How Many Credits Do Online MSN Programs Require? RN-to-MSN?

The complexity of the modern healthcare environment necessitates that nurses possess advanced knowledge and skills. As such, many registered nurses (RNs) are turning to online master of science in nursing (MSN) programs to further their education and expand their career opportunities. One of these aspiring students’ most common questions is: How many credits do online MSN programs require? The answer, however, is complex due to various aspects of educational programs.

Factors such as minimum admission requirements and whether the MSN program operates on a quarter or semester system can significantly influence the total number of credits required. The number of transfer and prerequisite courses a student brings into the program can also change the number of credits needed to complete the degree. Lastly, the core and concentration courses chosen by the student will also affect the total credit hours.

In the following sections, readers can expect an in-depth exploration of these factors, providing a comprehensive understanding of how they influence the total credit requirements of online MSN programs. This discussion will not only clarify the differences between quarters and semesters, transfer and prerequisite courses, and core and concentration courses but will also provide a list of 25 online MSN programs and their credit hour equivalents.

This blog post offers crucial knowledge for registered nurses (RNs) contemplating an online MSN program or combined degree pathway, aiding them in making educated choices regarding their academic pursuits. By understanding these factors, potential students can better plan their studies and pave their way to achieving their career goals in nursing.

RN-to-MSN vs. BSN-to-MSN

Online master of science in nursing (MSN) programs can vary significantly based on whether they accept students with associate’s degrees in nursing (ADN) or require a four-year bachelor’s degree. 

Programs that accept applicants with ADNs, often called RN-to-MSN programs, are designed for registered nurses who wish to advance their education without first earning a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN). These programs typically offer ‘bridge’ courses that cover BSN-level material before delving into graduate-level coursework. For instance, Arizona State University offers a 36-credit MSN bridge program. Western Governors University has a flexible RN-to-MSN program allows students to take courses part- or full-time.

On the other hand, traditional MSN programs usually require a four-year bachelor’s degree, which does not necessarily have to be in nursing. These programs are often more extensive and may require more credits than RN-to-MSN programs. Accelerated BSN (ABSN) programs are typically intensive and fast-paced, allowing students with a bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing field to earn a BSN in less time than a traditional program. Examples include Mercer University’s accelerated 56-credit BSN program, which takes one year to complete. 

Lastly, a BSN-to-MSN program requires a four-year bachelor of science in nursing for admission. An example of an online BSN-to-MSN program is Hawai’i Pacific University which requires a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in nursing for admission and 45 to 48 credits to graduate in two years.

The credit differentials between MSN programs can vary widely, depending on factors such as admission requirements, the university’s credit system (semester or quarter), and the individual student’s prior degrees and experience.

Quarters vs. Semesters

Online MSN programs can operate on either a quarter or a semester system, and the choice between these two can significantly impact the structure and duration of the program.

In a quarter system, the academic year is divided into four terms: fall, winter, spring, and often summer. Each term is typically ten weeks long, allowing students to take more courses throughout the year compared to a semester system. For example, Walden University’s online MSN program operates on a quarter system, each course lasting about six weeks.

Alternatively, a semester system divides the academic year into two main terms: fall and spring, each lasting around 15 weeks. Some institutions also offer a shorter summer term. Students typically take fewer courses per term than a quarter system, but spend more time on each course. An example of this system is Ohio State University’s online MSN program, which operates on a semester basis.

The choice between a quarter and semester system can depend on the student’s schedule, learning pace, and career goals.

Transfer Credits & Prerequisite Courses

Transfer credits and prerequisite courses represent two distinct aspects of the credit system in online MSN programs.

Transfer credits refer to the credits a student has earned in previous educational programs that can be applied toward their current degree program. These credits are usually granted for courses completed at another accredited institution and can be used to satisfy specific requirements in the MSN program. For instance, Galen College of Nursing allows transferring certain credit hours as outlined in their transfer credit policy.

Prerequisite courses are credits earned from courses that must be completed before students can take more advanced courses in their MSN program. These prerequisites ensure students have the necessary foundational knowledge to succeed in their chosen field. For example, the master of science in nursing program at Johns Hopkins University requires at least 17 to 21 prerequisite credits from students with non-nursing bachelor’s degrees.

Therefore, while transfer credits enable students to leverage their past education towards their current degree, prerequisite credits ensure students are adequately prepared for their advanced studies.

Core vs. Specialization Courses

In an online MSN program, core requirement classes and concentrations represent two different aspects of the curriculum and account for different credit allocations. 

Core requirement courses provide a foundation in advanced nursing theory and practice. These are courses that all students in the MSN program must complete, regardless of their chosen specialization or concentration. For example, the online MSN program at the National University includes six core courses totaling 27 quarter units.

On the other hand, specialization courses allow students to focus on a specific area of nursing practice or leadership. These concentration-specific courses build upon the knowledge gained in the core courses and provide in-depth study in the student’s chosen field. For instance, the American Military University (AMU) offers an online MSN with 15 semester hours of core requirements and two concentrations in nursing education and nursing leadership, which require 18 semester hours of concentration courses. 

