Top Online Clinical Nurse Specialist Programs

Like other advanced practice registered nursing (APRN) programs, online clinical nurse specialist (CNS) programs are specialized. A CNS program may offer a specialization in one or more of the following: adult-gerontology, family, pediatric, neonatal, women’s health, psychiatric-mental health, pediatric critical care, neonatal critical care, and adult-gerontology critical care. 

An aspiring CNS may choose to earn a master’s degree in nursing (MSN), a doctor of nursing practice (DNP), or a post-master’s certificate. Entry points vary, but all online CNS programs require a valid RN license no matter the degree pathway. Many are designed for BSN-prepared registered nurses, but others may accept nurses with an associate’s degree in nursing, a non-nursing bachelor’s degree, or a master of science in nursing (MSN).

A clinical nurse specialist is an advanced practice registered nurse who must earn a graduate degree and become certified as a CNS through the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) or the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN). The clinical nurse specialist role falls closely parallel to the nurse practitioner role. The degree path takes about two to three years to complete depending on the program chosen.

Nursing is a field that offers many options for unique specialization, and careers in nursing are projected to be in high demand in the coming decade. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), registered nursing (RN) jobs are predicted to grow 7 percent between 2019 and 2029, which is faster than the national average for all occupations (4 percent). This growth is estimated to create 221,900 new positions in the same decade (BLS 2021). 

The BLS doesn’t track growth specifically for clinical nurse specialists, but since all CNSs are also RNs, these figures are representative of a wide range of clinical specialization areas. However, since they are advanced practice professionals, the salary figures can be expected to be higher.

CNSs can diagnose, treat, and manage patients’ healthcare in their respective specialization, providing expertise and support to other nursing professionals, doctors, and specialists. The CNS role is vital to improving patient quality of care and costs. In fact, the National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists (NANCS) reports that research shows CNS care reduces hospital costs and lengths of stay, improves pain management, reduces emergency room visits, increases patient satisfaction, and reduces medical complications in hospitals.

Online Clinical Nurse Specialist Program Rankings

Aspiring clinical nurse specialists should enroll in educational programs accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) or the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE). Universities throughout the country are now offering online CNS programs, all at the graduate level.

These distance-based education programs are usually entirely online with practicums local to the student or primarily online with minimal campus visits required. The top online clinical nurse specialist programs listed here are ranked by cost, admissions flexibility, and program variety. 

Our database contains 928 online APRN programs at the MSN, DNP, and post-master’s certificate levels for the 2021-2022 school year. For our purposes, a program must require no more than nine total campus visits to qualify for our rankings.

At, we aim to maintain a comprehensive listing of online APRN programs that meet our criteria, and we seek to ensure the accuracy of all of the data on our website. That said, advanced nursing education is a dynamic space. Should you find an error or a missing program, please contact us to bring it to our attention.

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