specialty area that requires a minimum of a master’s degree, the program may help you reduce your time-to-degree and cost-to-degree, Poindexter says.
“By getting the bachelor’s first and the master’s second, you’re going to prolong where you really want to go,” says Poindexter. “If that bachelor’s degree is not going to get you on a path in a timely manner to where you want to work, that is a definite advantage of the master’s degree.”
However, Poindexter advises that you consider whether you have the time, financial resources, and support from your employer, family, and significant other to complete the RN-to-MSN program. Early withdrawal from an RN-to-MSN program can leave you with few career advantages, especially if the program doesn’t award a BSN. Not all do this.
In programs that don’t offer a BSN, Poindexter cautions that early withdrawal could leave you without any formal degree after spending the same amount of time and money you would have had you completed a BSN. A BSN on its own can increase career mobility and salary for RNs.
How Long Does it Take?
An RN-to-MSN bridge program generally takes up to three years to complete with specific requirements varying by institution. Your previous coursework and area of MSN specialization will affect the amount of time you’ll need to complete your degree.
What Types of Schools Offer This Program?
You’ll find RN-to-MSN bridge programs offered in a wide range of colleges and universities. Options exist in both state and private schools in institutions classified as non-profit and for-profit.
Start by searching for accredited RN-to-MSN programs that offer the area of specialization you’re seeking. Based on your results, compare how each program meets your personal, financial, and professional needs.
Are Online or Night Programs Available?
Most RN-to-MSN programs are designed to meet the demands of RNs who are juggling jobs and family responsibilities as they study. You’ll often find options for evening and/or weekend classes if your program includes onsite coursework. To allow greater flexibility, many RN-to-MSN programs are offered in a hybrid classroom or an online format.
Programs that advertise themselves as 100% online are more likely to be in nonclinical areas of specialization such as administration, informatics, or education, so it’s important to determine whether an online program aligns with your career goals.
Programs that advertise themselves as 100 percent online are more likely to be in non-clinical areas of nursing.
Also consider whether an online format has clinical requirements that you must complete on-site. Having an RN puts you at an advantage since you’ve already met some clinical requirements with your license and work experience. If your RN-to-MSN requires clinical hours, most online schools allow you complete these hours at an approved clinical practice in your geographic area.
Most online classes allow you to learn and complete assignments without having to log in for a specific weekly class. You typically access the class information at your convenience, though you’ll still have specific due dates for assignments and exams. These programs may also offer classes year-round to allow you to finish your degree faster.
What Will You Study?
Your course of study in an RN-to-MSN program depends on your specific program and institution. Your previous educational and work experience determines the types of courses you have to take before beginning graduate-level studies.
Total credits for an RN-to-MSN program also vary, with an average range between 120 and 140 credits. However, most programs allow you to transfer between 60 and 90 credits based on your RN education and experience. You typically need an average of 30 to 50 graduate-level credits for the MSN portion of your degree.
Most RN-to-MSN programs introduce bridge courses or courses designed to fill the gaps between an MSN and your RN diploma degree or ADN. These courses can cover topics related to statistics, leadership, communication, physical assessment, and research.
Core curriculum across all types of MSN degrees usually includes advanced coursework in principles in nursing management, health assessment, physiology/pathophysiology, pharmacology, and health care policy and ethics.
The balance of your curriculum depends on the type of degree you’re pursuing. RN-to-MSN degrees typically offer many of the same options available in traditional MSN programs. Common MSN degrees include:
What Should I Look for in a School and Program?
One of the most important considerations to be made when selecting an RN-to-MSN school and program is to ensure that it will help you achieve your professional goals. Selecting a program solely for convenience, cost, or time-to-completion can prevent you from entering a program that meets your needs.
“Too often, people select a graduate program based on inappropriate qualifications that they choose. They’re not selecting the program that helps them to get on their preferred career path,” Poindexter says. “It’s really [about] understanding where they want to be, where they want to go, what’s their area of interest, what they want to pursue, and then finding the program that aligns best with their personal career goals.”
Accreditation proves that your program meets voluntary standards that ensure a quality education. Attending an accredited program qualifies you for federal financial aid and state licensing applications. These programs also satisfy requirements for professional certifications.
Having credits from an accredited program means that other institutions will recognize your credits when you want to use your degree as a prerequisite for another program. It also shows employers that you have an education from a reputable institution.
Attending an accredited nursing program and school is important to receive financial aid, to apply credits to advanced degrees, to receive professional certifications—and most employers expect it.
Accreditation is awarded on both an institutional and program basis. Institutional accreditation is awarded by six regional agencies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. You can verify an institution’s accreditation on the U.S. Department of Education’s database.
RN-to-MSN programs are accredited by both the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) and the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN).
Other organizations accredit specific APRN programs. Nurse anesthetist programs are accredited by the Council on Accreditation of Nurse Anesthesia Educational Programs (COA). The American College of Nurse-Midwives Division of Accreditation (ACNM) accredits all levels of midwifery education programs.
Prerequisites and Admission Requirements
Prerequisites vary by specific RN-to-MSN institution and program. While an RN or ADN degree may qualify for admission, some programs specify that you must enter having already completed course prerequisite requirements in areas such as statistics, microbiology, human anatomy, human physiology, and other subjects. Highly competitive programs may have more advanced admission requirements.
Typically, you can expect the following requirements for an RN-to-MSN program:
How Much Will it Cost: Financial Aid and Scholarships
The cost of your degree depends on the type of school you attend and the length of time it takes to complete your degree. Generally, a graduate degree at a public institution is a much more economical choice than a private school. However, that may not be relevant if the programs in your career path aren’t available at a public institution.
