For nurses interested in entering specialized advanced practice in order to focus on things like research, education, leadership, and consulting, becoming a clinical nurse leader is a great career aspiration. With master's and doctoral programs available in the specialty, and both classroom and online learning options, earning a degree as a clinical nurse specialist is well within reach.

2021 - Best Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS) Programs

Deciding to enter an advanced practice nursing specialty is a big decision. For prospective Clinical Nurse Specialists, obtaining the best education possible can help propel career prospects even further. While finding the right program fit can seem intimidating, we have ranked the top nationwide online/hybrid Clinical Nurse Specialist programs to help ease this burden. If a top-notch nursing education and maximum flexibility are your goals, our CNS rankings are here to help!

For more information on our top nursing school rankings, visit our Methodology Page (

Old Dominion University

Norfolk, VA

Old Dominion University offers a trio of online MSN-level CNS programs, including tracks in Adult-Gerontology Clinical Nurse Specialist/Educator, Pediatric Clinical Nurse Specialist, and Neonatal Clinical Nurse Specialist. Each program emphasizes safe and effective patient-centered care for specialty populations, with a focus on clinical leadership. ODU collaborates with Eastern Virginia Medical School's Standardized Patient Program to provide safe practicum experiences.

MSN Programs
Tuition & Fees:
  • $$$$$
Quick Facts:
  • Public 4-Year
  • Some trips to ODU's Virginia Beach campus required
  • These programs are not available in the state of Washington
Rush University

Chicago, IL

Chicago's Rush University trains tomorrow's Clinical Nurse Specialists through three distinct DNP pathways: the Adult-Gerontology Acute Care CNS program, the Neonatal CNS program, and the Pediatric CNS program. The Adult-Gerontology Acute Care program is offered in a hybrid format (75% online, 25% classroom), while the Neonatal and Pediatric program offerings are delivered fully online. Each of Rush's CNS specialty programs boasts small class sizes and attendance is usually part-time.

DNP Programs
Quick Facts:
  • School has a Hospital Affiliation
  • Private Non-Profit 4-Year
  • Program length is 2-3.5 years
Rhode Island College

Providence, RI

Rhode Island College, located in Providence, offers an MSN in Adult-Gerontology Acute Care CNS. Throughout the program, students learn concepts in nursing leadership to help shape the care for adults. This includes implementing safety initiatives, promoting evidence-based practice, analyzing population needs, and much more. The curriculum includes courses such as Health Care Systems and Synergy Model for CNS Practice.

MSN Programs
Tuition & Fees:
  • $$$$$
Quick Facts:
  • Public 4-Year
  • Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner program also offered
  • One year of relevant acute care experience required for admission
Texas Christian University

Fort Worth, TX

Texas Christian University is home to a popular BSN-DNP Clinical Nurse Specialist program. TCU's online format allows enrolled students to complete coursework in a convenient format with just one on-campus intensive required. Students can choose between the Pediatric and Adult-Gerontology tracks of the CNS program to focus their studies further. At the culmination of the program, grads will have completed 64 total credit hours and a minimum of 1,000 clinical hours.

DNP Programs
Tuition & Fees:
  • $$$$$
Quick Facts:
  • Private Non-Profit 4-Year
  • Three and four year tracks available
  • Only accepting students who reside in Texas and New Mexico
University of Southern Indiana

Evansville, IN

Evansville's University of Southern Indiana offers an Adult-Gerontology Clinical Nurse Specialist program that trains RNs to hold influence as it pertains to patient care, nursing staff, and administrative systems. This 42-credit hour, 545-clinical hour program culminates in an MSN degree. It is offered online, with some on-campus orientation and course dates.

MSN Programs
Tuition & Fees:
  • $$$$$
Quick Facts:
  • Public 4-Year
  • Some grad programs offered online
  • CNS program admission offered once per year

Choosing a Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS) Program

Choosing the right clinical nurse specialist program can be boiled down to a few key items:


One surefire way to check a program's reputation is to see what kind of accreditation it holds. The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) and the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) are two main accrediting bodies that sign off on quality clinical nurse specialist programs. Some schools and programs also hold local or regional accreditations as well.

