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The Online Doctorate in Nursing Practice

Advanced practice registered nurses are prepared to work at the highest levels of clinical practice, specializing in areas such as family, acute carte, gerontology and psychiatric health fields. The American Association of Nurse Practitioners reports that more than 205,000 nurse practitioners (NPs) are licensed in the United States. More than 91 percent have graduate degrees with 87 percent prepared in primary care. More than 350 colleges and universities offer NP graduate programs leading to some 850 specialty tracks in the country. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 47 percent of NPs work in physicians’ offices, 28 percent in hospitals, the balance in outpatient clinics, nursing care facilities and in higher education. The BLS has projected a 37 percent increase in jobs for NPs during the 2012-2022 decade. Nurse Practitioner is rated second in the Top 100 Jobs and second in Best Healthcare Jobs by U.S. News and World Report for 2014.

Traditionally, the medical professions recognized a master’s degree as the standard education required for NPs but, in 2004, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) called for replacing the master’s with the DNP by 2015. This guide was created for working nursing professionals with families and other commitments that wish to pursue their DNP online. There is a list of the top schools offering a DNP, along with a detailed look at curriculum and graduation requirements for completing a degree, the kinds of programs available, licensing and pertinent certifications that reflect the increased education and responsibilities granted to NPs. There is an insider’s look at one DNP program and an interview with a graduate who completed her DNP degree online.

Online Nursing Doctorates by Degree Specialization

There are two kinds of online nursing doctoral degrees: the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) and the PhD in Nursing. Each degree is distinctly different from the other. The DNP is a clinical doctorate designed for advanced practice nurses working in specialty areas recognized by The American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP). The PhD is a research degree designed for nurse scholars, educators and scientists working in academic and research settings. This comprehensive guide focuses on the DNP pathway for advanced practice nurses who intend to work in healthcare settings.

The DNP programs across the country provide post-graduate education in core doctoral studies along with concentrations in the nine certified clinical specialties and 13 sub-specialty areas of the advanced nursing practice.

Defining the Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP)

The DNP degree is the pinnacle of clinical practice degrees in nursing. NPs are trained as primary, acute and long-term health care professionals that diagnose and treat health conditions. The evolution of the DNP to supplant the master’s degree represents the call for advanced practice nurses to assume duties more commonly held by licensed physicians. DNP programs vary on minimal entry degree requirements. Most serve online students who hold a bachelor’s degree in nursing (BSN-DNP) or a master’s degree in nursing (MSN-DNP).

Time to completion varies based on the candidate’s entry degree. Typically programs require from 30-50 credit hours for nurses entering an online DMP degree program with a master’s (MSN) in-hand. Nurses entering with a bachelor’s nursing degree can expect to complete up to 70 credits in graduate work. Students are required to complete from 500 up to 1,000 practicum hours and defend a capstone or final research project. Online DNP programs may be completed in as little as 8 semesters, or two-years full-time (3-4 years for full-time BSN entrants). Graduates of online nurse practitioner programs typically take new roles in advanced clinical practice specialties and as clinical leaders or administrators.

Searching for the Right Online DNP: What are the Key Considerations?

Online DNP programs reflect the clinical/scholarly expertise of their nursing faculty. No single graduate program will cover all the specialized population groups served by clinical NPs. Prospective students should search schools by specialties and practice areas that match their career interests. The final choice involves research into the academic standards at prospective schools, curriculum and accreditation and program costs. Nurses should contact department representatives and program advisors for answers to these five key considerations:

Does the prospective school offer the concentrations required for your NP specialty?

All online DNP degree programs offer the core curriculum leading to advanced competency in nursing. But not all offer all nine clinical population specialties designated by the AANP. Some may offer one specialty, while others may have options for more. Prospective students should evaluate programs with an eye toward completing doctoral training in one of nine designated practice areas:

  • Acute Care
  • Adult Health
  • Family Health
  • Gerontology Health
  • Neonatal Health
  • Oncology
  • Pediatric/Child Health
  • Psychiatric/Mental Health
  • Women’s Health

How does the online DNP program determine curriculum?

