Best Nursing Anesthesia Programs in the USA
The certified registered nurse anesthetist is one of four categories of advanced practice nurse.
Highly educated – a master’s degree is the minimum required for practice – the CRNA has a scope of practice that is the same as an anesthesiologist’s.
Although they perform the same tasks when administering anesthesia or providing pain management, CRNAs practice nursing, not medicine.
The CRNA salary is indicative of the high level of expertise and professionalism required.
The average annual CRNA salary of $160,250 (as of 2015, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics) is well above that of any other RN group, including the other advanced practice nurses.
Compiling a list of the best nurse anesthetist programs is a dicey project, because “best” always implies a certain amount of subjectivity.
Like beauty, best is often in the eye of the beholder.
Tuition cost, location, prestige, clinical experience, instructor quality, pass rate (the number of graduates who pass the licensing exam) and many other factors go into the concept of rating nurse anesthesia programs.
The decision to become a CRNA should not be a whim of the moment.
The practice is complex, responsibilities are very high and anesthesia complications can be deadly to the patient.
Clinical experience is vitally important.
Although some CRNAs set their feet on that path from the beginning, others come to the practice after working as an RN for several years.
However, if you think you might ultimately want to become a CRNA, it would be best to choose your initial education with that in mind.
RNs in the US have three educational options: a nursing diploma, an associate degree (ADN) or a bachelor’s degree (BSN).
The last is the best choice if you plan to pursue a career as a CRNA.
What would be ideal is to select a BSN program in a school that also offers a CRNA, as that would make it easiest to go on for high level education.
However, CRNA programs are limited, so that option may not be available.
In that case, choose a BSN program that fits your budget, with careful attention to matters such as clinical experience, instructor quality and hospital affiliations which offer the best practical experience.
Clinical Experience Affects Your Choices
In addition to other factors, your choice of a nurse anesthesia program may – and should – be influenced by your clinical experience.
Let’s say you’ve been an RN for over five years; five years is about the length of time it takes for a nurse to grow from novice to expert status, according to research by Patricia Benner and others in the field.
You have general medical/surgical experience in a large hospital and have spent several years in critical care.
Your solid grounding in hands-on care means you have an advantage over the new graduate of a BSN program who has decided to go on to become a CRNA.
You have patient assessment and critical thinking skills the new graduate lacks, and you have had plenty of opportunities to learn from mistakes, both your own and those other people have made.
You are confident in your clinical abilities and competent in practice.
Although the length, content and intensity of clinical rotations in the CRNA program is still important, as a seasoned nurse you may well be able to select a program primarily for other reasons such as location or tuition costs.
The new graduate, however, would be much better off to focus on the clinical experience because she has so little practical experience in nursing.
In addition, many programs require a certain amount of clinical experience and may give preference to nurses who have more than the minimum.
Program Curriculum Issues
Although each state regulates the practice of nursing on an individual basis, the curriculum of a CRNA program must meet certain standards set by the Council on Accreditation of Nurse Anesthesia Educational Programs in order for the program to be accredited.
For that reason, all programs include courses such as advanced physiology/pathophysiology, advanced health assessment, and advanced pharmacology.
However, once the minimum requirements are met, each program has the option to modify the curriculum as desired. For example, a program may add additional pharmacology hours.
Others may increase the length of the lab experience for certain courses.
Some programs offer elective rotations in specialty aspects of anesthesia, such as pain management, open heart surgery or transplant medicine.
Others offer clinical rotations at more than one hospital, which provides the student with the opportunity to work with different clinical preceptors, use different kinds of equipment or experience different systems of care.
You should feel confident that the curriculum of any CRNA program will meet your basic needs.
The curriculum may not be a major factor in choosing a program unless you have additional interests or a desire for experience above the normal program offerings.
Some programs have a higher proportion of online offerings for non-clinical courses, which may be advantageous if you plan to work while completing your education.
Clinical Experience and Work Settings
All CRNA programs are affiliated with hospitals or medical centers where the students obtain clinical experience.
A large university medical center is likely to offer a different experience for the CRNA student than a smaller general hospital.
An organization that serves primarily the poor and homeless is likely to provide a very different patient population for the clinical experience than an organization whose patients are more affluent.
Mental illness, chronic diseases that have been incompletely treated or not been treated at all, substance abuse and similar factors have a big impact on anesthesia and pain management.
The hospitals with which a CRNA program is affiliated may also provide variables in terms of equipment, staffing and support, specialty practice or number of available cases.
A pediatric specialty hospital, for example, offers different experiences than a general hospital.
When considering a CRNA program, investigate the affiliated clinical settings thoroughly, as – all other things being equal – the affiliations may tip the balance for your particular situation.
Quality of the Instructors
The instructors in a program have a significant impact on its quality.
In addition to clinical competence, instructors must have adequate time to teach and prepare lessons, be experts in communication, and have high ethical standards and the necessary empathy to support their students.
Although each state may have different requirements for instructors’ educational requirement, in most cases, those in a CRNA program will be prepared at the masters or doctorate level.
Assistants, however, may have a BSN.
It’s important to check the mix of educational degrees among the instructors – a high percentage of BSN assistant teachers may mean the school is looking to save money or has been unable to attract qualified instructors.
