Printer Friendly

Comparative descriptors of applicants and graduates of online and face-to-face master of science in nursing programs.


AIM Proper advisement of students about their programs of study requires knowledge of the applicants and confidence that the recommended curricula will lead to success via graduation and certification.

BACKGROUND Two important strategies to deliver master of science in nursing (MSN) curricula include online and face-to- face (F2F) formats.

METHOD A nonexperimental, descriptive study of archival data was used to examine and compare the characteristics of F2F and online MSN applicants, admitted students, and graduates as well as family nurse practitioner (FNP) certification pass rates at one eastern Tennessee college of nursing. Administration and FNP concentrations were studied.

RESULTS The average applicant grade point average (GPA) was higher for the F2F format but no difference in the average admission GPA was found between formats. The online students had more years of RN experience than the F2F students.

CONCLUSION NO significant difference was found between graduating GPAs or FNP certification pass rates.


Online Distance Education--Face-To-Face Traditional Education--FNP Certification --Graduate Nursing Applicants--Graduate Nursing Program


The need for more registered nurses educated at the baccalaureate and graduate levels is well documented (American Association of Colleges of Nursing, 2010; Papes & Lopez, 2007; Pullen, Mueller, & Ashcraft, 2009; Waxman & Maxworthy, 2010). Because of greater emphasis on preventive care and technologic advances, as well as more Americans living with chronic illnesses, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2012) predicted that there will be a 26 percent growth rate in RN employment between 2010 and 2020. The passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 is expected to produce an even greater demand for health care professionals and opportunities for nurses with advanced degrees in practice and leadership roles (American Nurses Association, 2010).

The nurse workforce needs within the state of Tennessee are reflective of workforce needs across the country. A report released by the Tennessee Center for Nursing (TCN, 2005) highlighted the need for more RNs in the state and encouraged pre-licensure and graduate schools to increase enrollments and graduations. In 2008, the TCN re-examined progress toward reaching workforce goals. The expansion of existing programs and the development of new online or web-based master's programs resulted in an increase in initial licensure and graduate enrollments and graduations (TCN, 2008). However, although progress was made, the goals were not fully met.

While the original goal of many online nursing education programs was to reach potential students who were physically distant from the university, enrollments have increased due to convenience and other factors (McVeigh, 2009). Gibson and Harris (2008) reported that students who preferred face to-face (F2F) education also preferred more personal interactions between students and faculty and favored a more structured study program, while those who favored online education possessed a more independent learning style. Through their study on graduate student attrition, Perry, Boman, Care, Edwards, and Park (2008) identified that online education was not appropriate for all students due to preferred learning styles. Today, many more qualified individuals apply to nursing schools than there are spaces available (TCN, 2008). Students should be guided toward a program that will meet their individual needs and promote successful completion of a graduate degree.

The nursing research literature lacks reports about the characteristics of applicants to F2F and online graduate nursing programs. In 2007, Mills conducted an effectiveness study comparing variables in an online and an F2F master's of science in nursing program at the same school of nursing, beginning with admitted students. Admission and graduation grade point averages (GPAs) were compared, as were self-reports of post-graduation certification results. Mills did not evaluate applicant variables. Tinto's work with F2F undergraduate student persistence through college (Rovai, 2003; Tinto, 1997), Metzner and Bean's work with persistence in nontraditional--age F2F students (Metzner & Bean, 1987; Rovai), and Mills' (2007) online and F2F effectiveness study provided a basis for this investigation's framework.


The purpose of this study was to compare the online and F2F formats within a single nursing college's MSN programs in terms of applicant differentiating characteristics, graduate admission and graduating GPAs, and family nurse practitioner (FNP) certification first-time examination pass rates. To achieve this purpose, three research questions were posed: 1) Is there a difference in mean applicant GPA (BSN cumulative GPA), years of RN experience, and overall admission application evaluation score between online and F2F MSN applicants? 2) Is there a difference in admission GPA (BSN cumulative GPA) and graduation GPA between online and F2F MSN graduates? 3) Is there a difference in pass rates on the American Nurses Credentialing Center's FNP certification examination between online and F2F MSN graduates?