Program Cost

Clinical nurse specialist program tuition can vary widely, but many charge between $500 and $1,000 per credit hour. Doctoral programs may be on the higher end of the cost spectrum (but not always). Keep in mind that these tuition figures generally do not include extra mandatory fees, books, course materials, or other related expenses.

Program Length

MSN-level clinical nurse specialist programs usually require around 40 credits and can take roughly 2-3 years to complete, depending on full-time or part-time study. DNP-level programs usually take around 3-4 years to complete, and require approximately 75 credit hours.

Internship/Externship Opportunities

Internships, externships, and other residencies are typically required and can usually be arranged in conjunction with the school. Checking to see what arrangements a prospective school has for hands-on clinical requirements is a wise idea.

Online/Campus Options

With the recent upswing in distance-based learning, many schools now offer both online and campus-based options. Some also offer "hybrid" options where students take the bulk of classes online but may be required to make a few trips to campus.

Clinical Nurse Specialist Degree Levels Offered

Nursing students who wish to enter a clinical nurse specialist program have two options to choose from: the master's (MSN) route, or the doctoral (DNP) route. Both are excellent ways to enter the specialty, and students should consider which pathway is right for them before they start the application process.

MSN Programs

Students opting for an MSN as a Clinical Nurse Specialist can expect to take courses which correspond to their specialty of choice. Adult gerontology, pediatrics, and mental health are just a few of the specialization areas that clinical nurse specialists can focus on. These programs also require core MSN coursework, to include things like clinical decision-making, healthcare policy, scientific writing, and more. California State University-Dominguez Hills, for example, offers an MSN with a Clinical Nurse Specialist concentration.

DNP Programs

Doctoral clinical nurse specialist programs go above and beyond the master's level to prepare students to manage complex health conditions and work as expert clinicians in a variety of settings. They too can specialize in numerous areas of medicine. For example, the University of Minnesota offers an Adult/Gerontological Clinical Nurse Specialist DNP which allows students to focus on subspecialty areas such as cardiology, critical care, and palliative care.

Online Clinical Nurse Specialist Programs

As nurses seek to further their education, some find that work and family obligations make obtaining a post-graduate degree seem daunting. Colleges and universities are responding by offering more and more programs via distance learning. These online clinical nurse specialist programs offer the same stellar education as classroom programs do, but offer a higher amount of flexibility. Students should, however, pay particular attention to their state's guidelines on distance education, as there can be some rules and regulations that may impact them. Admissions representatives for online clinical nurse specialist programs can assist with this.

Advantages of an Online Program

Simply put, online clinical nurse specialist programs allow the convenience of letting students take courses from home and usually on their own time schedule. This allows busy RNs the opportunity to earn a degree at their own pace. Online students also don't have to factor in commuting costs such as gas and parking, which can be especially attractive to those in more rural areas who wouldn't otherwise have access to a program in their local vicinity.

Program Accreditation

A good online program should come with accreditations, typically awarded by CCNE or ACEN. A little research on the online school and program can give students peace of mind if they have never participated in distance learning.

Costs and Length

Online clinical nurse specialist programs typically require the same amount of credits as campus-based programs (around 35 credits for an MSN program, and 70 for a DNP). Most online programs allow for full-time or part-time study, giving students some flexibility on how quickly they finish. Tuition is also in the $500 per credit (and up) price range, and students can usually shop around for online tuition that fits within their budget.

