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.

2024 - 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

Nurses seeking to provide higher level clinical care to their patients can earn their MSN as a Clinical Nurse Specialist at Old Dominion University via its distance learning program. Evidence-based research and ethical care for advanced practice nurses are a few courses.

MSN Programs
  • Options include Adult-Gerontology, Pediatrics, or Neonatal specializations.
  • Simulations and immersive learning experiences are offered.
  • Full and part-time education options.

University of South Alabama

Mobile, AL

Rather than specializing in one niche area, the Clinical Nurse Specialist performs a wide range of advanced nursing responsibilities that may vary from day to day. The University of South Alabama offers a mostly online DNP in Adult-Gerontology-CNS that prepares such nurses to enter this leadership role.

MSN Programs
  • An on-campus Clinical Skills Intensive Orientation is mandatory.
  • In-person clinicals must be completed at an approved site.
  • GRE or letters of reference are not required.

Rush University

Chicago, IL

Rush University, situated in Chicago, is a private institution known for its focus on healthcare education. With a commitment to excellence, it offers Clinical Nurse Specialist programs. Rush is a dynamic hub for nursing education, providing specialized training in a collaborative and innovative environment.

DNP Programs
  • Part-time and full-time options
  • Hybrid and online offerings
  • Private institution

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:

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.

Jump to Your State Listings


5721 USA Dr N
Mobile, AL 36688
(251) 445-9400


MSN Programs
550 N 3rd St
Phoenix, AZ 85004
(602) 496-2644


MSN Programs
901 E. Alosta Ave., PO Box 7000
Azusa, CA 91702
(626) 969-3434

8432 Magnolia Avenue
Riverside, CA 92504
(877) 228-3615

Graduate Certificate ProgramsMSN Programs
1000 E. Victoria Street
Carson, CA 90747
(310) 243-3696

333 S. Twin Oaks Valley Rd
San Marcos, CA 92096
(760) 750-4000

11262 Campus St.
Loma Linda, CA 92350
(909) 558-4923

10 Chester Place
Los Angeles, CA 90007
(213) 477-2500

309 E. Second St.
Pomona, CA 91766
(909) 623-6116


181 White Stree
Danbury, CT 06810
(203) 837-8200


1332 Southern Drive
Statesboro, GA 30458
(912) 478-4636



600 Barnhill Drive, NU 122
Indianapolis, IN 46202
(317) 274-2806

8600 University Blvd.
Evansville, IN 47712
(812) 464-8600


1900 Gravier Street
New Orleans, LA 70112
(504) 568-4200



235 Wellesley Street
Weston, MA 02493
(781) 768-7000

100 William T. Morrissey Blvd.
Boston, MA 02125
(617) 287-5000


900 Oakwood St
Ypsilanti, MI 48197
(734) 487-1849

College of Nursing
220 Trowbridge Rd
East Lansing, MI 48824
(517) 355-1855

4001 W. McNichols Road
Detroit, MI 48221
(313) 993-1828

426 N. Ingalls St.
Ann Arbor, MI 48109
(734) 763-5985


859 30th Ave SE
Rochester, MN 55904
(507) 285-7100


S235 School of Nursing
Columbia, MO 65211
(573) 882-0277

New York

695 Park Ave
NY, NY 10065
(212) 772-4000

3690 East Avenue
Rochester, NY 14618
(585) 385-8000

245 Clinton Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11205
(718) 940-5300

North Carolina

MSN ProgramsGraduate Certificate Programs
East Fifth Street
Greenville, NC 27858
(252) 328-6131


1375 University Esplanade
Kent, OH 44242
(330) 672-7930

1585 Neil Avenue
Columbus, OH 43210
(614) 292-4041

302 E Buchtel Ave
Akron, OH 44325
(330) 972-7111

2550 Lander Rd
Pepper Pike, OH 44124
(440) 449-4200

Graduate Certificate Programs
3640 Colonel Glenn Hwy
Dayton, OH 45431
(937) 775-3333


MSN Programs
1100 N Stonewall Ave
Oklahoma City, OK 73117
(405) 325-0311

Graduate Certificate Programs
1100 N Stonewall Ave
Oklahoma City, OK 73117
(405) 271-2428


Division of Nursing
2755 Station Ave.
Center Valley, PA 18034
(610) 282-1100 x2838

1900 West Olney Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19141
(215) 951-1000

418 Curie Boulevard
Philadelphia, PA 19104
(215) 898-8281

DNP Programs
3500 Victoria Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15261
(412) 624-4586

235 Jefferson Ave
Scranton, PA 18510
(570) 941-7673

443 Country Club Rd
York, PA 17403
(717) 846-7788

Rhode Island

600 Mount Pleasant Avenue
Providence, RI 02908
(401) 456-8000

45 Upper College Rd
Kingston, RI 02881
(401) 874-1000


2800 S University Dr
Fort Worth, TX 76129
(817) 257-7000


225 Jeanette Lancaster Way
Charlottesville, VA 22903-3388
(434) 924-0141


DNP ProgramsGraduate Certificate Programs
1410 NE Campus Parkway
Seattle, WA 98195
(206) 543-2100


MSN Programs
3400 S 43rd St
Milwaukee, WI 53234
(414) 382-6000

1250 W Wisconsin Ave
Milwaukee, WI 53233
(800) 222-6544

Graduate Certificate ProgramsDNP 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.