What to know about the differences between online and on-campus DNP programs

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A growing emphasis has been placed on advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) obtaining a Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP). While a master’s degree is often all that’s required for certification and licensure, an increasingly complex health care industry and growing patient populations have placed new demands on medical professionals.

For nurses to become equipped to handle these changes and take advantage of opportunities to improve care, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) endorsed the DNP in 2004 as the terminal degree in the field of advanced nursing practice and recommended it become the necessary standard level of preparation for APRNs by 2015. That advocacy was in part spurred by the low DNP rate among nurses — less than 1 percent in the field have one. However, top DNP programs are now offered in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, and average enrollment and graduation rates have steadily increased, according to the AACN.

The current focus on the DNP has led many current and prospective APRNs to enroll in doctorate programs, but the question each student faces is whether to complete studies online or on-campus. While the curricula and courses taught in the program are unlikely to differ between modes, a student’s experience certainly will. Vetting the best DNP programs means finding a school that can offer a holistic and enriching experience either way.

What attending an on-campus DNP program looks like

DNP students take the same classes whether they’re seated in the lecture hall or in front of a computer, but there are particular considerations for each setup. Let’s consider the on-campus route first.

Many college graduates are familiar with the advantages of physically attending school. Close proximity to instructors means students may be able to more effectively utilize faculty resources or school services like career offices. There’s also a social aspect to attending class in-person, where students may break off to work in groups.

However, while there are various benefits to the on-campus DNP, it may not be the right fit for students in every instance. Some points to take into account when considering an on-campus degree include:

  • Cost: It’s not just tuition that factors into the cost equation, but also any expenses related to living on-campus or commuting to and from classes. For online DNP nursing programs, equipment is the main requirement, and students often already have computers. Gas and public transportation costs can add up.
  • Time conflicts: On-campus classes are held at scheduled times, and it’s up to the student to attend. If there’s a prior commitment — like work or family — class doesn’t wait. Even if traffic takes five minutes more than expected, it can result in getting to class late and missing materials, or even worse, a test.
  • Daily tasks: Considering the in-depth nature of DNP studies, students can expect to have a lot of other work to complete besides attending lectures. This may mean extended library time for on-campus students. Using office hours — a perk of an on-campus degree — may also be complicated by existing work or family schedules.

Why students choose online nursing doctoral programs

Maybe the biggest factor impacting a student’s decision on whether to attend an on-campus or online DNP program is the fact that many APRNs are already working professionals with full-time jobs. Some nurse practitioners who have a master’s degree may want to pursue a Doctorate of Nursing Practice to align their professional qualifications, skills and goals with those of the overall nursing community. However, balancing the job responsibilities of an APRN with the education requirements of a doctorate student can become a challenge.

Graduation cap on keyboard key.Yet that challenge can be solved for some students with an online DNP. Such programs offer students the ability to complete their coursework on their own time and at a pace that works for their professional and personal lives. This flexibility can be a benefit to studies when students can make time for lessons and coursework, which allows them to engage with the material on a deeper level.

Yet as with on-campus options, it’s important to check off certain criteria for online DNP nursing programs. Nurses should consider:

  • Outcomes: Expected learning outcomes for an online program should be consistent with an on-campus degree. Students graduating with an online DNP should be able to apply the same skills and experiences as those who attend classes in-person.
  • Faculty: Easy access to faculty should always be provided to online students, and often is at the best DNP programs. Whether over email or through video chat, students should be able to interact with their online instructors. Quality of faculty is also important: Are the same professors teaching online and on-campus?
  • Flexibility and support: Top DNP programs empower students to learn. This can be seen in schools allowing online students to work with approved preceptors of their own choice to satisfy clinical hour requirements, for example. Making the most of an online DNP nursing program means finding a school that can support you in your studies.

Earn your online DNP at Bradley University

Students can find the right higher education institution to support their nursing education goals in Bradley University and its online Doctorate of Nursing Practice program. Nurses can prepare for the next generation of patient care by completing their DNP studies with a school like Bradley that can offer flexible learning arrangements, proven outcomes and world-class faculty.

Offered 100 percent online, Bradley’s DNP program can prepare nurses to become executives, directors, educators and leaders. Available in the fall, spring and summer, the program features core coursework along with innovative lessons designed to help nurses develop new practice models and expand their expertise. Contact an enrollment advisor today for more information about Bradley University and its online DNP program.

Recommended Readings:

DNP vs. Ph.D.: What’s the difference?

Five ways a doctoral degree in nursing can transform your career


Bradley University

American Association of Colleges of Nursing