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. The aspiring CNS may choose to earn a master’s degree in nursing, doctor of nursing practice, or post-master’s certificate. Entry points vary, but all online CNS programs, no matter the degree pathway, require a valid RN license. 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.

CNSs are able to diagnose, treat, and manage the health care of patients in their respective specialization, providing expertise and support to other nursing professionals, doctors, and specialists. Although they do not have as much autonomy as a nurse practitioner, the CNS role is vital to improving patient quality of care and costs. In fact, the 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 seek to enroll in educational programs that are 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 fully online with practicums local to the student, or mostly 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 more than 700 online APRN programs at the MSN, DNP, and post-master’s certificate levels. For our purposes, a program must require no more than nine 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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Clinical Nurse Specialist Career and Salary Data

Salary ranges for clinical nurse specialists fall into the category of nurse practitioners, nurse anesthetists, and nurse-midwives through the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS). Salaries for clinical nurse specialists range from about $80,000 to $182,000 with a median wage of $103,770 (BLS, 2018).

In addition, clinical nurse specialists are in high demand with an expected growth of 28 percent between 2018 and 2028, compared to the average of 5 percent for all occupations (BLS, 2018). According to the National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists (NANCS) 2018 Census, about 75 percent of CNSs practice in the adult-gerontology field. The next most common specialty is pediatrics (8.53%), then family (5.24%), psychiatric mental health (3.92%), women’s health (3.62%), and neonatal (2.85%).