On the other hand, if all the instructors have PhDs in nursing, their time may be spent more in nursing research and in obtaining grants than in hands-on teaching. Former and current students can be a good resource for information about instructors.
In addition to contacting these people directly, you may also be able to obtain information from online nursing student forums.
While you’re at it, ask former students about their clinical experiences and if they felt well-prepared for the licensing exam.
Nursing staff in the affiliated hospitals may also be a good source of information, especially on the subject of instructor/student interactions.
You should also be able to obtain information about the program’s pass rate, which is an indication of how well the instructors prepared the students for the CRNA licensing exam.
Master’s Degree or Doctorate?
The American Association of Nurse Anesthetists and other professional nursing organizations are pushing strongly to make a doctorate required to practice nursing anesthesia.
While you can practice as a CRNA with a master’s degree, it is worth considering whether you want to have the additional educational credential.
If you do choose a master’s degree, consider how easy it would be to go back later for a doctorate.
Is the school you choose planning to offer a doctoral program?
Is it affiliated with a school that offers a doctoral program?
If you decide to go the doctoral route, it may be wise to choose an established doctoral program rather than a new one.
Being a student in a brand-new program may mean that any bumps in the process affect the quality of the educational experience.
It is impossible to talk about the “best” CRNA programs without mentioning the issue of cost.
Most potential CRNA students don’t have unlimited resources (if you do, that’s wonderful, and you can choose a program without worrying about tuition costs).
Costs of individual programs ranged from nothing at the US Army Graduate Program in Nurse Anesthesia (in return for a five-year service commitment) to $79,906 at the University of New England.
More prestigious programs do tend to be more expensive, particularly if it is a private school.
Prestige does not guarantee an excellent education, however. If your means are more moderate, educational loans are available should you feel the best program is also one that is otherwise outside your financial resources.
No matter what your financial situation, do your best to choose a program based on quality instructors, solid clinical experiences and a high student pass rate.
You may find these at more moderately-priced schools as well as those that are on the high end of the cost spectrum.
Top-Ranked Nursing Anesthesia Programs in the US
US News and World Report offers an annual ranking for graduate schools in the US.
It also ranks individual programs at each school in a number of fields.
In 2016, US News and World Report listed a total of 17 programs in its top 10 group for nursing anesthesia programs.
The number was due to the fact that several programs tied.
The ranking range runs from 1 to 4, with top-ranked programs holding a higher number.
However, there is not a great deal of difference between a program ranked 4.0 and one ranked 3.9.
Rankings are based on a variety of factors, including size of the program, instructor-student ratios, instructor educational attainment, student GPA, attrition rates, licensing pass rates and similar quality factors.
For example, top-ranked Virginia Commonwealth University had a 100 percent pass rate at first exam attempt for the last class, which graduated in 2014.
Fourth-ranked University of Pittsburgh had a 92.2 percent pass rate in 2015.
In comparison, The University of Southern California, which is ranked 10th (along with seven other schools), had a pass rate of 82 percent.
The national average is 81 percent.
Tuition for the master’s program in nursing anesthesia at the Virginia Commonwealth University was $12,397 per year (in-state) and $25,492 per year (out-of-state) in 2016.
At the University of Pittsburgh, tuition for the same program in 2016 was $37,392 per year (full-time, in-state) and $43,290 per year (full-time, out-of-state).
The top programs all offer a minimum of a master’s degree in nursing anesthesia, and most either offer or will soon offer a doctorate in the field.
Here are the programs on the 2016 US News List with their individual rankings and scores (schools that were tied are listed alphabetically):
#1 Virginia Commonwealth university; Richmond, Virginia (4.0)
#2 Baylor College of Medicine: Houston, Texas (3.8)
#3 Duke University; Durham, North Carolina (3.7)
#4 Tie Kaiser Permanente School of Anesthesia at California State University; Fullerton, California (3.6)
#4 Tie Rush University; Chicago, Illinois (3.6)
#4 Tie Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences; Bethesda, Maryland (3.6)
#4 Tie University of Pittsburgh; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (3.6)
#8 Tie University of Texas Health Science Center; Houston (3.5)
#8 Tie U.S. Army Graduate Program in Anesthesia Nursing; Fort Sam Houston, Texas (3.5)
#10 Tie Georgetown University: Washington, DC (3.4)
#10 Tie Mayo School of Health Sciences; Rochester, Minnesota (3.4)
#10 Tie University at Buffalo SUNY; Buffalo New York (3.4)
#10 Tie University of Detroit Mercy; Detroit, Michigan (3.4)
#10 Tie University of Iowa; Iowa City, Iowa (3.4)
#10 Tie University of Maryland Baltimore; Baltimore, Maryland (3.4)
#10 Tie University of Southern California; Los Angeles, California (3.4)
#10 Tie Wake Forest Baptist Health at Wake Forest School of Medicine, Winston-Sale, North Carolina (3.4)
As indicated at the beginning of this article, the best nurse anesthetist program must be best for you and your situation. You should develop a list of the important criteria and rank them. For example, you may need to relocate to go to school. How far are you willing to go? Which weighs more heavily with you – the quality of the clinical experience or the quality of the instructor/student interaction? Are there deal breakers, such as the total cost of a program or the school’s pass rate? In the long run, only you can make the final decision about the CRNA program that is best for you.
Written by 3rd independent party
2017-33784 Exp. 10/17