You are kind, empathetic, patient, tough enough to deal with a high stress environment, and set on pursuing a career in nursing. But knowing you want to be a nurse and deciding how to become one are two very different things. With the sheer number of online nursing certificate and degree programs available today, it’s no wonder choosing from among available registered nurse (RN), Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN), and Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) programs can be exciting and overwhelming in equal measure. Whether you’re looking to build on a sturdy foundation of existing medical knowledge or take your first foray into the field, this guide will help you get a sense of which nursing degree path is right for you.
RN, ADN, and BSN programs all prepare you with the basic knowledge you need to pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) and begin practicing, so deciding which is right for you will come down to factors like the coursework you’re prepared to undertake, your current budget and future salary expectations, and the trajectory you hope your career to take. Delve deeper into what each type of program has to offer below and get one step closer to finding your path into nursing.
At this point in your search, you may be wondering what the differences are between an RN certification, ADN, and BSN program, what it takes to get into one, and what you’ll learn once you do. In short, every road leads to licensure, but higher levels of education prepare you with a wider range of skills but require a greater commitment up front. And while your certification is the first step down your path to becoming a nurse, there really is no bad choice. Take a closer look at what each degree path entails below.
Admission Requirements: RN diploma programs are designed for students who have recently graduated high school or who do not have a background in allied healthcare. As such, admission requirements for most accredited diploma programs are limited to a high school diploma or GED — no additional testing required. Incoming GPA minimums are rare.
Curriculum & Coursework: Nursing diploma programs’ curricula place particular emphasis on practical skills. In addition to learning to perform routine medical procedures during clinical hours at a partnering facility, students take coursework in subjects like biology, chemistry, anatomy, first aid, emergency medical technology, foods and nutrition, and child growth and development.
Program Duration: RN certificate and diploma programs can range from nine to twelve months, not including the time it takes to prep and sit for the NCLEX after you graduate.
Licensure: To sit for the NCLEX-RN exam and begin practicing, you must graduate from an accredited nursing program approved by a nursing regulatory body. If your diploma program does not meet these standards, you may instead be eligible to sit for the NCLEX-PN exam, which qualifies you to practice as a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN).
Admission Requirements: Each ADN program will have its own specific admission requirements, but most programs require SAT scores and a GED or high school diploma as well as passing grades in certain math and science prerequisites. Many programs also require applicants to meet a minimum GPA of at least 2.5 while others require applicants to take a pre-admission exam to predict their success within the program.
Curriculum & Coursework: In addition to courses in practical skills, ADN program coursework provides students with opportunities to develop and hone the interpersonal skills needed in a patient facing job. Courses include psychology, public speaking, sociology, nursing ethics, microbiology, chemistry, human anatomy and physiology, pharmacology, maternal and child nursing, and nursing practice and process. You will also get hands-on experience during clinical hours.
Program Duration: A traditional ADN takes two years to complete, but accelerated programs can take as few as nine to 12 months.
Licensure: An ADN prepares you with the theoretical and practical knowledge and skills you need to take the NCLEX-RN exam and earn the necessary licensure to become a registered nurse.
Admission Requirements: BSN programs typically require a GED or high school diploma with a GPA of at least 3.0. It is also common for programs to require applicants to have passed college-level courses in math and science. Applicants must also submit SAT or other standardized test scores and pass a criminal background check. Letters of recommendation, personal essays, and HESI pre-admission exams are also common.
Curriculum & Coursework: A BSN curriculum is similar to that of an ADN in that it imparts practical and interpersonal skills to students, but also places emphasis on leadership and managerial skills, as well as a holistic knowledge of how healthcare systems affect patients and their communities. In addition to college-level courses in biology, chemistry, and nursing-specific subjects, some programs also require proficiency in a second language.
Program Duration: Most BSN programs, like any other bachelor’s degree, can be completed in four years, Transferring credits for prerequisite courses or from an ADN or RN program can help shorten the length of your program by several semesters.