Each online DNP degree program establishes its own graduation requirements and curriculum, often with differences in credit hour and practicum requirements. However, it can be critical for future credentials that the program is based on the curriculum and goals of the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) Essentials of Doctoral Education for Advanced Nursing Practice. Programs that stray from AACN DNP essentials may be refused proper accreditation. Read the AACN essentials.

Does the program meet the core competencies established by the AACN?

Do you want to be ready for the advanced NP role? It can be equally vital that a prospective online DNP program meets the core competencies established by the AACN. These competencies map to essential components in preparing doctoral-level advanced practice nurses. Elements include the following competency areas:

  • Scientific foundation
  • Leadership
  • Quality
  • Practice inquiry
  • Technology and Information Literacy
  • Policy
  • Health delivery systems
  • Ethics
  • Independent practice

How is the DMP program accredited?

Accreditation is the means by which DNP schools benchmark and verify their academic standards of college instruction and administration. Proper accreditation protects the value of your degree. The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) and the Accreditation Commission offer nurse practitioner program accreditation on the national level for Education in Nursing (ACEN). In addition, an online degree program may also hold voluntary accreditations from national and regional accreditation organizations and online program accreditation from The Accrediting Council for Distance Education.

What constitutes satisfaction of practicum requirements?

The AACN has standardized the minimum of 1,000 supervised hours for students that have not completed a master’s degree in nursing. For students with a master’s degree, the online DMP is approximately half, at 500 hours. It is common for the hours to be devoted to evidence-based practice and design, planning and implementation and development of a practicum project. One of the most-important considerations for online students is where the practicum may be performed. In most cases, students can choose to undertake supervised practica at their current healthcare venues or at facilities convenient to their home locations. Long commutes or relocation to practicum sites can offset some of the key benefits of pursuing a degree online.

NP Concentrations and Career Specialties

Online DNP degree programs allow nurses to choose among a range of specialties in the field. Each specialty may have its own set of curriculum and practicum requirements based on the degree focus and the extent of experience a nurse has upon entering the program. In addition to the nine AANP specialty areas, there are 13 sub–specialty areas that branch out from the doctoral core program. The list includes:

  • Allergy & Immunology
  • Cardiovascular
  • Dermatology
  • Emergency
  • Endocrinology
  • Gastroenterology
  • Hematology & Oncology
  • Neurology
  • Occupational Health
  • Orthopedics
  • Pulmonology & Respiratory
  • Sports Medicine
  • Urology

Some nurses intend to work across multidisciplinary practice areas, while others have a dedicated niche focus. Concentrations build upon experience and formal education, making a DNP degree an advanced investigation into a nurse’s career choice. Here’s a sampling of five sub-concentrations and their relationships to advanced nursing practice specialties:

Allergy & Immunology

The curriculum focuses on the diagnosis, treatment and related studies in allergic diseases and conditions affecting the skin, respiratory and gastrointestinal systems. Studies include allergic and immunologic diseases, causes, treatment modalities. Subspecialty certification is available from the American Board of Allergy & Immunology.

Adult Health NP

Adult NPs perform duties similar to those of a physician in an adult practice with the key distinction of providing patients with ongoing instruction/promotion in health and wellness. They serve as independent practitioners or in clinical teams at hospitals, rehabilitation facilities and emergency rooms.

Family Health NP

This multifaceted specialty is for nurses that offer diagnosis, testing, diagnosis, wellness and preventative education, short and long-term illness and disease management across the patient lifespan. They work in hospitals, in private practice, rural clinics and in hospice care.

