RN-to-MSN nursing leadership and administration program guide

HomeNursingRN-to-MSN nursing leadership and administration

Introduction to RN to MSN programs

Registered Nurse to Master of Science in Nursing (RN to MSN) programs are designed for licensed registered nurses (RNs) who wish to get a master’s degree (MSN) but who don’t yet have a bachelor’s-level nursing degree. Unlike the traditional route of earning a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) first, nursing professionals now have the option to enter the nurse administration and leadership field with a master’s degree at a faster pace and lower cost.  

These programs are designed for working RNs and are one of the fastest ways to advance your career. Adding a nursing leadership or administration focus puts you in a good position to take up a management role, allowing you to effect change, advocate for your patients and staff, participate in committees, and work to improve patient outcomes on a higher level.  

Program requirements vary by school, state, and the number of bridge credits accepted. RN to MSN bridge programs are available to RNs with an associate’s degree or certificate in nursing or students with a bachelor’s in a non-nursing field. They typically take around 2 years or 40-46 credit hours to complete.  

RN to MSN program requirements 

To be eligible, students should have a valid RN license and submit official transcripts from previous college courses. A cumulative GPA of 3.0 on undergraduate coursework is a common requirement. Other requirements may include documents such as letters of recommendation, a resume of relevant work experience in nursing, and a statement of purpose. 

Once MSN candidates are accepted, the state may need them to pass a criminal background check. Afterward, the specialty, school, and state will determine the amount of coursework and clinical hours required to be eligible to take the licensure exam. 

Online/hybrid vs. offline 

Accredited RN to MSN programs of all kinds are offered both online and on campus, but the Nursing Leadership and Administration degree programs are excellent candidates for online-only learning. They are designed for working nurses, and don’t have the same requirements for hands-on clinical hours as other MSN specialties.  

Since administration and leadership courses don’t usually include clinical rotation hours, students can typically complete these RN-MSN nursing leadership and administration courses in about 2 years or less. Volunteering for leadership positions within your nursing unit or community is an excellent way to practice your skills as you go, gaining valuable experience to add to your resume.  


Candidates should only enroll in programs accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN). This ensures that the degree meets national academic standards. Enrolling in an accredited program qualifies students for federal financial aid and future licensure, while also assuring future employers that graduates have the skills and training needed to practice with their degree. 


Admission to, or completion of, this program doesn’t require a BSN, as BSN coursework is already included as part of the RN to MSN curriculum, typically making up the first year of the curriculum. This makes the bridge program a favorable option as it takes less time and funds to complete compared to finishing a BSN and specialized MSN separately. 

RN to MSN programs generally take 2 to 3 years, or around 40-66 credit hours. The time frame depends on whether students are enrolled full or part time and which previously earned credits transfer over. Specialties are another factor that determines course length. Administration or leadership focused programs are typically shorter than other specialties that require clinical hours. 

Typical specializations include:  

  • Nursing management and executive leadership 
  • Clinical nurse leader (CNL) 
  • Nurse administrator 

Typical coursework includes: 

  • Principles of leadership in healthcare organizations 
  • Public health nursing 
  • Statistics 
  • Ethics in healthcare 
  • Policy, organization and financing of healthcare 
  • Leadership models for healthcare managers 
  • Capstone project or practicum 

It’s important to take note of any partnerships your school of choice has within the community. Do they partner with local hospitals or care centers for practicums or capstone project experience? If the school only offers an online program, ask how they expect students to complete any practicums or projects. They may partner with organizations that allow this to be done online, or they may have a plan for how to work with employers. Either way, it’s an important topic to discuss with the admissions office or program coordinator before you begin your studies.  

Certificate opportunities 

The RN to MSN program is recommended for applicants with an active RN license who don’t have a bachelor’s degree in nursing or another field. All programs cover core nursing coursework such as anatomy and pharmacology, including nursing specializations when applicable. Programs that require direct patient care give candidates experience through clinical rotation hours. 

Along with advanced nursing certification, RN to MSN programs are designed to help you meet the requirement for state licensing exams.  

Costs of the degree 

Tuition costs for an RN to MSN program may vary by college, specialty, and location, but the general average falls between $20,000 to $60,000. Here are some factors that can influence tuition costs in an RN to MSN program: 


When you factor in expenses such as parking, materials, and sometimes out-of-state tuition – online classes can save you money. Online programs or a hybrid of in-person and online is an attractive option for many, compared to traditional learning. There’s a chance online credits still may be the same price, however, or that your specialty may require in-person learning. 