Clinical Nurse Specialist FAQs

A CNS can work with a variety of professionals, and it depends on where they work. In the hospital setting, for example, a CNS can interact with those involved with direct patient care such as:

  • Nurse assistants
  • Technicians
  • Physicians
  • Nurses
  • Respiratory therapists
  • Physical Therapists

However, as master’s or doctorally-prepared specialists, they can also work alongside administrative staff such as:

  • Managers (clinical and non-clinical)
  • Supervisors
  • Administrators
  • Department Secretaries
  • Directors
  • Researchers

The beauty of a CNS role is that it is multi-faceted. They straddle both the patient care and administrative role. In this liaison-type role, they can gather information from the front lines of patient care and use it to develop ways to improve healthcare delivery.

What Are the Admissions and Certification Requirements?

Admissions requirements for most clinical nurse specialist programs include:

  • BSN or higher from an accredited school
  • Minimum GPA of 3.0
  • Valid, unencumbered RN license
  • Application essays
  • Current CV or resume
  • Professional references
  • Some specialized professional nursing experience may be required depending on specialty

Certification as a clinical nurse specialist is awarded via examination by the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) and the AACN Certification Corporation and is broken out into the following specialties:

  • Adult Gerontology CNS
  • Adult Psychiatric-Mental Health CNS
  • Child/Adolescent Psychiatric-Mental Health CNS
  • Pediatric CNS
  • Neonatal CNS

Eligibility requirements for the exam include:

  • Current, active RN license
  • MSN or DNP in a clinical nurse specialist program

List of Clinical Nurse Specialist Programs

There are a wide variety of both master's and doctoral level clinical nurse specialist available across the country, see the list below.

Select Your State:


SchoolContact Information
University of South Alabama
5721 USA Dr N
Mobile, AL 36688
(251) 445-9400


SchoolContact Information
Arizona State University
550 N 3rd St
Phoenix, AZ 85004
(602) 496-2644


SchoolContact Information
Azusa Pacific University
MSN Programs
901 E. Alosta Ave., PO Box 7000
Azusa, CA 91702
(626) 969-3434
California Baptist University
8432 Magnolia Avenue
Riverside, CA 92504
(877) 228-3615
California State University Dominguez Hills
Graduate Certificate ProgramsMSN Programs
1000 E. Victoria Street
Carson, CA 90747
(310) 243-3696
California State University San Marcos
333 S. Twin Oaks Valley Rd
San Marcos, CA 92096
(760) 750-4000
Loma Linda University
11262 Campus St.
Loma Linda, CA 92350
(909) 558-4923
Mount Saint Mary's University- Los Angeles
10 Chester Place
Los Angeles, CA 90007
(213) 477-2500
Box 951702
Los Angeles, CA 90095
(310) 825-3109
Western University
309 E. Second St.
Pomona, CA 91766
(909) 623-6116


SchoolContact Information
Western Connecticut State University
181 White Stree
Danbury, CT 06810
(203) 837-8200


SchoolContact Information
Georgia Southern University
1332 Southern Drive
Statesboro, GA 30458
(912) 478-4636
Georgia State University
MSN Programs
33 Gilmer St SE
Atlanta, GA 30303
(404) 413-2000


SchoolContact Information
Lewis University
One University Parkway
Romeoville, IL 60446
(815) 838-0500
Northern Illinois University
MSN Programs
1425 W. Lincoln Hwy.
DeKalb, IL 60115
(815) 753-1000
Rush University
600 S. Paulina St
Chicago, IL 60612
(312) 942-7100


SchoolContact Information
Indiana University - Purdue University Indianapolis
600 Barnhill Drive, NU 122
Indianapolis, IN 46202
(317) 274-2806
University of Southern Indiana
8600 University Blvd.
Evansville, IN 47712
(812) 464-8600


SchoolContact Information
Louisiana State University New Orleans
1900 Gravier Street
New Orleans, LA 70112
(504) 568-4200


SchoolContact Information
Johns Hopkins University
525 N. Wolfe Street
Baltimore, MD 21205
(410) 955-4766


SchoolContact Information
Regis College
235 Wellesley Street
Weston, MA 02493
(781) 768-7000
University of Massachusetts Boston
100 William T. Morrissey Blvd.
Boston, MA 02125
(617) 287-5000


