Ask a Nurse: College vs. Technical School?
In our Ask a Nurse series, experienced nurses provide an insider look at the nursing profession by answering your questions about nursing careers, degrees, and resources.
Question: Would it be wiser to go to college or a technical school for nursing? Would going to a technical school interfere with the ability to find a job or affect compensation?
Answer: A successful nursing career begins with education, and prospective nurses can choose from a variety of schooling opportunities. Which option best prepares candidates for nursing practice?
Jenna Liphart Rhoads, Ph.D., a nurse educator, says that earning an associate degree in nursing (ADN) from a technical school should not affect your job security or pay. However, some hospitals prefer to hire registered nurses (RNs) with a bachelor's degree.
Amanda Guarniere, a nurse practitioner (NP) and career counselor, also notes that your career goals should influence your program choice. "While there are some employers that favor bachelor-prepared nurses (Magnet hospitals, for example)," Guarniere says, "for the most part, those who go to a technical school should not face adversity when retaining a job or in regards to compensation."
You should consider factors like cost, program length, and accreditation for any nursing program. When comparing technical school and college programs, however, the most important consideration is the type of degree you intend to earn. "Trade/technical/vocational schools more commonly offer practical nursing programs (for LPN/LVN certification) and will occasionally offer a bridge program for LPNs to become RNs," Guarniere says.
Below, Rhoads and Guarniere offer some additional advice to help you select the ideal nurse education program.
What Is the Difference Between Technical, Trade, and Vocational School vs. a Community or Four-Year College?
"Trade, technical, and vocational are generally used synonymously when describing schools that train students in a specific trade or skill that is directly applicable to a job upon graduation," Rhoads explains.
Most technical schools provide hands-on, career-specific training in a variety of fields, including health professions. Trade, technical, and vocational institutions most commonly offer licensed vocational or practical nursing (LVN/LPN) and certified nursing assistant (CNA) certificate programs. Most of these programs can be completed within 18 months.
Community colleges offer associate degree programs. Nurses who earn an ADN from a two-year degree program can take the National Council Licensure Exam for RNs (NCLEX-RN) and obtain an RN license. Four-year college and university programs award bachelor of science in nursing degrees (BSN), and some also offer graduate programs that confer master's and doctoral degrees.
What Does Each Type of Degree Prepare Graduates For?
Both Rhoads and Guarniere note that your personal career goals are the biggest influence on the type of school you should choose. "In the long term, a minimum of a bachelor's degree is often required to 'move up' into a role as a charge nurse or assistant manager," Rhoads says. The type of degree you earn can also influence where you begin your career.
Consider some of the following nursing roles:
Earning an LPN/LVN license allows you to provide basic nursing care under the direction of a physician or RN. An LPN/LVN's duties and opportunities for advancement tend to be limited. LPNs often hold more administrative responsibilities than RNs.
Although many employers now prefer to hire nurses who hold a BSN, there are still plenty of opportunities for RNs with an associate degree. Both ADN and BSN programs prepare candidates to take the NCLEX-RN.
Nurse practitioners are advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) who must hold a graduate degree from a master's or doctoral program.
How Education Paths Influence Employment and Earning Potential
The nursing school you attend should not influence your employment or earning potential if you are a competent nurse with the right credentials.
"When it comes to RN positions for new graduates, hiring managers and employers put more weight on your competency, maturity, and aptitude for learning as opposed to your academic performance," Guarniere advises. "Fortunately, the NCLEX-RN exam serves as a great equalizer to determine that job candidates have met the minimum knowledge and competency requirements." The standardized, computerized exam evaluates all candidates' entry-level nursing capabilities, regardless of where they were educated.
The primary exceptions are nurses who wish to work at Magnet hospitals, which typically expect nurses to hold a BSN at minimum, and prospective APRNs. These individuals can achieve their goals faster by enrolling in a four-year BSN program.
Alternative Education Paths to First Earning a BSN
Some nurses may prefer to attend technical school for a CNA credential so they can work in healthcare while earning an ADN or a BSN. "Some nurses do attend LVN programs and work as an LVN while attending a BSN program to become an RN, but that is less common," says Rhoads. "Most nurses who do not want to obtain a BSN right away generally obtain an ADN first to be able to work as an RN and then complete an RN-BSN program while working as a nurse."
RN-to-BSN programs are an example of a bridge program. Designed for licensed nurses with clinical experience, bridge programs build on existing knowledge, allowing candidates to quickly earn an advanced degree. "RN-BSN programs ... consist of the nursing courses taught in BSN programs but not ADN programs," Rhoads further explains.
Some common bridge programs include:
- LPN/LVN-to-BSN (for LPN/LVNs who want to earn their BSN to become an RN)
- RN-to-BSN (for RNs with an ADN who want to earn their BSN)
- RN-to-MSN (for RNs with an ADN who want to earn their master's in nursing)
Attending a technical school to begin your nursing career will not affect your employment or earning potential, but in the long term, a BSN or master's is necessary to move into more advanced positions. Certain employers, such as Magnet hospitals, also prefer nurses with a minimum of a BSN.
Meet Our Contributors
Jenna Liphart Rhoads, Ph.D., is a nurse educator and freelance author and editor. She holds a BSN from Saint Francis Medical Center College of Nursing and an MS in nursing education from Northern Illinois University. Rhoads earned a Ph.D. in education with a concentration in nursing education from Capella University, where she researched the moderating effects of emotional intelligence on stress and GPA in military veteran nursing students. Her clinical background includes surgical-trauma adult critical care, interventional radiology procedures, and conscious sedation in adult and pediatric populations. She currently resides in Texas with her husband and two children.
Amanda Guarniere, MSN, NP-C, is an Ivy-League educated nurse practitioner and career mentor who helps nursing professionals find and land their dream jobs. She founded The Résumé Rx in 2018 and helps nursing professionals with career and résumé strategies so they can land personally and professionally fulfilling opportunities. She has been featured in ScrubsMag, Indeed, the NursePreneur Podcast, and has written résumés for several well-known nurse personalities. Guarniere is a 2020-2021 Doximity Op-Med writing fellow.
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