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Licensed Practical Nurses (LPN) vs. Registered Nurses (RN)

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Becoming a licensed practical nurse (LPN) or registered nurse (RN) offers individuals robust job opportunities and salary potential. Due to an aging population and an overall increase in demand for healthcare services, both occupations can expect faster than average employment growth. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects an 11% job growth rate for LPNs and 12% for RNs from 2018-28.

While LPNs and RNs differ in their scope of practice, their daily duties often overlap. RNs usually have more autonomy, while LPNs primarily handle basic nursing care. A career as an LPN, which only requires a one-year diploma or certificate, offers quick access to the promising field of nursing. Individuals with more time and resources can pursue an associate or bachelor’s degree to become an RN.

Learn more about which occupation would serve you best and how nurses can take advantage of online bachelor’s in nursing programs to advance in their career.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Can I complete LPN programs online?

Yes. LPN candidates can enroll in online diploma or certificate programs that allow them to complete their core coursework remotely. Online classes may run asynchronously with no set class times. However, students must usually complete labs and clinical hours in person, on campus.

Can I complete RN programs online?

Yes. RN programs are also delivered online in full- or part-time formats. These flexible degrees may be especially attractive to students who must earn a paycheck while they go to school. However, much like LPN programs, students must complete clinical hours on site at local hospitals or other designated facilities. Specific clinical requirements vary by state.

What can I do as an LPN?

The specific duties of an LPN vary by state and healthcare setting. In general, LPNs provide basic care to sick and dying patients in different health care settings. They work under RNs to take patient vital signs and perform basic care, such as helping them to get dressed or eat.

Should I become an LPN or an RN?

Deciding between an LPN or RN program remains a personal choice. Individuals who pursue an LPN generally want a quicker pathway to a new career. The LPN program takes about one year, compared to 2-4 years for the RN program. After working in nursing, LPNs can pursue a bachelor’s degree and become an RN.

Similarities and Difference Between LPN and RN

LPNs and RNs meet many of the same fundamental nursing needs. Both types of nurses care for people suffering from illness and injury, and provide medical and functional assistance to help them recover as quickly and comfortably as possible. LPNs and RNs alike perform work that often proves mentally and physically demanding, serving patients in pain or dying.

However, RNs and LPNs usually work in different settings and hold distinct job duties and responsibility levels. Candidates for each position must fulfill separate educational and licensing requirements that result in different statuses and salaries.

Roles and Responsibilities

RNs and LPNs have a lot of similar duties, but their roles often differ, especially considering where they work. In all situations, RNs have more responsibilities compared to LPNs.

In nursing care facilities, hospitals, and physician offices, LPNs serve as support staff to assist RNs. LPNs work in teams under the management of RNs and physicians to perform basic nursing care, such as taking vital signs, preparing meals, and helping patients bathe.

RNs administer medication and hold the knowledge to assess patients via the nursing process and create nursing care plans. However, RNs cannot diagnose patients like doctors.

Work Settings

The changing landscape of nursing has created an increased demand for RNs and LPNs, primarily in settings that provide healthcare to aging populations and outpatients. Healthcare industries in the U.S. employ about 3.1 million RNs and about 728,900 LPNs.

According to the BLS, many LPNs (about 38%) work in residential care facilities helping older individuals. They also find jobs in state and local hospitals, physician offices, home healthcare service, and government agencies.

Hospitals remain the largest industries of employment for RNs, with about 60% of the workforce. RNs also find work in ambulatory healthcare services, nursing care facilities, government agencies, educational services, and many other settings.

Salary and Employment Outlook

Differences in responsibilities and educational requirements account for the salary variations between RNs and LPNs. RNs must hold an associate or bachelor’s degree, whereas LPNs need only a certificate or diploma. According to the BLS, LPNs make a median annual salary of $47,480 and RNs make $73,300.

Different industries also offer higher salaries. Government agencies pay the most for RNs, with a median annual wage of $79,790. Nursing care facilities pay LPNs the highest median annual wages of $48,840. LPNs and RNs can receive pay raises and advance in their careers as they gain more experience and earn higher degrees. Read more about LPN salary outlook here.

