What the demand for nurses with master’s degrees means for their salaries

BY Meghan MalasAugust 08, 2022, 1:17 PM
Attendees at a hospital recruiting event in California
Prospective employees are interviewed during a job fair at AltaMed Health Services, as seen in July 2021 in Huntington Park, California. (Photo by Frederic J. Brown—AFP/Getty Images)

The U.S. is in dire need of more nurses and other health care workers—and there will be far more registered nurse jobs available than any other profession, according to estimates by the American Nurses Association. Beyond the immediate need for more nurses in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, nursing is expected to remain one of the fastest-growing career paths for the next decade. And while nurses of all levels of training are in demand, there is a particular need for professionals with master’s degree-level training or higher.

“Master’s degree-prepared nurses have the potential to earn higher salaries than their bachelor’s degree-prepared counterparts, particularly when they are educated as advanced practice registered nurses such as nurse practitioners, nurse midwives, nurse anesthetists, and clinical nurse specialists,” says Cindy Anderson, the senior associate dean for academic affairs and educational innovation at the Ohio State University’s College of Nursing.

The median annual wage for registered nurses (RNs) was $77,600 in May 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Meanwhile, the median wage for nurse midwives, nurse anesthetists, and nurse practitioners—careers that require a master’s degree—was $123,780 per year. That’s a pay hike of more than $46,000 a year by getting an advanced degree.

Higher demand makes for higher salaries

The stark difference in wages is reflected in the field’s job growth trends. The job outlook for registered nurses is projected to grow 9% from 2020 to 2030, just a fraction of the 52% growth rate for nurse practitioners, according to figures from the BLS.

While the role of nurse practitioner is expected to be the fourth-fastest-growing career in the U.S., other popular career paths for graduates of master’s degree programs—such as nurse practitioners, nurse midwives, and nurse anesthetists—are forecasted to see gains of 45% by 2030. 

The demand for nursing professionals is due to the need for more health care services as the U.S. population ages and the aging of the nurse workforce itself. In order to add enough nurses into the workforce, nurse educators, who must hold a master’s degree or higher, are essential, studies show. In 2019, nursing schools turned away more than 80,000 qualified applicants to baccalaureate and graduate nursing programs due to an insufficient number of faculty, clinical sites, classroom space, clinical preceptors, and budget constraints, according a report by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing.

How to get a high-paying nursing position

To be admitted into most accredited master’s degree programs in nursing, applicants need to have a bachelor’s degree in nursing. There are master’s degree tracks for people who don’t already have an undergraduate degree, but they typically require more credits and take more time to complete. A master of science in nursing (MSN) program typically takes two to three years of study, according to Nurse Journal, and average program costs are $590 per credit, GetEducated.com found.

People seeking the aforementioned occupations of nurse practitioner, nurse midwife, and nurse anesthetist are required to have a current RN license and a bachelor’s degree in nursing. These programs may also require a year or more of applicable work experience to be admitted. 

As the demand for nurses with graduate degrees rises, there are more career options for MSN students. Occupations like nurse consultant, nurse administrator, or clinical nurse specialist all require an MSN—and, on average, these roles pay more than RNs with just a bachelor’s degree in nursing earn. The average wage for a nurse educator at a college, university, or professional school was $83,340, but at a general medical and surgical hospital, the average wage was $95,720, according to the latest BLS figures from 2021.

Financial considerations, career development, and growth potential are all typical major drivers for someone to consider educational advancement toward a master’s degree, Anderson says. So, while a master’s degree in nursing doesn’t guarantee a better salary, diversifying your skills can be a valuable tool in helping open doors to personal and professional growth. 

See how the schools you’re considering fared in Fortune’s rankings of the best master’s degree programs in nursing, computer science, cybersecuritypsychology, public healthbusiness analyticsdata sciencedoctorate in education, and part-timeexecutive, full-time, and online MBA programs.