The college of nursing (CON) is part of a public university located in eastern Tennessee, with a population of more than 15,000 students. The CON has a variety of undergraduate and graduate nursing programs, including traditional pre-licensure BSN, licensed practical nurse to BSN, RN to BSN, MSN, doctor of philosophy in nursing, and doctor of nursing practice.

The online MSN is comprised of FNP, education, administration, and informatics concentrations, and a post-master's certificate for FNP. The F2F master's program is comprised of FNP, gerontologic nurse practitioner, psychiatric/mental health nurse practitioner, administration, and clinical nurse leader concentrations. The only concentrations in both formats are the FNP and administration concentrations. To directly compare application characteristics, admission and graduation GPAs, and FNP certification examination first-time pass rates, this study was limited to the FNP and administration concentrations of the MSN degree and did not include any post-MSN certification program data.

The online program is part of a collaborative formed by six nursing schools or colleges at six universities within the university system (Regents Online Campus Collaborative, n.d.). Students are taught by faculty across the system and take online classes with students across the system. The F2F programs are offered only to students admitted to the F2F programs at the local university.

The online format (FNP and administration) consists of online, asynchronous courses. The F2F format for FNP and administration consists of traditional classroom style courses with access to online materials, discussion boards, and submissions. Classroom sessions are conducted F2F.

The university and college admission criteria and requirements for the online and F2F MSN programs are identical. The tool used by the admission committee to score the applicant is also the same. Applicants to both programs are evaluated for admission by multiple graduate faculty on the committee.

The admission application scoring tool contains the following categories: BSN GPA, years of RN experience, type of RN experience, any completed graduate course work and grades, additional degrees, continuing education or certification, professional honors or awards, personal essay on the applicant's career objectives and abilities, compatibility of stated career objectives and requested concentration area, and references. Each criterion is weighted. The weighted scores are summed for a total score, with possible scores ranging from 0 to 22. The admission committee annually reviews the criteria for appropriateness. Applicants scoring equal to or above the required score for admission are offered admission into the program.

Measurable differentiating characteristics were selected based on availability of same or similar variables used in studies by Metzner and Bean (1987), Mills (2007), and Tinto (1997). For applicants, BSN GPA, number of years of RN experience (a direct comparison of applicant age was not available), and total admission application scores (to encompass academic, social, and professional integrations) were used. Cumulative BSN GPA and cumulative MSN GPA were used to differentiate between online and F2F graduates. Format outcomes were measured by comparing FNP certification examination pass rates between nurses who graduated from the F2F and online programs. Administration certification has a required practice time component and was not a practical comparison criterion for this study.

Each semester, individual applicant evaluation data (i.e., BSN GPA, years of RN experience, faculty application evaluation tool score, format choice [i.e., online, F2F], and MSN concentration choice) are compiled into an aggregate table. Individual applicant evaluation score sheets are then destroyed, while the aggregate tables are archived. Archived aggregate applicant data tables from the initiation of the online program in 2005 through 2010 served as data sources for the first research question. Graduate comparison data, addressed in the second research question, were retrieved from applicant archival data and the graduates' university transcripts. FNP certification examination data, addressed in the third research question, were retrieved from the American Nurses Credentialing Center report on FNP certification examination pass rates, each graduate's self-reports of pass-fail, and the college's graduate database of program admissions. The university's institutional review board reviewed and approved the project.

The chi-square test was used to determine any significant association between the format and the concentration of choice and between the format and success on the FNP certification examination. An independent t-test was used to determine if a significant difference exists in the mean GPA for the format of choice, mean RN years of experience, mean admission score, and difference in mean graduate MSN GPA.