Licensure: Gaining a BSN will qualify and prepare you to take the NCLEX-RN exam earn the necessary license to practice as an registered nurse.
Comparing Cost and Compensation
If you’re a numbers person, it may be helpful to consider the cost and potential compensation associated with each degree path. After all, you want to be confident you’ll be getting a return on your investment. In this section we’ll help you compare the average tuition costs associated with each program type and the most up-to-date projections of earning potential. Of course, unexpected costs — and benefits — may crop up as you progress through and graduate from your chosen program.
RN Diploma or Certificate
Cost of Program: As the shortest path to certification, it should come as no surprise that RN diploma and certificate programs are typically the most cost-effective path to becoming an RN. The average cost of an RN diploma or certificate programs can range from $4,000- $12,000. Note that these sorts of programs are slowly being phased out in favor of ADN programs and post-licensure certificate programs — the latter of which are available at the American College of Education for $4,275.
Earning Potential: As of 2023, the American national average yearly salary for employees with Licensed Practical Nursing certifications is $60,580, or twenty-nine dollars per hour.
Cost of Program: The cost of an ADN programranges from $3,000 to $17,000 on average per year for tuition, although there are exceptions — the program at Los Angeles Harbor College costs a total of $5,076 in tuition and expenses.
Earning Potential: As of 2023, the national average salary for a nurse with an ADN is $75,776, or about $38 per hour.
Cost of Program: Tuition for a BSN program varies significantly according to the type of school you attend (public or private) and your residency status in the state. Tuition for in-state students at a typical public state school ranges from $35,000 to $60,000, on average. For example, the BSN program at the University of Arizona costs $38,511 for residents.
Earning Potential: BSN-prepared nurses can expect to bring home just over $82,000 per year, although there is significant variability depending on the industry in which you choose to apply your degree. For example, nurses who choose to work as consultants can earn nearly $90,000 per year.
Track Your Trajectory: Career Options for RNs, ADNs, and BSNs
Choosing your diploma or degree path is both a short-term and long-term decision. Not only does it dictate the depth of material you’ll cover, but the breadth of job opportunities you’ll be qualified for. To help you get a sense of what roles you’ll be eligible to take on, we’ve spotlighted a few of the most popular positions available to graduates of each degree program.
Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)
CNA sare unlicensed, entry-level allied healthcare professionals. Their duties involve transporting and cleaning patients, gathering medical supplies, and monitoring vital signs under the supervision of LPNs or RNs. While a diploma, certificate, or coursework in nursing will help you stand out amongst a pool of applicants, you only need a high school diploma or equivalent to qualify for this position. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates that nursing assistants make an average of $35,740 per year. A patient, unflappable personality that can navigate chaotic environments is recommended. Only a high school diploma is needed. A CNA’s average salary is $13.48 per hour.
Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN)
An LPN performs routine medical procedures under the watchful supervision of an RN. They work autonomously to ensure basic patient comfort and care, keep records of, and facilitate communication between doctors, patients, and their families. If for any reason your certificate or diploma program does not make you eligible to sit for the NCLEX-RN, you can become certified as an LPN, instead. You can expect to earn nearly $55,000 in this position.
Charge nurses oversee a unit of other nurses. Their responsibilities typically include, but are not limited to, creating and managing staffing schedules, assisting other nurses with patient-related questions, and liaising between nurses and doctors. Earning a BSN will equip you not only with the level of practical and theoretical knowledge you’ll need to take on this role, but the leaderships skills that will help you excel in it. The national average salary for a charge nurse is $85,509.
Staff nurses prepare equipment and assist physicians, administer medication, and carry out routine medical procedures under their own direction, and create plans for ongoing treatment. A BSN is often a minimum requirement for this position, although an ADN and work experience are often sufficient. If you intend to pursue this career path, you can expect to earn a salary similar to your fellow RNs — roughly $78,000 per year.