Therefore, while core requirement classes establish a broad knowledge and skills base, concentrations enable students to tailor their education to their career goals and interests.

Clinical Hour Requirements for APRNs

The required clinical hours for a master of science in nursing (MSN) degree can fluctuate depending on the distinct program and the educational institution offering them. As of October 2023, the American Association of Colleges of Nurses (AACN) stipulates a baseline of 500 hours. 

For instance, Gonzaga University offers an online MSN family nurse practitioner program that requires students to complete 660 clinical hours. By comparison, the ABSN program at the University of Toledo necessitates 540 clinical clock hours and 150 lab clock hours.

Number of Credits in Popular Online MSN Programs

Here is a list of 25 online MSN programs and the number of credits, semester hours, or units required to complete this degree.

College or UniversityUnited States
Boston College32
Case Western Reserve University39
Drexel University45
Duke University42-49
Emory University48
George Washington University48
Johns Hopkins University35
Ohio State University63
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey37
University of Alabama30
University of Arizona30
University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)78-79
University of California, San Francisco68
University of Colorado Denver42
University of Central Florida31-36
University of Illinois at Chicago34
University of Iowa66
University of Kentucky38
University of Maryland65
University of Nevada, Las Vegas46
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill35-49
University of Pittsburgh43
University of South Florida45-52
University of Texas at Rio Grande Valley37
Yale University52.5

Please note that the program details may change over time, so visiting the respective college or university websites for the most up-to-date information on these MSN programs is advisable.

Number of Credits in Common MSN Specializations

There are several areas of specialization in nursing, each with unique credit and practice hour requirements. 

For instance, a nurse administrator specialization is typically more focused on blending leadership and clinical nursing, focusing on the management aspects of healthcare services. These programs often require 36 to 48 credits, with several hours dedicated to administrative internships or practicums. On the other hand, a nurse educator specialization, another administrative-focused role, usually requires around 33 to 39 credits and includes coursework and teaching practicums.

On the practice-oriented side, a nurse practitioner specialization generally requires between 45 to 50 credits and hundreds of clinical hours to provide students with hands-on patient care experience. Similarly, a nurse midwife specialization is also practice-oriented and typically requires around 40 to 60 credits, along with extensive clinical practice hours to ensure students gain practical experience in providing prenatal, childbirth, and postnatal care.

Remember that these are general estimates, and the number of credits and practice hours can vary significantly from one program or institution to another. Here is a list of MSN specializations and the number of credits or semester hours required for completion.

MSN SpecializationCollege or UniversityNumber of Credits, Semester Hours, or Units
Adult-Gerontology Nurse PractitionerSeton Hall University48
Clinical Nurse LeaderUniversity of Pittsburgh43
Family Nurse PractitionerNortheastern University43
Nurse AdministratorMarian University of Wisconsin35
Nurse EducatorEastern University37
Nurse PractitionerUniversity of Texas at Arlington46
Nurse MidwifeBethel University57
Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse PractitionerWalden University63

Dual MSN Degrees

The evolution of nursing education has brought forth a variety of learning options for aspiring advanced practice registered nurses, including the opportunity to earn two graduate degrees on an accelerated timeline. Dual degree programs are designed to equip students with comprehensive knowledge and skills across two disciplines, enhancing their career prospects and leadership potential in the healthcare industry. 

Here are some common dual degree combinations with a master of science in nursing (MSN): 

MSN/MHA: A master of healthcare administration (MHA) combined with an MSN gives APRNs an edge with leadership skills and knowledge of healthcare’s clinical leadership and administrative aspects. 

MSN/MPH: An MSN and master of public health (MPH) program is a dual degree program that allows students to concurrently earn two degrees, equipping them with advanced nursing skills and public health knowledge.

MSN/MBA: An MSN/MBA program is a dual degree program that combines a master of science in nursing (MSN) and a master of business administration (MBA), preparing students for leadership roles in healthcare by merging advanced nursing practice with business management skills.

Dual degree programs and many others provide a promising avenue for RNs to further their education and career. With the convenience of online learning, RNs can pursue these programs at their own pace, balancing their ongoing professional commitments with their academic pursuits.

Questions? Contact Programs Directly

Aspiring advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) with questions about MSN program requirements are encouraged to contact schools directly with their specific inquiries to get customized responses based on their unique situations. This is particularly crucial given that a school’s website’s information might only be sometimes up-to-date. The advanced nursing field is rapidly evolving, necessitating that MSN curriculums keep pace. 

Rachel Drummond

Rachel Drummond


Rachel Drummond is a freelance writer, educator, and yogini from Oregon. She’s taught English to international university students in the United States and Japan for more than a decade and has a master’s degree in education from the University of Oregon. A dedicated Ashtanga yoga practitioner, Rachel is interested in exploring the nuanced philosophical aspects of contemplative physical practices and how they apply in daily life. She writes about this topic among others on her blog (Instagram: @racheldrummondyoga).