In general, nursing professionals with higher education fare better in the workforce. RNs who hold a bachelor’s in nursing have higher prospects for top salaries and employment advancement. Nursing professionals also often pursue specialties in areas like gerontology to meet the growing demands from the increased aging population.

Education and Licensing Requirements

Before LPNs and RNs can enter the nursing field, they must complete a diploma, associate, or bachelor’s degree in nursing. LPNs must obtain a certificate or diploma in nursing, which takes less than one year. The path to become an RN requires at least an associate degree. The most marketable RNs hold a bachelor’s degree, which is typically a four year commitment.

In order to practice nursing in your home state, candidates also must pass either the NCLEX-PN or NCLEX-RN exam. The NCLEX-PN exam focuses on nursing coordination and the NCLEX-RN exam concentrates on management of care.

Diploma and Certificate Programs for LPNs

Certificates and diplomas in practical nursing put students on track to become an LPN within about one year. Online programs feature mostly distance-learning courses, but students must still complete labs and clinical hours in-person.

Online learners complete classes in pharmacology, gerontology, adult health nursing, and leadership issues. Browse some top LPN programs in the country to learn more about required courses and admission guidelines.

How Long Does it Take to Become an LPN?

The length of a program depends on the nursing school and a student’s availability. Students who attend classes on a full-time schedule can graduate with a certificate or diploma within 3-4 semesters. Many online learners pursue an LPN program while also maintaining a full-time job. As a result, working students can only go to school part time and may take longer to graduate.

Certificates require an average 48 credits, including in-person labs and clinical hours. Each state has varying clinical hour requirements, which may affect how long it takes to graduate.

Learn more about the clinical components of a program in the following section.

Clinical Components for LPN Students

Every LPN student must meet state clinical requirements to qualify for the NCLEX-PN. The National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN), which approves educational programs and establishes minimum clinical hours requirements when states do not set standards.

Clinical hour requirements vary. Georgia requires 700 clinical hours to receive the LPN certificate or diploma, whereas Colorado requires 400 hours, according to the NCSBN.

The clinical experience offers crucial hands-on opportunities for LPN candidates to prepare them to provide basic nursing care in hospitals. LPN students take clinical rotations in specialized healthcare areas, such as pediatrics, geriatrics, and medical surgery.

ADN Programs for Registered Nurses

The most commonly traversed path to become an RN involves earning an associate degree in nursing (ADN), the minimum educational requirement needed for the job and for state licensure.

Available in an online or in-person format, this customizable program lets students explore specialties, such as palliative care, case management, or community nursing. The degree also allows students to transfer credits toward a bachelor’s degree in nursing. Read on to learn what it takes to graduate with an associate degree in nursing.

How Long Does it Take Complete an ADN Program?

While an ADN remains the minimum degree needed to work as an RN, this may change as expectations in nursing evolve. Today’s employers prefer RN candidates with a BSN, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing.

ADN programs typically take 2 years to complete. Students can go to school part-time — which may postpone graduation — or take accelerated pathways to graduate faster.

ADN programs require about 70 credits, although requirements vary with each school. Besides classes in anatomy, physiology, and microbiology, students must complete labs and clinical hours — which we explain in more detail below. Visit this page to see what you can expect from the best ADN-to-BSN programs.

Clinical Components for ADN Students

Every U.S. state upholds distinct nursing education standards, including the number of clinical training hours ADN candidates must complete before sitting for the NCLEX-RN and earning state licensure. While the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) provides an overview of general clinical requirements, nursing regulations constantly evolve alongside changing healthcare laws and coverage guidelines.

Clinical requirements vary widely from program to program and are dependent on a number of factors. For this reason, students should confirm their clinical requirements with an academic advisor to plan an effective course sequence.