The cost of a program is determined by the school, and often differs for in-state or out-of-state tuition. Fortunately, many online programs offer the same tuition regardless of your location, which can save you money if the school you’re interested in is located in a different state than your residence.  

Financial aid 

Nursing students at all levels are typically eligible for many forms of financial aid. Candidates will encounter federal loans in unsubsidized and subsidized forms, scholarships, grants, or loan forgiveness programs. Eligibility for financial aid will depend on the student’s school, state, academic performance, and local scholarship opportunities. Candidates are encouraged to start applying for scholarships as soon as possible.  

Another possible source of financial aid is tuition-reimbursement from employers. 

Certification and future careers 

There are a wide variety of certifications for all kinds of nursing leadership roles once you’ve achieved an MSN, notably: 

RN to MSN leadership and administration programs open up many career paths in management. Whether the aim is to be a part of an organization, manage a nursing team or facility, or open a private practice, these are some career paths to consider: 

A nurse manager is not typically involved in direct patient care as a key part of their role. Rather, they hold a supervisory role, managing a team of nurses and support staff, staying up to date on key issues, organizing daily operations and program management, and are often in charge of budgeting for their unit. 

The average salary is around $86,750 for nurse managers. 

CNLs are different from nurse managers in that they focus less on the team of nurses, or the unit, but focus on improving the quality and standard of care for a specific set of patients. They assess risk for this group, advocate for change that will result in better care and patient outcomes, change care plans, and help educate or mentor other nurses. Clinical nurse leader roles almost invariably call for a CNL certificate from the Commission on Nurse Certification. 

Expect an average salary of $83,092 per year for clinical nurse leaders.  

A nurse administrator is responsible for managing nursing programs and staff in a healthcare facility such as a hospital, mental health inpatient facility, home health organization, or long-term care home. They have almost no contact with patients and little presence on the care floor. Creating staff schedules, meeting with other admin personnel, conducting performance reviews, upholding legal and ethical standards of care, developing staff training programs and ensuring compliance with local regulations are all part of a day’s work. 

Nurse administrators earn an average salary of $86,823. 

Continuing education 

Once a graduate gets their MSN in leadership and administration, they can set their path to earning doctoral degrees, post-graduate certificates, and further qualifications for an almost-endless variety of specializations. MSN holders can choose to specialize in numerous fields, including executive leadership, nursing administration, population health, public health, advanced nursing practice, nursing science and education, and nursing research. Other popular specialty areas among nurse practitioners include primary, family, acute, and psychiatric mental healthcare. 

A Ph.D. in nursing, or a Doctor of nursing practice (DNP) degree is recommended for candidates interested in working as nurse practitioners, university professors, or chief nursing officers.  

Doctorates are viewed as the highest possible qualification level and typically bring access to top-paying salaries within clinical organizations. In Ph.D. and DNP programs, candidates may spend 2 to 4 years enrolled, depending on the type of degree they have. 

Candidates who already have advanced nursing degrees can complete MSN-to-DNP programs in 1 to 2 years. It’s common for those who already work in nursing leadership and administration roles to pursue Ph.D. and DNP degrees as the next step in their career.  

Probably more common than pursuing a doctorate, is attaining a post-graduate certificate in a specialized area such as health informatics, administration, or nursing education.  

Additionally, most states require nurses to accumulate a certain number of continuing education (CE) hours to renew their existing licensure every 2-3 years. Additionally, employers and associations may also require further job-specific certifications. 

American Association of Colleges of Nursing 

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) works with schools to apply quality nursing education standards through high-standard accreditation. They advocate for better nursing and healthcare standards and policies as well as assuming a strong role in nursing education.   

Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) 

ACEN is an official accreditation board for schools and nursing programs of all types, recognized by the US Department of Education. ACEN provides accreditation for programs within the USA and it’s territories, as well as internationally.  

American Organization for Nursing Leadership (AONL) 

Previously known as the American Organization for Nursing Executives (AONE), the AONL provides education, fellowship, and advocacy for a variety of leadership roles within nursing. Annual meetings, public policy influence, and a foundation that assists financially with nursing projects and educational scholarships are just an example of what AONL has to offer.  

American College of Healthcare Executives (ACHE) 

ACHE is committed to supporting healthcare leaders and striving for the best possible professional standards, ethics, and quality of care. Within ACHE you’ll find local chapters, the FACHE fellowship program, a jobs board, and a wealth of information on leadership values within healthcare.