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Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) Overview

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Earning an associate degree in nursing (ADN) requires completion of a two-year training program that includes classroom and clinical experience. Graduates emerge ready for entry-level nursing jobs and prepared to take the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) if they choose to become licensed as a registered nurse (RN).

Although an ADN program provides a quick path to a career as an RN, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) advocates for a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) as the minimum educational requirement for RNs. However, obtaining an ADN remains worthwhile, as ADN-holders with RN licenses often work for a couple of years before pursuing a BSN, which they can earn in just another two years via RN-to-BSN accelerated training programs.

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Associate Degree in Nursing vs Bachelor’s in Nursing

As noted, ADN programs take two years to complete and prepare graduates for entry-level nursing positions and the NCLEX-RN. Traditional BSN programs typically span four years and, according to the AACN, provide the best preparation for an RN career. The advantages to an ADN include a quick timeline to graduation and affordability. BSNs take twice the time to earn but open doors to more career opportunities, higher-paying jobs, and advanced degrees.

Students typically earn ADNs at community colleges, while those pursuing BSNs study at four-year colleges and universities. BSN curriculums include associate in nursing coursework along with an additional focus on the sciences, research, community and public health, management, and the humanities, which prepare more knowledgeable and well-rounded professionals. BSN-holders also make more money than ADN-holders; the average annual two-year nursing degree salary totals $69,831, while a BSN increases that number to $85,483.

RNs who hold ADNs need not spend four additional years in a BSN degree program. Bridge programs allow application of previous educational and work experience, which accelerates the timeframe to a higher degree. RNs with an ADN can enroll in RN-to-BSN or RN-to-MSN (master of science in nursing) programs and finish in 2-3 years.

MSNs train RNs for roles as advanced practice nurses (APNs), including nurse practitioners (NPs), clinical nurse specialists, certified registered nurse anesthetists, and certified nurse midwives. APNs receive high-level training to provide care in specialty areas, such as family practice, anesthesiology, midwifery, pediatrics, acute care, oncology, and gerontology.

Many nurses consider an ADN a valuable stepping-stone to more advanced credentials.

ADN vs. ASN: What’s the Difference?

An associate degree is the step between a high school diploma and bachelor’s degree. There is a difference between ASN and ADN degrees; an associate degree in nursing may refer to several different two-year degrees:

  • Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN)
  • Associate of Science in Nursing (ASN)
  • Associate of Applied Science in Nursing (AASN)
  • All of these degrees provide a relatively quick and inexpensive path to qualifying for the NCLEX-RN and entering the nursing workforce.

    What to Expect From an ADN Program

    ADN programs can be completed in two years. Many admissions offices expect applicants to have taken high school or college coursework in biology, chemistry, math, and physiology. A typical ADN curriculum comprises coursework in anatomy, behavioral health, child and maternal nursing care, microbiology, pharmacology, and general education classes in the humanities and psychology.

    ADN programs also include supervised clinical experience. The required hours vary by program, and students interested in pursuing an RN license should check their state’s clinical hours requirement. Students can often opt for on-campus or online classes but must log clinical hours in person.

    ADN Requirements and Licensure

    In addition to specific prerequisite high school or college courses, ADN applicants typically need a high school diploma with a 2.0 GPA or a college GPA of 2.5; ACT scores (19 in math, 18 in English); and SAT scores (460 in math, 450 in English). Submission requirements may include official transcripts, a personal statement, recommendations, and a resume. Requirements will vary by program.

    ADN programs usually comprise 60 credits and a specific number of clinical hours. Graduates seeking RN licensure need to pass the NCLEX-RN, which covers the important principles of nursing care, including safe and effective care, health promotion, and maintenance, psychosocial integrity, and physiological integrity. Additional RN licensure requirements vary by state but usually include an ADN, nursing diploma, or BSN from an accredited program and a criminal background check. Some states will also require that candidates submit fingerprints in order to receive their license.

    Licensure ensures the professional fitness and preparation of RNs. License renewal may require RNs to earn continuing education credits and stay up-to-date with practice and legal developments and technological advancements. The exact requirements vary from state to state.

    What Can I Do With an Associate Degree in Nursing?

    ADN-holders who pass the NCLEX-RN exam are licensed to practice as RNs.

    As licensed nurses, RNs perform more advanced duties such as assessment and observation, taking medical histories, planning patient care, educating patients and families, and consulting with other health professionals. They also operate medical equipment and administer tests, treatments, and medications. The majority (60%) of RNs work in hospitals, followed by ambulatory healthcare, nursing and residential care facilities, government, and educational services. RNs make a median annual wage of $73,300.

    Post-ADN Educational Paths

    While an ADN may be a means to an end for some, those looking to advance their careers pursue higher degrees, such as BSNs, MSNs, or doctoral degrees. In a position statement, the AACN outlined its strong belief that RNs should continue their educational progression, and earn their BSNs or other higher degrees. That being the case, an ADN serves as a gateway to further nursing education.

    An RN-to-BSN bridge program allows RNs to continue working while completing this two-year nursing degree program. Admission typically requires an ADN with a minimum GPA of 2.0-3.0 and an RN license. Applicants should have already taken college-level anatomy and physiology. Other requirements may include professional nursing experience, ACT or SAT scores, transcripts, a resume, and academic or professional recommendations.

    RN-to-BSN curriculums typically include coursework in community health, ethics, healthcare innovations, management and leadership, and nursing informatics. Clinical hours may be completed at students’ workplaces.

    RN-to-MSN programs train highly-skilled and specialty-focused nursing professionals in 2-3 years. These bridge programs start with BSN coursework, then progress to MSN classes and practicum experiences. The curriculum focuses on evidence-based practice, statistics, advanced pathophysiology, health assessment, and pharmacology. At the master’s level, course content depends greatly on a students’ area of specialization, such as NP, midwifery, or anesthesia.

    RN-to-MSN applicants need a current RN license and an ADN or nursing diploma. They must submit transcripts, a personal statement, 2-3 recommendation letters, and a resume. Other common requirements include GRE scores, a 3.0 GPA, and 1-2 years of nursing experience in a clinical setting.

    Reviewed by:

    Reviewed by Nicole Galan, RN, MSN

    Nicole Galan, RN, MSN
    Nicole Galan is a registered nurse who started on a general medical/surgical care unit and then moved into infertility care where she worked for almost 10 years. She has also worked for over 13 years as a freelance writer specializing in consumer health sites and educational materials for nursing students. Galan currently works as a full-time freelancer and recently earned her master’s degree in nursing education from Capella University.

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