RN to BSN or RN to MSN? How to Choose


Updated November 9, 2022

Deciding between getting a BSN or an MSN? Consult our overview on how to choose the right degree path for you.
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To provide quality patient care, the nursing workforce must be highly educated. Research has shown that if nurses hold a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN), medication errors and mortality rates are reduced.

According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), the "career ladder" concept is fully supported for nursing. Higher education translates to better care and competency. Another advantage of holding a BSN is healthcare employers typically prefer BSN-holders.

More employers are now looking for those with a master of science in nursing (MSN). A nurse with an MSN degree can deliver high-quality care in all healthcare settings. Additionally, they can provide better health promotion, case management, and disease prevention.

So, if you hold an associate degree in nursing (ADN) and you have a career as a registered nurse (RN), should you further your career by pursuing an RN-to-BSN or an RN-to-MSN degree?

Featured Online MSN Programs

RN-to-BSN Overview

A growing number of nurses have a BSN degree. In 2010, 49% of nurses had BSNs or higher, and in 2019, this grew to 54%, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. Having a BSN gives you a competitive advantage in job hunting, and now many employers prefer or require BSNs for certain higher-level positions. This makes an RN-to-BSN program a good option for improving your nursing knowledge and career prospects.

If you think you might want an MSN later, but aren't positive or don't have the time, having a BSN will give you more choices among MSN programs when you are ready. You won't have to limit your search to programs that offer an RN-to-MSN option.

Advancing from an RN-to-BSN degree to an MSN can increase your career options and salary prospects even more.

  • Time to complete

    Depending on the program and whether you can study full time, an RN-to-BSN program will take 1-2 years.

  • Prerequisites

    Most programs require at least a 3.0 GPA, two professional references, and a personal statement. You will also need a current and unencumbered RN license.

  • What can you do with a BSN?

    A BSN will be a competitive advantage for nearly any nursing position. Some employers, especially more prestigious employers, require a BSN for leadership positions. If you want an MSN later in your career, having a BSN will give you more program options.

    There are many incentives for employers to hire BSN-educated nurses. For a hospital to achieve magnet status, a certain percentage of staffed RNs must have their BSN. For this reason, some employers may include a clause in their hiring contract stating that RNs with their ADN must complete their BSN after a certain number of years.

    Currently, New York requires RNs to complete their BSNs within 10 years of receiving their RN license.

Transitioning from RN-to-NP: The Biggest Challenges

RN-to-MSN programs, also known as nursing bridge programs, let RNs with ADNs start their master's program with classes that are equivalent to a BSN degree. These programs can take less time than completing a BSN and an MSN separately.

This option eliminates the need to apply two separate times to separate programs. Some bridge programs may award a BSN as soon as the specific requirements have been met. Others may award this degree at the conclusion of the entire program

Among the reasons to earn an MSN is it is a valuable credential for many nursing jobs, including nonclinical jobs in nursing administration, nursing research nursing informatics. It is a requirement for becoming an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN).

APRNs have excellent career prospects. The median salary, according to the BLS, is $117,670, and APRN jobs are projected to grow 45% between 2020 and 2030.

The number of nurses with an MSN degree is growing: As of 2018, 17.1% of all nurses have an MSN and 1.9% have a doctorate, according to the AACN.

  • Time to complete

    Most RN-to-MSN programs take three years of full-time study. Most schools allow up to six years for part-time students.

  • Prerequisites

    RN-to-MSN programs require a current, unencumbered RN license. Most require a 3.0 GPA (some require 3.25 or higher), at least two years of experience as an RN, 2-3 references, and a personal essay.

  • What can you do with a BSN?

    An RN-to-MSN program is valuable for jobs in clinical nursing or healthcare administration, informatics, nursing research, or other nonclinical jobs. An MSN from an accredited program is a requirement for APRN jobs, such as nurse practitioner, nurse midwife, or clinical nurse specialist.

Benefits and Drawbacks of RN-to-BSN or RN-to-MSN

Whether an RN-to-BSN or an RN-to-MSN program is right for you depends on your career goals and your resources, including time and finances. An RN-to-BSN program takes less time to complete and is also academically less demanding. If work and other responsibilities already have you pressed for time, an RN-to-BSN program will be less demanding.

MSN programs are usually more difficult to get into than BSN programs, and more prestigious MSN programs are especially competitive. MSN programs also require nursing experience. If your GPA from your ADN degree doesn't reflect your abilities, the RN-to-BSN program will give you a chance to earn a higher GPA to help you when you do apply for an MSN.

Financially, an RN-to-MSN program offers considerably higher financial awards. If you are early in your career, an RN-to-MSN program will give you more years earning a higher income.

There are many financial aid options for nurses for both types of bridge programs. Some employers will help pay for a degree program in exchange for a commitment to work for them for a certain period. Still, higher education is expensive, and an MSN program generally costs more per credit hour than a BSN.

Many MSN programs require you to specialize, while BSN programs allow you to explore more possibilities. If you're newer to nursing, this can be an advantage.

The choice between a BSN versus MSN bridge program will depend on your goals, when you want to accomplish them, and how much time and money you have to spend on earning a degree.

The Bottom Line

How can you decide between these two promising options, RN to BSN or RN to MSN?

  • Talk to mentors or people at your workplace who have the kind of job you like. Ask about their experience and what they'd advise.
  • Work out a budget for time and money. What would you be giving up in the short term, and what would you gain in the longer term?
  • Read job descriptions for jobs that require a BSN and ones that require an MSN. Which are you more drawn to?
  • Identify a school you'd like to attend that offers both programs, and talk to an admissions counselor about the two options.
  • Make your own list of pros and cons for each option. Assign each a score, giving the strongest factors the highest (pros) or lowest (cons) scores. Add up the totals.
  • Imagine yourself five or 10 years in the future as having made one decision. What do you think this future self would be happy about or regret?

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Page Last Reviewed November 23, 2021

NurseJournal.org is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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