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Is an Advanced Nursing Degree Worth the Cost?

Pursuing an advanced degree in nursing can give you the opportunity to become an expert in one area of medicine, earn a higher salary, and have more job security as an advanced practitioner.

Published June 16, 2022

11 min read

Pursuing an advanced degree in nursing can give you the opportunity to become an expert in one area of medicine, earn a higher salary, and have more job security as an advanced practitioner.

Factors such as increased emphasis on preventive care, growing rates of chronic health conditions, and increased life expectancies are causing a dramatic increase in demand for advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs). For those with graduate-level nursing education, employment growth is projected to grow 52.4 percent from 2019 through 2029, with an estimated 110,700 jobs added during that period.1

While a two-year Associate of Science Degree in Nursing (ASN) can qualify you for employment as an RN and provide eligibility to apply for state licensure and examination, a four-year Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) is increasingly preferred, even for entry-level jobs. In 2010, the Institute of Medicine called for 80% of the nursing workforce to hold at least a bachelor’s degree by 2020. Today, approximately 77% of hospital and healthcare employers express a strong preference for nurses with a BSN degree, and extensive research has demonstrated that nurses with this level of training are linked to better patient outcomes, including lower mortality rates.

In addition, there is also a growing demand for nurses with graduate level degrees and the nursing specialties associated with a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). In the same 2010 report, “The Future of Nursing,” the Institute of Medicine also recommended doubling the number of U.S. nurses who have doctoral degrees by 2020, even though the current level falls quite short of this number.

Even with this growing demand, earning a degree such as an MSN or DNP is both a long-term commitment and a significant cost that will likely require financial assistance. Taking on five- or even six-figure student loan debt may seem insurmountable at first, but luckily for nurses, many financing programs are available through private and public lenders, employers, as well as grants, assistantships, and fellowships.

Let’s explore the different types of nursing degrees to find out if they’re worth the cost.

Types of advanced nursing degrees

An advanced nursing degree can help accelerate career growth and unlock opportunities that are personally and financially rewarding. These are the two types of advanced degrees in nursing that can lead to several specialties in nursing:

Master’s of Science in Nursing (MSN)

An MSN degree can prepare you for high-level clinical, education and management roles in nursing. This type of degree allows Registered Nurses to advance their careers in fields such as health education, health services, healthcare administration, health informatics, healthcare management and pharmacology. An MSN degree is also necessary if you’re planning to apply for a doctorate degree in nursing (DNP). If you are pursuing an APRN specialty, such as nurse practitioner, clinical nurse specialist, nurse anesthetist, or nurse midwife, you will need a master’s degree, addition to the initial nursing education and licensing required for all Registered Nurses (RNs).

Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)

A Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) prepares students for executive leadership roles in nursing as well as research and clinical positions. Starting in 2025, new Nurse Anesthetists (CRNAs) will be required to graduate with a doctorate degree.

Nursing roles that may require advanced degrees

From pediatric care to gerontology, there are many types of nursing categories that require advanced degrees. Some examples of popular specialized nursing roles that require advanced nursing degrees include:

  • Nurse Educator
  • Nurse Executive
  • Nurse Informaticist
  • Family Nurse Practitioner
  • Nurse Anesthetist
  • Nurse Midwife
  • Clinical Nurse Specialist
  • Clinical Nurse Leader
  • Pediatric Nurse Practitioner
  • Public Health Nurse
  • Orthopedic Nurse Practitioner
  • Gerontological Nurse Practitioner
  • Health Policy Nurse
  • Dialysis Nurse
  • Dermatology Nurse

Average salaries for nursing roles with advanced degrees

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the average salary for registered nurses in the United States is approximately $72,000 per year. Comparatively, the median salaries for RNs with advanced degrees are much higher. Median salaries for some of the top highest paying nursing roles are all above $100,000:

  • Neonatal nurse practitioner – $128,000
  • Cardiology nurse practitioner – $116,800
  • Orthopedic nurse practitioner – $115,700
  • Oncology nurse practitioner – $115,600
  • Family nurse practitioner – $113,700
  • Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner – $109,700
  • Surgical nurse practitioner – $109,600
  • Pediatric Nurse Practitioner – $109,400
  • Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner – $108,000
  • Endocrinology Nurse Practitioner – $101,600

How long it takes nurses to acquire advanced degrees

Timeframes and credit requirements are different for each type of advanced degree and depend on your specialty as well as if you’re studying full-time or part-time.

  • MSN: Most postgraduate nursing degrees take between 1-2 years, though some MSN courses require 3 years to finish. Oftentimes, 3-year programs will allow you to study part-time. MSN students typically complete 30-60 credits, depending on their specialization.
  • DNP: Nurses with a master’s degree typically need to complete 35-50 credits over the course of 2-3 years to earn a DNP degree. Accelerated BSN-to-DNP programs are also available that may require 60-80 credits and typically take 3-5 years to complete.

How to finance your nursing education

While the typical tuition cost of a four-year BSN program varies widely, it can range from $40,000 to up to $80,000 or more, and can prepare you to continue your education with a Master’s of Science in Nursing (MSN), or even Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP).

The typical total tuition cost for an MSN program ranges from $35,000 to $70,000, with some programs costing more. You can expect tuition costs for in-state public universities to be on the lower end of the range while private and out-of-state public tuition costs will be on the higher end. To help with tuition costs, MSN students may be eligible for financial aid opportunities, such as graduate assistantships or grants.

DNP programs typically cost between $40,000 and $70,000, but a large part of total tuition cost depends on an individual candidate’s educational background before entering the program. Doctoral programs often offer financial aid through assistantships or fellowships in the form of tuition coverage and/or a living stipend.

In addition to financial aid from scholarships, grants and special programs, advanced nursing degrees can be financed through student loans from public and private lenders. Work with a financial professional to get an understanding of how much you need to borrow, what your repayment terms are and compare that with your projected salary and cost of living. From there, you can calculate if an advanced degree in nursing is the right choice for you.

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