Applicants to the online and F2F MSN programs apply first to the School of Graduate Studies. Fully completed application packets meeting the School of Graduate Studies admission criteria are forwarded to the CON. Select data from all applications reaching the CON between 2005 and 2010 were examined (849 cases).

One of the goals of the analysis was to compare specified variables between the applicants to the online program and applicants to the F2F program. Cases with missing data or study concentrations outside the scope of this study were removed from the original 849 cases, leaving 507 (59.7 percent) cases with admission GPAs, years of RN experience, and admission evaluation scoring in the categories of online and F2F FNP or administration concentrations leading to the MSN degree. Of the 507 cases, 197 (38.9 percent) applied to the online program and 310 (61.1 percent) applied to the F2F program; 467 (92.1 percent) chose the FNP concentration (F2F 282 [60.4 percent], online 185 [39.6 percent]) and 40 [7.9 percent] chose the administration concentration (F2F 28 [70 percent], online 12 [30 percent]). The chi-square test showed no significant relationship between the program format and concentration of choice ([X.sup.2] = 1.43, df = 1, p = .231).

Research Question 1

Comparisons of F2F and online applicants are provided in Table 1. A statistically significant difference was found between the mean BSN GPA of those students who applied to the online programs (n = 197) versus those who applied to the F2F programs (n = 310), with the F2F applicants reporting higher BSN GPAs (i.e., a difference of 0.1 point; t = 2.95, df = 505, p = .003). The applicants for the online program averaged 1.7 years of additional RN experience (2005-2010) than the F2F program applicants (t = 2.58, df = 477, p = .010). F2F applicants had a higher admission score than online applicants (t = 2.76, df = 505, p = .006).

Research Question 2

Differences between admission and graduation GPAs of F2F and online students are reported in Table 2. No difference was found between the average BSN GPA of those admitted to the online (n = 37) and F2F (n = 114) programs (t = 0.62, df = 149, p = .543). When graduate outcomes were examined, no significant difference in the mean graduating MSN GPA between the online and F2F programs was found (t = -1.24, df = 149, p = .216).

Research Question 3

The 2008 and 2009 FNP certification examination pass-fail results in the online and F2F formats were reviewed. Over the two-year period, 20 graduates from the online format took the FNP certification examination; 18 passed the examination. A total of 36 F2F graduates took the examination, with 35 passing. Chi-square testing showed no significant association between the program format and passing the FNP certification examination ([X.sup.2] = 1.32, df = 1, p = .250).


This study was a secondary data analysis and only limited data were retained regarding applicants, admitted students, and graduates. The primary limitations of the study were the few variables available to study. Several concentrations within the MSN programs were offered. However, only the FNP and administration concentrations were offered in both online and F2F formats.

The CON's online MSN program has increasing enrollment and is reflective of the general increase in online programs across the state and country. The study focuses on the two concentrations within the college that were offered in both an online and F2F format. The complete cycle from application through certification was statistically examined in comparing online and F2F formats. The commonality of the formats and the identified differences in the complete cycle may aid the student adviser in working with incoming students and applicants. Advisers need to have confidence that the online and F2F programs are similar in terms of admission and graduating GPA expectations and certification attainment.

The demographics and preferences of the students in each program were not studied. The online and F2F comparisons began at the point of program application, continued to acceptance into the program, where strong equivalent GPAs were identified, and carried through to the end of the chosen format by certification analysis. The results demonstrated that a strong student accepted into either the online or F2F format had a statistically similar potential for success. Advisers should see both the online and F2F formats as effective tools in the CON's programs to meet student needs and preferences.

No difference was found between F2F and online admission GPAs or graduating GPAs. These findings are consistent with Mills (2007).

The 2006-2010 university graduate catalogs were examined for similarities or differences in expected student performance in the online and F2F formats, including maintenance of GPA, no course grade less than 2.0 on a 4.0 scale (2.0 is equal to a course grade of C), and completion of the program within matriculation limits. Expected student performance was identical in each format. Although this study did not evaluate other specific program quality indicators, the FNP certification outcome supports the effectiveness of both programs in terms of achieving certification after graduation.