Women’s Health NP

The Woman’s Health NP provides ambulatory women’s health services across the lifespan, including health management from childbearing years through menopause, in diagnosis, treatment and health promotion in practice settings in internal medicine, women’s health clinics, family planning, infertility and Uro-gynecology practice. The Nurse-Midwifery/Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner (NM/WHNP) specialty qualifies NPs to serve obstetrical and gynecological populations and manage the care of newborns.

Pediatric/Child Health NP:

Pediatric NPs specialize in the health maintenance and primary care of infants, children and adolescents. They work in hospitals, clinics, independent practice and public health organizations, offering screenings, assessments, diagnoses and treatments of acute, chronic or critical childhood illnesses. Subspecialties include the fields of child oncology, orthopedics, neurology and allergy/immunology.

Orthopedics

Nurses complete curriculum and supervised experience in diagnosing and treating injuries and diseases of bones, ligaments, muscles and tendons. NP graduates integrate their musculoskeletal specialties into clinical orthopedic practice settings.

Adult Health NP

Adult NPs perform duties similar to those of a physician in an adult practice with the key distinction of providing patients with ongoing instruction/promotion in health and wellness. They serve as independent practitioners or in clinical teams at hospitals, rehabilitation facilities and emergency rooms.

Acute Care NP

Acute care NPs provide advanced care to patient populations with critical illnesses, complex acute conditions and chronic illnesses. They work in intensive care units (ICU), coronary ICUs and inpatient critical care facilities. Often their respective DNP programs incorporate specialized education for the acute care in geriatric populations.

Family Health NP

This multifaceted specialty is for nurses that offer diagnosis, testing, diagnosis, wellness and preventative education, short and long-term illness and disease management across the patient lifespan. They work in hospitals, in private practice, rural clinics and in hospice care.

Gerontology NP

The Adult-Gerontology nurse practitioner provides primary care to older adults based on individual patient needs. They serve in nurse-managed community health practices, in hospitals, rehabilitation centers, skilled nursing facilities and Veteran’s Administration hospitals. Education includes studies in physical assessment and pathophysiology, a continuum of care and health maintenance.

Emergency

This sub-specialization in advanced nursing practice offers detailed studies in emergency room trauma response, emergency patient transport procedures and prioritizing injuries through emergency triage. Settings include hospitals, crisis intervention settings, correctional facilities and emergent care centers.

Acute Care NP

Acute care NPs provide advanced care to patient populations with critical illnesses, complex acute conditions and chronic illnesses. They work in intensive care units (ICU), coronary ICUs and inpatient critical care facilities. Often their respective DNP programs incorporate specialized education for the acute care in geriatric populations.

Neonatal NP

Neonatal nurse practitioners are primary caregivers of the newborn, supervising assessment, diagnosis and treatment for babies with disorders or illnesses including premature conditions, birth abnormalities and respiratory distress. They also provide parent consultations on health maintenance and baby wellness. Practice settings include neonatal intensive care units, pediatric hospitals and emergency rooms.

Psychiatric/Mental Health NP

The psychiatric specialty involves the primary care in assessment, diagnosis and treatment of patients with mental illness. They develop acute and long-term care strategies that can include counseling, medication and illness education. Subspecialties include the focus on populations of children and adolescents, adults, families and senior citizens. Settings include private practice, clinical and community health facilities, crisis intervention organizations, veteran’s hospitals and residential substance abuse facilities.

Cardiovascular

Nurses complete advanced studies in general cardiology, cardiovascular disease history, diagnosis and treatment and subjects related to heart failure, cardiac transplant, electrophysiology and vascular specialties. Courses may also include a mental health component pertinent for work with cardiovascular populations.

Adult Health NP

Adult NPs perform duties similar to those of a physician in an adult practice with the key distinction of providing patients with ongoing instruction/promotion in health and wellness. They serve as independent practitioners or in clinical teams at hospitals, rehabilitation facilities and emergency rooms.