The average cost of tuition and required fees for a graduate degree at a public institution total about $12,000, according to most recent figures available from the National Center for Education Statistics, while a graduate degree at a non-profit private school costs about $27,000. Some schools that don’t follow a traditional academic year may also charge tuition by the credit. While an RN-to-MSN degree can save you money versus earning a separate BSN, then MSN, it could cost more than a free-standing MSN program since you’re getting more than the MSN for your money. Most nursing programs also require fees for background checks, fingerprinting, equipment, uniforms, and other supplies needed to fulfill clinical hours.
Ask Your Employer About Tuition Reimbursement
Working while you attend an RN-to-MSN program, especially if you can do so via online learning, may be your most economical option. This may allow you to take advantage of valuable employer tuition reimbursement.
While many employers’ nursing tuition reimbursement programs are targeted toward a BSN degree, you may be able to negotiate funds for a bridge program.
“There’s the potential to negotiate if you’re looking to go right for your master’s,” Poindexter says. “Reimbursements tend to come semester by semester, so it would be worth it to encourage that discussion with your employer if you know that’s exactly where you want to go.”
While financial aid is typically limited at the graduate level, you must complete the free application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to allow schools and financial institutions to determine your eligibility for assistance and student loans. Other potential sources of financial awards can include school or program awards, scholarships, and military service credits.
After you decide on your area of study and program, investigate nursing scholarships to offset the cost of your degree. Nurses are in demand and many organizations are willing to support the education of nurses based on criteria other than financial need. You may qualify for a nursing scholarship based on your area of specialty, geographic location, or personal characteristics like being a nontraditional student.
Many schools have program-specific scholarships awarded in memory of alumni who attended the program. Local, state, and national nursing associations also support students through scholarships so don’t overlook those options.
Does the Program Offer Career Counseling/Job Placement Help?
Check with your program before applying regarding the type of career counseling or job placement it provides. Having a degree is only part of what you’ll need to get the job you want. If positions are scarce in your chosen career path, you may want to seek professional support and guidance to help you achieve your goals.
Consider data related to the number of graduates who successfully complete advanced licensure exams or advanced certifications after graduation. Most schools can provide results of post-degree job success. This can give you a realistic view of what to expect after graduation.
Are There Clinical Requirements?
The total number of clinical or practicum hours required to complete your RN-to-MSN bridge program varies. Having your RN degree may help you minimize clinical requirements if you’re taking a nonclinical MSN degree.
RN-to-MSN degree requirements are based on competencies, which can result in a variance in the number of hours completed, Poindexter says. “The hours are going to depend on what your specialized areas of practice and focus are going to be.”
What Kind of Licensing Do I Need?
An RN-to-MSN program typically requires that you possess current “unencumbered” nursing licensure in the United States. An unencumbered license is a license in good standing and free of current discipline, conditions, or restrictions. Having an unencumbered license allows you to engage in the full and unrestricted practice of nursing in the state in which you’re licensed.
Check with specific RN-to-MSN programs to determine whether your specific RN license meets the admission criteria. To fulfill clinical MSN degree requirements, you’ll need RN licensure in the geographic area of your clinical placement. It’s also important to investigate the types of post-degree licensure you’ll need to qualify for the role you’re pursuing. Knowing your state’s requirements for licensure for specific APRN roles can prevent you from wasting money on an RN-to-MSN bridge program that your state doesn’t accept for advanced nursing license.
What Kind of Jobs Will I Be Qualified For?
Graduating from an RN-to-MSN APRN-related program allows you to leverage your general RN clinical experience with specialized MSN-level expertise for advanced clinical positions. Your RN and a generalist or nonclinical specialty RN-to-MSN degree give you the foundation for administrative or nonclinical health care leadership roles in areas such as:
Depending on your interests and the type of MSN degree you earn, you’ll likely have a choice of work environments that include:
“With a master’s degree, you’re going to see acceleration in your career at a greater rate and you’re going to have greater opportunities,” says Poindexter. “The biggest outcome is that it’s going to give you many more opportunities to advance your career.”
What is the Salary Difference Between an RN and MSN?
Generally, you can expect to earn more by having an advanced degree because it may qualify you for higher-paying positions. A Medscape survey of U.S. nurses calculated that MSN-educated nurses earn about 16% more than associate-degree-educated nurses and 11% more than RN-diploma-educated nurses. If you advance your career to a DNP, you’ll see an additional increase in salary.
You may be able to earn a higher salary working in roles that have shortages, such as psychiatric nurse practitioners and nurse educators.
When calculating the potential gains of earning an MSN, remember that salaries for MSN-qualified positions can vary dramatically due to demand. Factors such as your area of specialization, geographic area, type of employer, and work experience also impact the salary you earn.
You may be able to earn a higher salary working in roles that have shortages. Positions such as psychiatric nurse practitioners and nurse educators are typically in high demand, Poindexter says: “We’re also seeing growing demand for nurses with master’s degrees in genetics the more we’re looking at tailoring our pharmaceuticals and prescriptions and understanding the important role genetics plays in so much of our health care.”
While registered nurses in all positions (RN, BSN, and MSN) earn a median annual salary of $77,600, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, national annual salary medians for positions that typically require MSN degrees are much higher.
|Career||Median Annual Salary|
|Medical and Health Services Managers||$101,340|
|Nursing Instructors and Teachers, Postsecondary||$77,440|
Taking the RN-to-MSN approach to earning your master’s degree can help expand on your practical nursing knowledge and experience to give you the in-depth skills and expertise you need to provide a higher level of care and services and advance in your career.
With professional insight from:
Kathleen Poindexter, PhD, RN, CNE, ANEF
President-Elect, National League for Nursing (NLF); and Associate Professor & Assistant Dean Undergraduate Programs and Faculty Development MSU College of Nursing