Mills (2007) found that online nurse practitioner students were approximately six years older than similar F2F students. Although this study did not examine age directly, one could surmise that an older applicant would be more likely to have more years of experience. Students in the online format had a mean 5.86 years of additional RN experience than F2F students in 2005 (t = 1.474, df = 27, p = .152). The difference between online and F2F mean years of RN experience narrowed each year and, in 2010, online students had only 1.10 mean years of additional RN experience (t = 1.143, df = 221, p = .254). Online programs were more attractive to more experienced nurses in the past; however, now more newly graduated nurses with less experience are attracted to online courses. This is reflective of state and national trends in online programs.


The need for MSN-prepared nurses has been clearly reported through various researchers and agencies. Graduate nursing program advisers have many opportunities to discuss online and F2F programs with potential and actual applicants. Applicants sometimes ask if it is easier to be admitted to one program than the other or if one program is easier to complete than the other. The results of this study provide several points that can be shared. The requirements for entry into the online and F2F programs at this college of nursing were the same. No differences in admission and graduating GPAs were found between the two formats, indicating that the expectations of student performance are equivalent. This study also found no difference in the first-time pass-fail of the FNP certification examination pass rate between the two formats, indicating that the graduates from both formats were well prepared with the knowledge needed to pass the certification examination. In the past, more experienced nurses applied to the online programs, but that trend is changing and less experienced nurses are now applying to both programs in fairly equal numbers.

Any significant differences noted in the selected variables between the applicants to the online and the F2F programs might imply an advisement direction, if the two programs have similar success. The study indicates that the experience difference between the applicants to the two programs is declining. The admission GPA difference was not significant between the two programs. Therefore, an adviser could feel confident recommending either format to prospective students.

This study is significant not in the differences identified but in the similarities. Recognizing the characteristics of applicants, admitted students, graduates, and program outcomes provided advisers and other graduate nursing education personnel with insight into program and student successes. Therefore, advisers may use this knowledge in the future to coach, encourage, and assist applicants and students to balance their needs, goals, and strengths.

Exploring applicant, admitted student, and graduate preferences would enhance the knowledge base and add depth to what is known about those seeking graduate education. Additional exploration of the differences in BSN GPAs in applicant pools may help identify gaps in undergraduate knowledge of graduate education requirements. Larger studies involving multiple MSN programs and a larger number of applicants and graduates would broaden the researcher's ability to generalize study conclusions. Additional studies on the retention of students would further efforts to maximize retention and graduation rates. Identification of additional correlations between graduate student characteristics and program outcomes could also benefit educational research.

doi: 10.5480/11-507


American Association of Colleges of Nursing. (2010, March 4). New AACN data show growth in doctoral nursing programs [Press release]. Retrieved from

American Nurses Association. (2010). New care delivery models in health system reform: Opportunities for nurses and their patients. Retrieved from HealthCareReformResources/Care-Delivery-Models.pdf

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. (2012). Occupational outlook handbook, 2012-13 edition, registered nurses. Retrieved from

McVeigh, H. (2009). Factors influencing the utilisation of e-learning in post-registration nursing students. Nurse Education Today, 29(1), 91-99.

Metzner, B. S., & Bean, J. P. (1987). The estimation of a conceptual model of nontraditional undergraduate student attrition. Research in Higher Education, 27(1), 15-38.

Mills, A. C. (2007). Evaluation of online and on-site options for master's degree and post-master's certificate programs. Nurse Educator, 32(2), 73-77.

Papes, K., & Lopez, R. (2007). Establishing a method for tracking persistence rates of nursing students: One school's experience. Journal of Professional Nursing, 23(4), 241-246.