Women’s Health NP

TrackingThe Woman’s Health NP provides ambulatory women’s health services across the lifespan, including health management from childbearing years through menopause, in diagnosis, treatment and health promotion in practice settings in internal medicine, women’s health clinics, family planning, infertility and Uro-gynecology practice. The Nurse-Midwifery/Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner (NM/WHNP) specialty qualifies NPs to serve obstetrical and gynecological populations and manage the care of newborns.

Family Health NP

This multifaceted specialty is for nurses that offer diagnosis, testing, diagnosis, wellness and preventative education, short and long-term illness and disease management across the patient lifespan. They work in hospitals, in private practice, rural clinics and in hospice care.

Acute Care NP

Acute care NPs provide advanced care to patient populations with critical illnesses, complex acute conditions and chronic illnesses. They work in intensive care units (ICU), coronary ICUs and inpatient critical care facilities. Often their respective DNP programs incorporate specialized education for the acute care in geriatric populations.

Neurology

The specialized studies in this sub-specialty focus on prevention, diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation of nervous system disorders, injuries, and disease. Depending on the degree program, nurses can focus directly on stroke and brain disorders. The major certifications for a neurology specialization are the Certified Neuroscience Registered Nurse (CNRN) and Stroke Certified Registered Nurse (SCRN).

Adult Health NP

Adult NPs perform duties similar to those of a physician in an adult practice with the key distinction of providing patients with ongoing instruction/promotion in health and wellness. They serve as independent practitioners or in clinical teams at hospitals, rehabilitation facilities and emergency rooms.

Women’s Health NP

The Woman’s Health NP provides ambulatory women’s health services across the lifespan, including health management from childbearing years through menopause, in diagnosis, treatment and health promotion in practice settings in internal medicine, women’s health clinics, family planning, infertility and Uro-gynecology practice. The Nurse-Midwifery/Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner (NM/WHNP) specialty qualifies NPs to serve obstetrical and gynecological populations and manage the care of newborns.

Gerontology NP

The Adult-Gerontology nurse practitioner provides primary care to older adults based on individual patient needs. They serve in nurse-managed community health practices, in hospitals, rehabilitation centers, skilled nursing facilities and Veteran’s Administration hospitals. Education includes studies in physical assessment and pathophysiology, a continuum of care and health maintenance.

Acute Care NP

Acute care NPs provide advanced care to patient populations with critical illnesses, complex acute conditions and chronic illnesses. They work in intensive care units (ICU), coronary ICUs and inpatient critical care facilities. Often their respective DNP programs incorporate specialized education for the acute care in geriatric populations.

Acute Care NP

Acute care NPs provide advanced care to patient populations with critical illnesses, complex acute conditions and chronic illnesses. They work in intensive care units (ICU), coronary ICUs and inpatient critical care facilities. Often their respective DNP programs incorporate specialized education for the acute care in geriatric populations.

Adult Health NP

Adult NPs perform duties similar to those of a physician in an adult practice with the key distinction of providing patients with ongoing instruction/promotion in health and wellness. They serve as independent practitioners or in clinical teams at hospitals, rehabilitation facilities and emergency rooms.

Family Health NP

This multifaceted specialty is for nurses that offer diagnosis, testing, diagnosis, wellness and preventative education, short and long-term illness and disease management across the patient lifespan. They work in hospitals, in private practice, rural clinics and in hospice care.

Gerontology NP

The Adult-Gerontology nurse practitioner provides primary care to older adults based on individual patient needs. They serve in nurse-managed community health practices, in hospitals, rehabilitation centers, skilled nursing facilities and Veteran’s Administration hospitals. Education includes studies in physical assessment and pathophysiology, a continuum of care and health maintenance.

Neonatal NP

Neonatal nurse practitioners are primary caregivers of the newborn, supervising assessment, diagnosis and treatment for babies with disorders or illnesses including premature conditions, birth abnormalities and respiratory distress. They also provide parent consultations on health maintenance and baby wellness. Practice settings include neonatal intensive care units, pediatric hospitals and emergency rooms.

