RN Diploma vs. ADN vs. BSN Degree: What’s the Difference?

Updated November 9, 2022 · 3 Min Read

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If you're considering a career in registered nursing, you can select among educational options that suit your career goals. Read on to learn about them all.
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Aspiring registered nurses (RNs) have several educational paths to choose from: a diploma or certificate, associate degree in nursing (ADN) degree, or bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degree.

Some options offer a quicker route to an RN license, while a BSN often follows a more traditional college timeline.

This page can help you determine the best choice for meeting your academic and professional goals. Explore the requirements, advantages, and salary potential of each pathway.

Featured Online RN-to-BSN Programs

What Is an RN Diploma or Certificate?

  • Average Program Length: 2-3 years
  • Average Earning Potential: $71,000 (Payscale, September 2022)

Diplomas and certificate programs were the original formal education option for nurses in the U.S., until the development of nursing associate degrees in the 1950s. Students earn RN diplomas at hospital nursing schools rather than a college or university. Hospitals in some states still offer this traditional training.

RN diplomas and certificate programs do not result in a degree, but they do satisfy qualifications and provide preparation for the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN).

Diploma and certificate curriculums often consist of 50 credit hours and focus on clinical practice rather than general education. Courses include nursing care foundations, medical-surgical nursing, nursing care of adults, and professional development. Graduates are prepared for entry-level RN positions.

The advantages to this route include completing the program in 2-3 years and the focus on job readiness. However, credits earned often do not transfer to a degree program. Opportunities and earning potential may be limited.

Admissions requirements to RN diploma programs often include:

  • A high school diploma or GED certificate
  • English language proficiency
  • Math and science high school courses
  • College prerequisite courses
  • A 2.0-3.0 or higher GPA
  • An application and fee

What Is an Associate Degree in Nursing?

  • Credits Required: 60 credits
  • Average Program Length: 2 years
  • Average Earning Potential: $73,000 (Payscale, September 2022)

If you're torn between pursuing a diploma/certificate or a degree, an ADN may work for you. Students can finish in about two years and can study online or in person. An average of 60-75 credits includes some general education classes, pharmacology, maternal-newborn and pediatric nursing, and psychiatric nursing courses.

Clinical hours correspond to state requirements and take place at healthcare sites. Graduates qualify for the NCLEX-RN exam and can apply their ADN credits toward a future BSN or master of science in nursing (MSN) degree.

ADN students benefit from a shorter — and often less expensive — time in school, but may find their advancement and salary potential limited without a bachelor's degree. RNs who want to specialize will need a BSN.

Admissions requirements to ADN programs often include:

  • A high school diploma or GED certificate
  • English language proficiency
  • Math and science high school courses
  • A 3.0 or higher GPA
  • An application and fee

What Is a Bachelor of Science in Nursing?

  • Credits Required: 120 credits
  • Average Program Length: 4 years
  • Average Earning Potential: $89,000 (Payscale, September 2022)

Four-year BSNs offer comprehensive RN training along with the breadth of a bachelor's degree curriculum. Students can complete their coursework online or on campus and gain clinical experience at local hospitals or other medical facilities.

After taking the NCLEX-RN exam, BSN-holders may find positions in their specialty areas with higher starting salaries than ADN- or diploma/certificate-holders would find.

Students complete 120 credits, roughly half of which are devoted to general education. Courses for the nursing major include genetics and genomics, health assessment, pathophysiology and pharmacology, and legal and ethical issues.

RNs with a BSN can advance in their careers, but some choose to earn higher degrees like MSNs to become advanced practice nurses.

These highly trained and well-paid professionals include nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, and nurse practitioners. Others opt for graduate degrees in nurse administration or education.

BSN Admissions requirements often include:

  • A high school diploma or GED certificate
  • A GPA of 3.0 or higher, with courses in math and science
  • Recommendations from teachers or employers
  • An application and fee

Advantages to Earning an ADN or a BSN

There are many advantages to earning an ADN — the most notable being program length. ADN programs are also generally easier to get into than BSN programs and they are not as costly.

There are many advantages to both ADNs and BSNs. To help decide which program might be right for you, consider cost, program length, salary potential, and career advancement opportunities.

Advantages of Earning an ADN

  • Less time and financial commitment upfront
  • Programs available at many community colleges
  • Easier admission than to BSN programs
  • Credit hours are often cheaper
  • Can start earning an RN salary sooner

Advantages of Earning a BSN

  • Provides a greater breadth of nursing knowledge than an ADN
  • Programs widely available online and in person
  • Easier to advance beyond entry-level positions
  • Higher salary potential after graduation
  • Readiness for graduate education

Many nurses choose to earn an ADN or BSN, then return to school for higher degrees later on. Online RN-to-BSN, RN-to-MSN, and ADN-to-MSN bridge programs are designed to help nurses pursue advanced education for more career opportunities.

Salary Potential for RNs with ADN vs. BSN Degrees

According to September 2022 Payscale data, the average annual salary for an RN with an ADN is $73,000, compared to the average annual salary of $89,000 for an RN with a BSN. Many employers require or strongly prefer a BSN for specialized or advanced positions. Positions with administrative responsibilities also prefer a bachelor's. Still, there are many rewarding opportunities for both nurses with ADNs and BSN-holders.

Frequently Asked Questions


Is an ADN the same as an RN?

An ADN is a two-year nursing degree that leads to becoming an RN. The RN credential is more than holding the degree: It includes earning an RN diploma, ADN, or BSN degree, passing the NCLEX, and completing state licensing requirements.

Is it better to get a BSN or an ADN?

A BSN degree and an ADN will both qualify you to take the NCLEX and become an RN. A BSN degree takes longer and includes more advanced topics, such as nursing leadership, research, and public health. Which is better depends on how long you want to spend in school and your career goals.

Does a BSN get paid more than an ADN?

In general, a BSN pays more than an ADN two-year nursing degree, reflecting the additional education. However, experience, geographic location, and responsibilities can also affect salary.

What is the pay difference between RN and BSN?

A nurse with a BSN degree will often earn more than nurses with an RN diploma/certificate or an ADN because of their additional education. However, an ADN and RN diploma/certificate can still lead to RN certification.

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