SchoolContact Information
Eastern Michigan University
900 Oakwood St
Ypsilanti, MI 48197
(734) 487-1849
Michigan State University
220 Trowbridge Rd
East Lansing, MI 48824
(517) 355-1855
University of Detroit Mercy
4001 W. McNichols Road
Detroit, MI 48221
(131) 399-3124 x5
University of Michigan
426 N. Ingalls St.
Ann Arbor, MI 48109
(734) 763-5985


SchoolContact Information
University of Minnesota
308 Harvard Street SE
Minneapolis, MN 55455
(612) 624-9600
Winona State University Rochester
859 30th Ave SE
Rochester, MN 55904
(507) 285-7100


SchoolContact Information
University of Missouri Health
S235 School of Nursing
Columbia, MO 65211
(573) 882-0277

New York

SchoolContact Information
Hunter College
695 Park Ave
NY, NY 10065
(212) 772-4000
St. John Fisher College
3690 East Avenue
Rochester, NY 14618
(585) 385-8000
St. Joseph's College New York
245 Clinton Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11205
(718) 940-5300

North Carolina

SchoolContact Information
East Carolina University
Graduate Certificate ProgramsMSN Programs
East Fifth Street
Greenville, NC 27858
(252) 328-6131


SchoolContact Information
Kent State University
1375 University Esplanade
Kent, OH 44242
(330) 672-7930
The Ohio State University
1585 Neil Avenue
Columbus, OH 43210
(614) 292-4041
The University of Akron
302 E Buchtel Ave
Akron, OH 44325
(330) 972-7111
Ursuline College
2550 Lander Rd
Pepper Pike, OH 44124
(440) 449-4200
Wright State University
Graduate Certificate Programs
3640 Colonel Glenn Hwy
Dayton, OH 45431
(937) 775-3333


SchoolContact Information
The University of Oklahoma
MSN Programs
1100 N Stonewall Ave
Oklahoma City, OK 73117
(405) 325-0311
University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center
Graduate Certificate Programs
1100 N Stonewall Ave
Oklahoma City, OK 73117
(405) 271-2428


SchoolContact Information
DeSales University
2755 Station Ave.
Center Valley, PA 18034
(610) 282-1100 x2838
La Salle University
1900 West Olney Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19141
(215) 951-1000
University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing
418 Curie Boulevard
Philadelphia, PA 19104
(215) 898-8281
University of Pittsburgh
DNP Programs
3500 Victoria Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15261
(412) 624-4586
University of Scranton
235 Jefferson Ave
Scranton, PA 18510
(570) 941-7673
York College of Pennsylvania
443 Country Club Rd
York, PA 17403
(717) 846-7788

Rhode Island

SchoolContact Information
Rhode Island College
600 Mount Pleasant Avenue
Providence, RI 02908
(401) 456-8000
University of Rhode Island
45 Upper College Rd
Kingston, RI 02881
(401) 874-1000


SchoolContact Information
Texas Christian University
2800 S University Dr
Fort Worth, TX 76129
(817) 257-7000


SchoolContact Information
Old Dominion University
5115 Hampton Blvd
Norfolk, VA 23529
(757) 683-3000
University of Virginia
225 Jeanette Lancaster Way
Charlottesville, VA 22903-3388
(434) 924-0141


SchoolContact Information
University of Washington
DNP ProgramsGraduate Certificate Programs
1410 NE Campus Parkway
Seattle, WA 98195
(206) 543-2100


SchoolContact Information
Alverno College
MSN Programs
3400 S 43rd St
Milwaukee, WI 53234
(414) 382-6000
Marquette University
1250 W Wisconsin Ave
Milwaukee, WI 53233
(800) 222-6544
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
DNP ProgramsGraduate Certificate Programs
2442 E. Kenwood Blvd.
Milwaukee, WI 53211
(414) 229-1122

Are we missing your school's program or need to update information listed? Please contact us so we can make the necessary changes.