Pediatric/Child Health NP

Pediatric NPs specialize in the health maintenance and primary care of infants, children and adolescents. They work in hospitals, clinics, independent practice and public health organizations, offering screenings, assessments, diagnoses and treatments of acute, chronic or critical childhood illnesses. Subspecialties include the fields of child oncology, orthopedics, neurology and allergy/immunology.

Psychiatric/Mental Health NP

The psychiatric specialty involves the primary care in assessment, diagnosis and treatment of patients with mental illness. They develop acute and long-term care strategies that can include counseling, medication and illness education. Subspecialties include the focus on populations of children and adolescents, adults, families and senior citizens. Settings include private practice, clinical and community health facilities, crisis intervention organizations, veteran’s hospitals and residential substance abuse facilities.

Women’s Health NP

The Woman’s Health NP provides ambulatory women’s health services across the lifespan, including health management from childbearing years through menopause, in diagnosis, treatment and health promotion in practice settings in internal medicine, women’s health clinics, family planning, infertility and Uro-gynecology practice. The Nurse-Midwifery/Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner (NM/WHNP) specialty qualifies NPs to serve obstetrical and gynecological populations and manage the care of newborns.

Online DNP Programs, from Admissions to Graduation

The two major online educational pathways to a DNP are the BSN-DPN and MSN-DPN sequences. The academic programs lead to the same terminal degree, with the BSN-DPN sequence requiring up to twice the credit hours for graduation. Each school establishes its own set of requirements. For example, Duke University’s BSN-DPN program requires a minimum of 74 credits, with the MSN-DPN program requiring 35 credits. Many online nurse practitioner programs that accept bachelor’s degree candidates award the MSN along the path to the DNP degree. With that in mind, here is a sample DNP program that includes steps and milestones toward completing all degree requirements, from admissions to graduation:

Year 0

Round up Application Materials.

Nurses applying to an online DPN program encounter admissions requirements pegged to previous educational attainment. All must have at least a bachelor’s degree in nursing and have passed the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) or hold a Master’s in Advanced Nursing Practice. Before applying, licensed nurses must round up required transcripts, letters of recommendation and, if necessary, scores from the graduate records examination. Use this time to compare entrance requirements for admissions and create a master deadline calendar for submitting all materials on time. This can include:

  • Transcripts from all previous nursing education programs.
  • Unrestricted RN license verification for the state of practice and work experience acknowledgement form.
  • Reference letters from professionals about your academic and nursing leadership potential.
  • Personal goals essay.
  • Resume or CV.

Applicants with master’s degrees should add to the list:

  • Verification of supervised clinical hours from the master’s graduate program.
  • Copy of current APRN specialty certifications or record of graduate-level courses completed in health/physical assessment, physiology/pathophysiology and pharmacology.
Submit applications on deadline

Whether the prospective online DNP programs may start during the summer semester, or accept applicants during the fall, winter, or spring quarters, all have firm application deadlines. Missing them may push back entry dates and lengthen your time to completion.

Year 1

Complete core education.

Programs focus on satisfying the core and foundation educational and clinical requirements and begin progress on 1,000 post-baccalaureate practice immersion hours. Required courses can include advanced research methods and principles of advanced nursing practice. Other studies can include coursework in statistics, research design, evidence-based practice, technology and leadership courses. Students are required to declare their advanced practice specialization area upon admission to the program. By the second year, students should have completed advanced courses in direct care or systems-focused competencies in advanced pathophysiology, pharmacology, epidemiology and physical assessment. BSN-DPN students should use this year to complete additional requirements in applicable master’s level courses and required DPN transition prerequisites.

Begin required clinical rotations.

Students continue online courses while beginning rotations across the DNP specializations. Rotations can be done at their current healthcare settings.