BSN Programs for Registered Nurses

RN-to-BSN programs offer a quicker way for working professionals to earn a higher degree. The clinical skills and practical knowledge RNs have from working in nursing helps them excel in a BSN program, where they take classes in collaborative healthcare, evidence-based practice, and health assessments. The curriculum also includes topics in social sciences and the humanities that enrich a student’s worldview. Visit this page and continue reading to learn more about what to expect from a BSN degree.

How Long Does it Take to Complete a BSN Program?

With practical skills and experience in nursing already under their belt, RNs can earn a BSN in as little as one year. BSN programs allow RNs to focus on a specific area of nursing with concentrations and specialties, such as neurology and pediatric care. Earning a concentration requires additional credits, which can sometimes extend a program’s length.

Specific graduation timelines vary, since programs allow students to set their own pace. Full- and part-time options let students find a schedule that works with them. Highly motivated students can pursue accelerated programs and graduate quicker, thanks to shortened semesters and a more rigorous course load.

Online programs offer a benefit to working RNs who can take the required classes remotely, although clinical requirements and labs require in-person commitments. On average, a BSN program requires about 120 credits. RNs can often earn prior learning credits from their work experience or transfer college credits.

Clinical Components for BSN Students

Clinical rotations give students hands-on learning in different settings, such as nursing in the adult population, psychiatric mental health, maternity, and newborn health nursing.

The number of clinical hours required of BSN students depends on where they live. Each state determines how many clinical hours BSN candidates must complete. The NCSBN, which accredits educational programs, sets clinical hour requirements when states do not.

About 43 states do not have a minimum number of clinical hours required of BSN students. States that hold minimums include Delaware, Virginia, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, and Oregon. Students in Virginia must take at least 500 clinical hours, while Delaware requires a minimum of 400 hours.

Licensure Requirements for LPNs and RNs

LPN and RN candidates must pass the NCLEX exam and earn a state license to work. LPN candidates take the NCLEX-PN, a five-hour computerized test. RN candidates take the NCLEX-RN computerized exam that lasts up to six hours. Specific hours may vary as a result of new coronavirus distancing guidelines.

The NCLEX is a computer-adaptive test that determines each subsequent question depending on how the applicant performs. The PN and RN questions reflect the different levels of responsibility these jobs carry. The PN exam focuses on supportive nursing care duties, and the RN test concentrates on implementing treatment plans.

Learn more about licensing requirements by visiting this guide.

LPN Licensure Requirements

Students may sit for the NCLEX-PN if they possess a nursing diploma, certificate, or degree from a program accredited by their state’s nursing board. Some states provide alternative routes to LPN/LVN licensure for candidates with international or military nursing experience. LPNs seeking work beyond their licensing state can obtain licensure through endorsement.

During the NCLEX registration process, candidates submit formal exam and licensure applications and undergo a background check. Applicants pay an exam fee and any state-mandated charges.

The five-hour exam includes 85-205 questions. Candidates receive a pass or fail score. The NCLEX contains questions in four categories: safe and effective care environments, health promotion and maintenance, psychosocial integrity, and physiological integrity. To retain licensure, LPNs must complete a state-approved continuing education program, maintain verifiable employment, and submit renewal fees every 2-3 years.

RN Licensure Requirements

Prospective RNs may take the NCLEX-RN and obtain state licensure after earning an ADN or BSN accredited by their state’s nursing board. Some states combine the NCLEX and licensing applications, while others require two separate applications. Upon receiving an authorization email from NCSBN, candidates can pay the exam fee and schedule a testing date.

Like the LPN exam, the NCLEX-RN is a computer adaptive test. However, the RN test comprises 75-265 questions and lasts up to six hours. Questions draw from the same four categories but include more advanced care scenarios. Test-takers receive a pass or fail notification from their state board of nursing 2-6 weeks after exam day.

RNs renew their licenses every 2-4 years, depending on the state. Renewal conditions include clinical contact hours, employment status, and continuing education. Continuing study guidelines differ among states and may include specialized training related to opioid addiction, HIV/AIDS, human trafficking, and child abuse.

Reviewed by:

Theresa Granger, Phd, MN, NP-C
Theresa Granger, Phd, 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 in person 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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