Nurses interested in improving healthcare delivery systems while advancing in their clinical profession should consider earning a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) in Executive Leadership in Nursing. Unlike the Ph.D. in nursing, a research-focused outcome doctorate, the DNP is designed for nurses seeking a terminal degree to propel them into the highest-level positions in clinical nursing leadership, executive administration, and management.

What Is a DNP in Nursing Executive Leadership Program Like?

Many institutions offer DNP programs in part-time and/or online formats to accommodate working nurses with demanding professional schedules and responsibilities. Online DNP programs provide students with a unique opportunity to complete all or most of the didactic requirements through interactive, web-based study, relieving the burden of adhering to a strict academic schedule. Additionally, accelerated and bridge programs allow a full-time student nurse with a BSN degree to complete a DNP in about 3-4 years. Some bridge programs will offer the Master's of Science in Nursing (MSN) along the way, whereas others do not. Nurses with their MSN degree can usually earn their DNP in about 1-2 years of full-time study. Typically, a DNP degree requires completing between 12 and 15 classes and 1000 hours of practicum experience. However, most MSN-to-DNP programs will credit students with up to 500 clinical training hours earned in an MSN program.

In some cases, a final scholarly project is required as well. Understandably, there is significant variability between nurses completing BSN-to-DNP programs with an average of 65 to 95 credits of required coursework and the clinical hours to graduate. Nurses returning to school are encouraged to research and compare individual DNP program requirements related to their personal education status and goals.

DNP Executive Nursing Leadership Program Accreditation

It is important for nurses to verify that the DNP program they wish to pursue is accredited by either the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN). Accreditation is important because it tells employers and patients that your level of education meets specific standards, and it is also a condition of eligibility for financial aid by the U.S. Department of Education and other student loan affiliates.

DNP Nursing Leadership Classes & Curriculum

The DNP curriculum builds upon the master's degree by extending clinical knowledge and research skills while continuing to improve analytical thought processes. Coursework includes training in evidence-based practice, systems leadership, informatics, and quality improvement. Therefore, the DNP is designed to produce "leaders" in nursing.

Programs will offer different focuses, but courses that are common across all programs include:

  • Research methods
  • Statistics and data analysis
  • Evidence-based practice
  • The history and philosophy of nursing science
  • Leadership skills

DNP-prepared executive nurse leaders develop and promote competencies in:

  • Leadership of teams and organizations
  • Strategic planning and resource utilization
  • Measurement and analysis of healthcare outcomes
  • Information management and its utilization in decision-making
  • Development and management of quality improvement initiatives
  • Team building and interprofessional collaboration
  • Critical evaluation and application of current research and best practice protocols

This provides DNP graduates in executive leadership with the skills necessary to:

  • Affect desired change by developing and implementing policies within the healthcare system and with different constituents
  • Assume leadership roles as administrators, educators, and advanced clinicians,
  • Demonstrate accountability in nursing practice according to accepted standards of patient care and safety
  • Demonstrate advanced knowledge and skill in the planning and delivery of health management
  • Provide multidisciplinary leadership by analyzing critical indicators within healthcare systems
  • Use information technology to make sense of research findings and translate them into practice, both at the individual and health systems levels

DNP Nursing Leadership Program Cost

Tuition and associated fees can be an essential factor when selecting a DNP Nurse Leadership program. Expenses vary significantly between schools and are largely dependent on location. Students should look at the tuition rates, associated university fees, and residency status for a clear picture of what their degree will cost. Sometimes, out-of-state residents may pay substantially higher tuition rates, even with online programs. Financial aid and attending school part-time can help offset these expenses.

As an example of cost, the DNP Leadership program at Boise State University in Idaho runs a total tuition of approximately $30,000 with no additional fees for out-of-state students. Not included in this figure is the cost of necessary books, software, and any travel or room/board expenses.

Read also: The 6 Most Affordable 2023 DNP Programs in the US

DNP Executive Nursing Leadership Salary and Employment

Determining the average salary for DNP-prepared nurses can be challenging due to employment variability, including location and specialty. A Medscape salary survey in 2015 reported doctoral-prepared nurses earning an average salary of $96,000. In the same year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said that top-earning DNP prepared Nurse Administrators, Informaticists, Executive Leaders, and Clinical Educators were earning a national average annual salary of $165,380. While not every DNP-prepared Nurse Leader will bring in as much as these top earners, the DNP is associated with the highest salary potential for nurse leaders and administrators. Income surveys consistently report DNP-prepared nurses earning an average of $9,000 more annually than their master's-prepared colleagues. The job outlook for DNP-prepared nurses in executive leadership roles is projected to increase by 20% through 2026, much faster than average compared with non-healthcare occupations.

Career Options for DNP-Prepared Nursing Leadership

Due to increasingly complex healthcare environments, the demand for clinically experienced advanced-degree nurses in high-level executive leadership roles has become vital. DNP-prepared nurse leaders excel in these positions where their expertise is utilized not only as a bridge between clinical practice and the rest of the healthcare industry but also an influential executive, administrative, and educational roles amongst healthcare leaders as the nation moves toward more accessible, affordable, quality care. DNP leaders affect healthcare change by:

  • Developing and leading interdisciplinary teams
  • Conducting evidence-based research
  • Developing programs that improve healthcare outcomes
  • Addressing national policy issues
  • Advocating for healthcare change

The career paths for DNP graduates are endless, and nurses pursue their niche depending on their skills and interest areas. Opportunities include, but are not limited to:

  • Healthcare Executive
  • Nursing Faculty
  • Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN)
  • Healthcare Lobbyist
  • Clinical Researcher

Read more in our Expert Guide to Nursing Leadership

List of Nursing Executive Leadership DNP Programs

Jump to Your State Listings


School of Nursing and Health Professions
2130 Fulton Street
San Francisco, CA 94117
(415) 422-5555


2260 South Xanadu Way, Suite 310
Aurora, CO 80014
(866) 922-5690


College of Nursing
4000 Central Florida Blvd.
Orlando, FL 32816
(855) 903-8576


College of Nursing
1120 15th Street
Augusta, GA 30912
(706) 721-3771


College of Nursing
600 S. Paulina St.
Chicago, IL 60612
(312) 942-7100


New Jersey

School of Nursing
110 Paterson Street
New Brunswick, NJ 08901
(848) 932-7700

New Mexico

College of Nursing

Albuquerque, NM 87131
(505) 277-0111

North Carolina

School of Nursing
307 Trent Drive
Durham, NC 27710
(919) 684-3786


School of Nursing
3500 Victoria Street, Victoria Building
Pittsburgh, PA 15261
(412) 624-4586


PO Box 70300
Johnson City, TN 37614
(423) 439-1000

DNP Programs
School of Nursing
461 21st ave South
Nashville, TN 37240
(615) 322-4400


DNP Programs
333 N. Washington
Dallas, TX 75246
(972) 576-9100


College of Health Sciences School of Nursing

Norfolk, VA 23529
(800) 968-2638

Washington, DC

DNP Programs
School of Nursing
1919 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Suite 500
Washington, DC 20006
(202) 994-7901

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