Year 2

Complete courses in specialization areas

The focus shifts to nursing specialties in Acute Care, Adult Health, Family, Gerontology, Neonatal Health, Oncology, Pediatric/Child Health, Psychiatric/Mental Health and Women’s Health. There are also increasingly advanced studies in NP leadership, evidence-based practice, clinical informatics, health policy, interprofessional collaboration and project management.

Complete practicum and related practicum coursework.

Undertake and complete capstone project

A final capstone study/project demonstrates the nurse’s expertise in their practiced area, the application of advanced research methodologies, synthesis of doctoral-level skills in evidence-based problem solving and clinical improvement. Students should determine the scope of their capstone at the beginning of the year with an eye to completing on schedule.

Prepare to take relevant NP certification examinations to qualify for a license to practice in your state.

Year 3 & 4

Continue satisfaction of DPN course requirements that extend beyond two years

Part-time students and BSN-DPN students will take longer than two years to complete their DPN. In years three or four they typically complete the second-year program sequence outlined in the previous paragraph.

Spotlight: Online Doctor of Nursing
Practice (DNP), Vanderbilt University

Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt University School of Nursing first offered classes in 1908 and the Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP) program was created in 1975. The graduate school of nursing has been ranked 15th in the nation by U.S. News and World Report. The DNP program was begun in 2008 and was developed along academic guidelines of the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) and Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education. The program has received a “Top-20” national ranking by U.S. News and holds accreditations from Middle States Commission on Higher Education and the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing.

The online DNP program is open to students with a BSN or MSN in nursing and requires a total of 74 credits with 39 master’s-level credits and 35 doctoral credits completed at Vanderbilt. The master’s to DPN path can be completed in four semesters, full-time. Coursework is asynchronous, completed online, with four required campus visits for full-time students and six visits for part-time DNP students. The practice doctorate requires DNP candidates to complete and defend a scholarly project “demonstrating the synthesis of the student’s coursework and practice application.”

Vanderbilt’s DNP program can be combined with post-graduate certification studies leading to specialties including:

  • Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner
  • Adult-Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner
  • Family Nurse Practitioner
  • Healthcare Leadership
  • Neonatal Nurse Practitioner
  • Nurse-Midwifery
  • Nursing Informatics
  • Palliative Care
  • Pediatric Nurse Practitioner – Acute Care
  • Pediatric Nurse Practitioner – Primary Care
  • Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (Lifespan)
  • Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner

About DPN Licensure and Certifications

All states require nurses to hold a license. Most states require NPs to complete national certifications from an accredited NP certification body to obtain a license to practice. The American Academy of Nurse Practitioners (AANP) offers certification examinations for graduates of programs for post-graduate and doctoral nurse practitioners accredited by the American Board of Nursing Specialties or the National Commission for Certification Agencies. AANP certifications are for adult nurse practitioners, family nurse practitioners and adult-gerontology primary care nurses. The AANP reports that 97 percent of NPs maintain their certifications.

Each state may modify licensing requirements and practice environments to full practice, reduced practice and restricted practice. To learn about your state, visit the AANP State Practice Environment page, or download the state practice environment map.

Interview with an Online DNP Graduate

Cora L. Jannings, DNP, completed her online Nurse Practitioner doctoral program from her home, completing her supervised practicum hours at the Midwest hospital where she has worked as a registered nurse since 1983. She passed her Oncology Certified Nurse (OCN) examination in 2011.

What was the biggest advantage of completing your DNP degree online?

Aside from the obvious – being able to work remotely and at my pace – I found that the scholarly capstone project applied directly to my work in oncology. I could perform the design work with my current employer.

Why did you pursue a DNP when there were master’s degree NP programs at the time of your graduate work?

There wouldn’t be a doctoral requirement for nurse practitioners until 2015, but I thought earning it earlier would give me an advantage. It has.

Was the practicum experience valuable and how?

Unlike a traditional physicians’ residency, the practicum gave me tremendous autonomy to focus on my own interests. I value the evidence-based pathways that let nurse practitioners focus on individual and holistic care that‘s appropriate for each cancer patient.