Telemetry nurses are registered nurses s that specialize in tracking and responding to changes in patients’ vital signs via constant electronic monitoring. As a telemetry nurse you’ll find yourself dealing primarily with cardiovascular and neurological issues, both of which require quick decision-making skills and close attention to detail. You can put your BSN to excellent use in this position, all while earning a handsome average annual salary of $124,662.
The first step to becoming a clinical nurse specialist(CNS) is earning your BSN. Clinical nurse specialists typically serve as expert consultants for nursing staff and often have advanced clinical expertise in one area of medicine, population, setting, type of care, or disease. To reach your full potential in this position, you must be willing to take your education to the next level and earn a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN). The average annual salary for a CNS today is just over $94,000.
A nurse educator teaches nursing students in clinical and educational settings. Common responsibilities include teaching clinical skills and patient care, instructing hospital research, and designing program curricula. If the idea of educating the generations of nursing students that follow you sounds enticing, you’ll have to earn at least a BSN — and two to five years of experience. Your academic and professional experience will pay off, though. Nursing educators/instructors earn an annual salary of nearly $80,000, according to the BLS.
Public Health Nurse
A public health nurse (PHN) uses clinical knowledge to track and promote the health of a given population. Public health nurses work in conjunction with the communities they serve to improve public health by providing individualized and systemic care. This career is ideal for you if you are interested in nursing concepts on a macro level and are committed to working with diverse populations to address pressing community health matters. Most public health nurses are required by their employers to hold a BSN and they take home an average annual salary of nearly $69,000.
There are many factors to consider when making a decision about your future — and not just money and time. Your experience as a nursing student, and later as a nurse, will be drastically affected by whether the program you choose suits your abilities and goals. Use these prompts to get you started as you determine whether an RN, ADN, or BSN program is right for you.
Each track is essentially a path to general practice with increasing levels of involvement beyond routine patient care. If you’re happy with a wide knowledge of routine medical procedures, an RN certificate or diploma program might be best for you. You will be restricted in your practice, but you’ll have ample opportunity to gain experience. Completing an ADN or BSN on the other hand offer additional opportunities to specialize in a particular practice area.
Every level of certification requires students to gain hands-on clinical experience, but longer programs provide more training and support. If you’d prefer a quick clinical period before diving straight into work, an RN certificate or diploma might be best for you. An ADN or BSN program, on the other hand, might be best for you if you’re itching to get as much clinical experience as possible so that down the road you can perform procedures independently within the scope of your role.
An RN certificate or diploma program is the quickest way to earn your nursing license, so they are a good option for you if you want to start working and earning money sooner—under the required supervision of an RN, of course. An ADN is a good middle ground, striking the balance between in-depth training and limited time commitment — you can graduate in as few as two years. If you don’t mind investing more time (and money) upfront, a BSN could be for you.
All nursing programs are designed with some level of academic rigor, after all, nursing is a rigorous profession. That said, a BSN is by far the most demanding. If you feel equipped to handle the intensity of academic life and that of clinical training, a BSN might be for you. If academic pressure has hindered your progress in the past or you find yourself juggling other responsibilities, an RN certificate or diploma program offers a lower stress option. Once again, an ADN offers a happy medium.
Where do you see yourself in five years? What about 10? Having an idea of where you want to go can help you determine where you should start. An RN certificate can help you get your foot in the door, but doesn’t provide many opportunities for career advancement beyond entry level nursing roles. An ADN, however, qualifies you to move into a handful of specialized positions within a medical facility, while a BSN primes you for the highest level of professional growth and opportunity.
An RN certificate or diploma program has the lowest barrier to entry, so that track may suit those with a lower incoming GPA, gaps in their education, or limited allied healthcare experience. ADN programs typically have higher — though by no means astronomical — GPA requirements and a handful of prerequisites and are best suited to students who have average GPAs. BSN programs, which have the most competitive academic entry requirements, tend to suit those with high grades, particularly in prerequisite. Take a close look at your academic record to help determine which track you are best prepared for.