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RN vs. ADN vs. BSN Degree: The Differences

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In today’s job market, registered nurses (RNs) are in high demand. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the number of registered nurses could increase by 7% between 2019 and 2029.

Prospective RNs need the correct training and education in order to be eligible for state licensure. Many earn a four-year bachelor of science in nursing (BSN). Others pursue faster educational paths, completing a nursing diploma or associate degree in nursing (ADN) in less time.

What is a RN Diploma or Certificate?

RN diploma or certificate programs have slowly fallen out of favor during the past few decades. However, RN diplomas still exist. Typically 18-32 months long, these programs prepare students for the NCLEX-RN exam required for RN state licensure. However, they are not full academic degrees.

While nursing degrees include general education courses, diploma programs focus on nursing concepts and clinical practice. They include more clinical hours, essentially functioning as apprenticeships. As employers increasingly prefer job candidates with full degrees, diplomas and certificates continue to become less common. Nevertheless, RN diploma- and certificate-holders still qualify for licensure like other RNs, provided the program has been approved by the state licensing board.

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What to Expect From an ADN Program

One popular path to a nursing career involves pursuing an associate degree in nursing (ADN), which also prepares students for the NCLEX-RN and RN state licensure. An ADN traditionally lasts two years, although part-time students may take longer to graduate. Some schools offer accelerated options. Incoming students with relevant professional experience or previously completed relevant classes may be able to graduate more quickly.

While an ADN curriculum may include some general education coursework in English or communication, learners primarily take courses in microbiology, anatomy, and foundational nursing. Some common required classes include human anatomy and physiology and application of basic nursing skills.

Candidates also participate in clinical training, which occurs on location at a hospital or other healthcare facility. The number of clinical hours varies between programs, although most schools take into account state laws regarding supervised work experience needed for licensure.

ADN Requirements & Licensure

Prospective ADN students need a high school diploma, usually with a minimum 2.0 GPA. Many colleges also consider GED-holders for admission. Applicants may need to take the ACT, SAT, or the ATI Test of Academic Skills (TEAS).

Once enrolled, students must complete their clinical rotations and pass their required foundational nursing courses. After that, they may take the NCLEX-RN exam and apply for state licensure. RNs cannot legally work without obtaining a state license.

The licensing process varies by state but usually involves completing an application form, submitting proof of an associate degree, and providing NCLEX-RN exam scores. Prospective applicants undergo a background check and pay a fee.

What to Expect From a BSN Program

Like other bachelor’s programs, bachelor of science in nursing degrees customarily last four years for full-time students. In contrast to associate degrees, bachelor’s-level curricula include more general education components. These include courses in the humanities, social sciences, and math in addition to nursing-related science courses.

Learners also complete a comprehensive nursing curriculum covering nursing skills and theory, including classes in nursing ethics, physiology, pharmacology, and public health. Students also complete lab requirements and supervised clinical components in a hospital or other healthcare facility. Clinical hours are usually arranged by the college or university.

Sometimes, incoming students with an ADN or experience working as a nursing assistant may be eligible to enroll in fast-track, two-year BSN programs. Part-time students, however, may spend a bit longer pursuing their degrees.

BSN Requirements & Licensure

BSN program applicants should possess a high school diploma or GED and a competitive GPA. Prospective students are usually asked to submit their ACT or SAT scores. Some schools require a formal writing sample.

RN candidates who complete a bachelor’s degree in nursing are one step closer in obtaining state licensure and working as an RN. The BSN prepares candidates to take the NCLEX-RN exam, which evaluates registered nurses’ foundational nursing skills. This test covers topics like health promotion and maintenance, physiological adaptation, and psychosocial integrity.

In addition to passing the exam and obtaining a BSN, licensure candidates should fill out a state application, undergo a background check, and pay an application fee.

Why Should I Get a BSN in Nursing?

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) recommends the BSN degree as the entry level degree for all professional nurses. The organization suggests that BSN graduates are better qualified to work as RNs in a variety of arenas, including critical care, outpatient care, public health, and mental health. BSN degree-holding nurses are also better qualified to meet the demands of a complex, ever changing health care system.

In fact, studies show that nurses who hold BSNs tend to deliver safer, more effective care, leading to better outcomes overall. This may be due to BSN programs’ increased focus on general education and the humanities, which might improve critical thinking skills in the workplace.

Some states have even mandated that all RNs pursue bachelor’s degrees. In New York, for instance, RNs must now pursue a BSN within 10 years of obtaining their initial licensure.

Associate Degree in Nursing vs Bachelor’s in Nursing for RNs

Many candidates choose to complete an ADN because it allows them to earn RN licensure in less time than a BSN. ADN programs follow a quicker timeline and generally feature more affordable tuition rates, since students need only pay for two years of schooling. Additionally, students can find ADN programs at community colleges, which generally charge less for than four-year colleges and universities.

While a BSN’s longer timeline can make the degree more expensive, these degrees are in high demand, and employers generally prefer job candidates with bachelor’s degrees. BSN graduates gain the advantage of more career versatility and higher pay, and students can obtain scholarships, loans, and grants to help offset tuition costs. Some employers offer tuition reimbursement programs.

Some nurses choose a different pathway altogether. Nontraditional nursing degrees can help individuals achieve their career goals through bridge or advanced programs. Registered nurses with ADNs can still earn BSNs with online RN-to-BSN programs, while ADN-holders with goals of becoming advanced practice nurses can also bypass bachelor’s degrees altogether and enroll in master’s programs. Many schools offer RN-to-MSN programs for these RNs.

Salary Potential for RNs with ADN vs BSN Degrees

Earning potential is another factor to consider when choosing between an ADN and a BSN. ADN-holders earn an average annual salary of about $69,660, according to data from PayScale. In contrast, nurses with a BSN enjoy average earnings of just over $85,000 — an approximately $15,000 difference.

This discrepancy in earnings comes from the positions available to nurses with each degree. ADN programs tend to prepare learners for entry-level roles, while BSN programs often impart skills needed for specialized or advanced RN roles. A BSN can also lead to more opportunities for promotions and advancement, and may serve as a stepping stone for nurses interested in graduate study and nurse practitioner careers.

A BSN also opens the door for additional nursing specializations and certifications for which ADN holders do not qualify. Some of these specializations include neonatal nursing, critical care, trauma nursing, and pediatrics. Finally, BSN holders can potentially step into lucrative leadership, management, or education roles within the profession.

Visit these pages to learn about the best-paying ADN and highest-paid BSN jobs.

Reviewed by:

Theresa Granger, Ph.D., MN, NP-C

Theresa Granger, Ph.D., MN, NP-C

With over two decades of teaching and clinical practice as a family nurse practitioner, Dr. Granger is an expert in nursing education and clinical practice at all levels of education (associate, baccalaureate, and graduate). She has published and lectured extensively on nursing education and clinical practice-related content. Her expertise ranges from student advising and mentoring to curricular and content design (both on ground and online) to teaching and formal course delivery. Dr. Granger is one of the founding faculty members of the University of Southern California’s first ever fully online graduate family nurse practitioner program.

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