Describe how your career has changed since completing your DNP.

I’d like to say it’s less frenetic, but I’d be lying. I began as a floor nurse rotating through all three shifts and sleeping when I was free. Today I’m almost as busy, but the wins are fantastic when you can oversee the implementation of practice changes that directly impact the treatment and recovery of patients.

Understanding the Value of a DNP Degree

Beginning this year, the DNP will become the minimum education requirement for professional NPs. Working NPs who hold a master’s degree are expected to be “grandfathered” to meet educational requirements. Consequently, advanced nurses pursuing an NP career are expected to enter DNP programs. They will have primary concerns whether their doctoral degrees are worth the money.

Of course, the answer varies by the college costs, the earnings for nurse practitioners and type of practice area. One way to understand the return on investment (ROI) for the DNP is to examine the related costs of the degree and reported earnings. First, the costs:

The Price of the DNP

Tuition and length of program are the key considerations when it comes to the bottom line. Colleges and universities offering online DNP programs may assess tuition by the semester, by the academic quarter, or by the number of credits. There are also fees in the form of student services charges and books/supplies. The cost also varies by the total number of semesters/years/credits required to complete the degree. While MSNs may complete their DNP in two years or less, students in the BSN-DPN program will require additional education and credits to graduate.

Nurses can offset some costs of their DNP by completing an online program. They won’t be commuting or relocating to school, saving expenses and they can complete their rotations at local hospitals or clinics. There are also waivers and scholarships available to offset tuition for qualified students. In getting a handle on the DNP ROI, nurses should eye the degree as a long-time investment, with a steady progression in earnings following graduation. Nurses facing an earnings ceiling with their current qualifications should examine where their career would go without the advanced degree. A 2011 Georgetown study, “What’s It Worth? The Economic Value of College Majors,” reported that the level of educational attainment directly impacts career earnings – especially at the top of the pay scale. It found, “at the extreme, the highest earning major earns 314 percent more at the median than the lowest-earning major at the median.” Georgetown researchers also concluded, “About 31 percent of people with these majors (healthcare) obtain a graduate degree and, as a result, get an average earnings boost of 50 percent.”

A 2013 National Salary Survey of NPs conducted by the Advance Healthcare Network revealed a $5,000 annual increase in salaries in the year. Previous median annual earnings by NPs were $8,000 less in 2011. The finding of progressive earnings for NPs is a major cost-benefit factor. The ROI is also calculated by long-term financial gains following completion of the online DNP.

Earnings for NPs

The Advance Healthcare Network found in a 2011 survey that earnings by educational attainment for NPs were:

  • Bachelor’s, $90,965
  • Master’s, $92,867
  • Doctorate, $96,807

For 2015, Payscale reports earnings for nurse practitioners ranging from $65,460 – $109,849, counting bonuses or profit-sharing. Pay levels also vary by practice area and region. The BLS reports the following 2013 wages for NPs:

  • Median annual income, $92,670
  • Top 10 percent of earners, $126,250
  • Bottom 10 percent of earners, $66,960.

Median annual earnings for specialists were $109,850. NPs performing personal care services took home $117,300.

Based on the Advance Healthcare Network’s findings for 2013, here’s a glimpse of total median annual earnings over ten years for nurses who return to college for their DNP – and for those who do not. (Note: the figures to not take into account annual pay increases for NPs, making the final earnings differential even greater):

DNP Year Bachelor’s Salary DNP Salary
Year 1 – DNP program $90,965 $0
Year 2 – DNP program $90,965 $0
Work Year 1 $90,965 $0
Work Year 2 $90,965 $96,807
Work Year 3 $90,965 $96,807
Work Year 4 $90,965 $96,807
Work Year 5 $90,965 $96,807
Work Year 6 $90,965 $96,807
Work Year 7 $90,965 $96,807
Work Year 8 $90,965 $96,807
Total Earnings $900,965 $960,807