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Differences between associate's and bachelor's degrees in nursing

IMAGE SOURCE: OnCall team, Flickr, Creative Commons license.

If you’re thinking about becoming a nurse, then you might wonder why colleges and nursing schools offer so many different degree options in the field of study. Which degree do you really need? The reason there are so many different nursing programs is because there’s no one path into a nursing career. Prospective nurses can prepare for their careers in different ways, and each option has its own pros and cons.

Paths Into a Career in Nursing

You can become a registered nurse with an associate’s degree or diploma program, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported. You can also prepare for a nursing career with a bachelor’s degree from a four-year college or university. Both of these options equip students with the core nursing knowledge and skills needed to attain a license and succeed in working with patients.

How long it takes to become a registered nurse (RN) varies from two years to four years, depending on what level of education you choose to pursue.

Associate’s Degrees in Nursing

An associate’s degree in nursing (ADN) or a nursing diploma program will include the core courses you need to attain an entry-level position as a nurse. Students in associate’s degree in nursing programs take classes in microbiology, physiology, chemistry, anatomy, psychology and nutrition, according to the BLS. They must also complete minimum liberal arts requirements. In ADN programs, students must complete supervised clinical experience requirements, often in hospitals. Once students earn their ADN, they can take the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) and officially become a registered nurse.

There are advantages and disadvantages of choosing an associate’s degree as your path into the field of nursing. You can get started in your career sooner and save the cost of an additional two years of study (often, at the most expensive tuition rate of a four-year college). On the other hand, while you can attain an entry-level nurse role with an ADN, you may have more difficulty moving into more desirable roles and workplaces. Additionally, in a number of states, nurses who start out with an ADN will have to earn a bachelor’s degree eventually if they want to keep their licenses. For example, the “BSN in 10” law in New York requires new nurses to complete a bachelor’s degree within a decade of attaining their initial nursing license.

ADN programs remain popular, with about 60 percent of new RNs entering the field with an associate’s degree or diploma, according to journal Global Qualitative Nursing Research.

Bachelor of Science in Nursing Degrees

If you choose to pursue a Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing (BSN), you will complete the same core nursing courses as you would in an ADN program. You would also have the opportunity to take valuable nursing courses that you wouldn’t find in ADN programs – including subjects like public health, nursing research, and nursing leadership. You would round out your education with further studies in the liberal arts and physical and social sciences to help you develop essential critical thinking and communication skills. If you go the BSN route, you may have more options regarding where you complete your clinical experience requirements, especially when it comes to medical facilities other than hospitals.

While you don’t necessarily need a BSN to get started as an RN, there are a lot of reasons to earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing. These reasons range from the opportunity to move into leadership roles to better marketability in your job search. A bachelor’s degree is a must for most nursing positions in leadership, administration, research or teaching. It is also a key requirement for most Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree programs, which you would need to complete if you decided to become an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN). A BSN degree program offers a more well-rounded education, which may be appealing to students who have a general thirst for knowledge.

A main reason many people choose to earn an advanced degree is to increase salary, but does that make sense when it comes to a BSN? Some studies suggest that RNs earn similar salaries regardless of what level of education they have. Others report that having a BSN degree increases your salary by a little or by a lot. If a pay bump is your main reason for considering a bachelor’s degree program, then you may need to delve deeper into how much a BSN affects a nurse’s salary in your state to decide whether the degree is worth the investment. On the other hand, if you’re interested in career advancement, the value of a BSN becomes clearer. Registered nurses who earn a bachelor’s degree can move into higher paid supervisory roles that aren’t open to ADN holders, according to U.S. News & World Report.

Roles like charge nurse, registered nurse supervisor and nursing director all have a considerably higher median salary than RNs do.  

RN to BSN Degree Programs

If you’re having trouble deciding between an ADN and a BSN program, you should know that the choice to earn an associate’s degree won’t leave you permanently limited in your career. Many colleges now offer RN to BSN degree programs, often in an accelerated online format. Nurses who earned their associate’s degree, got their nursing license and have begun working in the career can complete their bachelor’s degree through one of these programs.

Because these programs are designed specifically for busy, working nurses, they often allow a great deal of flexibility. Attaining your BSN this way allows you to get to work sooner and potentially even save time and money on the cost of your bachelor’s degree.

Some online RN to BSN programs allow registered nurses to complete their bachelor’s degree requirements in as little as 12 months

Choosing between an ADN and a BSN can be difficult, but either degree can help you start your journey to a career in nursing.