Perry, B., Boman, J., Care, W. D., Edwards, M., & Park, C. (2008). Why do students withdraw from online graduate nursing and health studies education? Journal of Educators Online, 5(1), 1-11.

Pullen, L. E, Mueller, S. S., & Ashcraft, J. L. (2009). Nursing the numbers through faculty recruitment and student retention. Nurse Educator, 34(3), 132-136.

Regents Online Campus Collaborative. (n.d.). Master of science in nursing. Retrieved from

Rovai, A. P. (2003). In search of higher persistence rates in distance education online programs. Internet and Higher Education, 6(1), 1-16.

Tennessee Center for Nursing. (2005). Curing the crisis in nursing: A master plan for Tennessee. Retrieved from http://www.

Tennessee Center for Nursing. (2008). Curing the crisis...progress and prognosis. Retrieved from

Tinto, V. (1997, November-December). Classrooms as communities: Exploring the educational character of student persistence. Journal of Higher Education, 68(6), 599-623.

Waxman, K. T., & Maxworthy, J. (2010). The doctorate of nursing practice degree and the nurse executive: The perfect combination. Nurse Leader, 8(2), 31-33.

Nancy G. Cameron, DNP, RN, NEA-BC, is a professor, East Tennessee State University College of Nursing, Johnson City. For more information, contact Dr. Cameron at
Table 1: F2F and Online MSN Applicant Analysis (N = 507)

                                     F2F (n = 310)
                                         n (%)

   Family nurse                       282 (91.0)
   Administration                      28 (9.0)
   2010                               125 (40.3)
   2009                                63 (20.3)
   2008                                 15(4.8)
   2007                                45 (14.5)
   2006                                31 (10.0)
   2005                                31 (10.0)
                                 M [+ or -] SD (range)
BSN cumulative GPA                   3.47 [+ or -]
                                    0.37 (2.2-4.0)
Of those with experience,
   RN years (N = 449)        6.81 [+ or -] 6.65 (0.2-28.0)

Admission score             12.97 [+ or -] 2.50 (5.7-19.7)

                                    Online (n =197)
                                         n (%)

   Family nurse                       185 (93.9)
   Administration                       12(6.1)
   2010                               123 (62.4)
   2009                                46 (23.4)
   2008                                 8(4.1)
   2007                                 17(8.6)
   2006                                   --
   2005                                 3(1.5)
                                 M [+ or -] SD (range)
BSN cumulative GPA                   3.38 [+ or -]
                                    0.36 (2.5-4.0)
Of those with experience,
   RN years (N = 449)        8.54 [+ or -] 7.41 (0.5-32.0)

Admission score             12.38 [+ or -] 2.17 (6.2-17.3)

Table 2: Admission and Graduation Grade Point Average of
F2F and Online MSN Students (N = 151)

                       F2F (n =114)
                           n (%)
Calendar year
   2010                     --
   2009                  40 (35.1)
   2008                  24 (21.1)
   2007                  26 (22.8)
   2006                  24 (21.1)

                   M [+ or -] SD (range)

BSN GPA        3.42 [+ or -] 0.37 (2.1-4.0)

MSN GPA        3.70 [+ or -] 0.20 (3.1-4.0)

                      Online (n = 37)
                           n (%)
Calendar year
   2010                   9(24.3)
   2009                  17 (45.9)
   2008                   4(10.8)
   2007                   6(16.2)
   2006                   1 (2.7)

                   M [+ or -] SD (range)

BSN GPA        3.37 [+ or -] 0.41 (2.6-4.0)

MSN GPA        3.74 [+ or -] 0.18 (3.3-4.0)
COPYRIGHT 2013 National League for Nursing, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2013 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Cameron, Nancy G.
Publication:Nursing Education Perspectives
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2013
Previous Article:What we have learned from a model nurse residency program: ideas for linking service and education.
Next Article:The impact of blended teaching on knowledge, satisfaction, and self-directed learning in nursing undergraduates: a randomized, controlled trial.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters