ADN vs RN vs BSN: What’s the Difference between Nursing Degrees?

RN vs ADN vs BSN: What Is the Difference between Nursing Degrees?

What’s your best path to a registered nursing degree?

You’ve decided you want to be a registered nurse. You want to go to nursing school. And now you find out there are 2 different paths to a registered nursing degree- ADN and BSN.

How do you decide between ADN or BSN nursing school programs? We will discuss the pros and cons of each path.

(Actually, there are three, but I will not discuss the less common diploma programs here).

ADN is an Associate’s Degree in Nursing.

BSN is a Bachelor of Science in Nursing.

Either degree will prepare you to work in the nursing profession as an RN, a registered nurse.

How do you choose a degree program?

Earning either degree will prepare you to take the NCLEX-RN exam (aka state boards) and obtain your RN nursing license. Once you’ve passed the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN), you’ll be a licensed nurse. Now you can start your nursing career, gaining invaluable work experience.

Whether you return to school for advanced degrees depends on your personal preferences and career path, which you may not even have decided yet.

What is the difference between an ADN and BSN?

Simply put, the ADN (associate’s degree in nursing) is usually from a community college and takes 2 years. The BSN (bachelor of science in nursing) is a 4-year college degree.

Both degrees cover the basics of nursing you’ll need for an entry-level nursing job. Either degree prepares you with the skills and knowledge you need to provide quality care to your patients.

An ADN RN can perform all the same skills and assessments a BSN RN can perform. These responsibilities (called scope of practice) are defined by the state board of nursing.

Both degrees provide classroom instruction in nursing theory, pharmacology, pathophysiology and nursing skills you’ll need for an entry-level nursing job. Both degrees will offer hands-on clinical experiences.

Associate degree programs have been historically more focused on the technical skills than nursing theory, but have evolved to provide an excellent basic nursing knowledge.

The major difference is that the bachelor’s degree provides additional courses in community health, leadership and management, and nursing research, as well as general education core curriculum courses. These added educational requirements will take more time and cost more money.

What is the difference between RN and BSN?

RN simply refers to the profession of registered nurse, which can be achieved by obtaining an ADN (associate’s degree) or BSN (bachelor’s degree), taking the NCLEX exam (state boards) and obtaining a nursing license.

What is the difference between ASN and ADN?

ADN is Associate’s Degree in Nursing. ASN is Associate of Science in Nursing. AAS is Associate of Applied Science. AASN is Associate of Applied Science in Nursing. The terms vary according to the college you attend, but are equivalent. ADN, ASN, or AAS in Nursing are all associate’s degrees and will qualify you to take the NCLEX exam and apply for a registered nursing license.

What is the difference between LPN and RN?

An LPN is a licensed practical nurse who has completed an LPN program, has taken the NCLEX-PN for practical nurses, and is licensed in their state as an LPN. This position is also known as LVN, licensed vocational nurse in California. LPNs have many of the same clinical skills as RNs, but RNs may have additional skills and responsibilities.

In some ADN programs, you take the first year of nursing classes, take your NCLEX-PN, and can go to work as an LPN over the summer or even part-time as you complete the ADN the second year.

How long does nursing school take?

What is the difference in length between the kinds of degrees?

ADN Degree

An ADN program is generally 2 years and the BSN is a four-year program. However, because of prerequisites before admittance to the ADN nursing program, it may take three to four years total to earn an ADN. In the same amount of time, you could almost complete a BSN degree program.

If you already have a bachelor’s degree in another field, you can probably complete either an ADN or “accelerated” BSN in 1-2 years. It helps if your undergraduate degree is in science, particularly life sciences, as you will have some of the science prerequisites required for nursing already completed.

The ADN cuts to the chase and gets you right to work as a nurse in less time.

The ADN program is a shorter length of time, and the assumption is that the ADN nurse will graduate sooner than a BSN, go right to work, and start to earn a paycheck.

BSN Degree

The BSN gives you a well-rounded college education and includes additional nursing subjects such as leadership, management, community nursing and nursing research.

A unique benefit in nursing education is that you can obtain an ADN fairly quickly and less expensively than a BSN, go to work as a registered nurse, and complete your BSN online later.

This plan keeps your college costs down, gets you earning sooner, but still leads to a BSN.

Proponents of the BSN level degree argue that a professional career like nursing should require a four-year degree. A registered nurse assumes a role of great responsibility in direct patient care as well as the coordination of patient care with other disciplines of the care team. Registered nurses fill multiple other roles in addition to bedside patient care.

Nurses may hold positions such as school nurse, community health nurse, clinic nurse, nurse manager, or research nurse. These jobs often require the higher level of education offered by a BSN.

Can I get a BSN from a community college?

Some community colleges are offering BSNs.

Some states now offer a community college BSN program. In 2001, Florida began transitioning some of its ADN programs to offer BSNs, and has more RN-BSN community college programs than any other state These programs have stood the test of time and proven this model can work.

Check out the website of your local community college to determine whether they offer this option.

What are the cost differences between degrees?

Community colleges are generally the less expensive choice over a 4-year college. And state universities can cost less than private colleges for a BSN. (But if you’re on a budget, don’t ignore private colleges. The amount of grants and scholarships at a private college can make the price competitive with state university programs).

If your pathway includes graduating with an ADN, then completing a BSN online, the online tuition for the BSN bridge program is often less costly than a brick-and-mortar school. And sometimes your employer will pay for your BSN!


Frankly, sometimes your greatest factor in choosing a school is what programs are available in your area. If geographical location is of great concern, either ADN or BSN programs may be desirable for you.

Check out what nursing programs are available where you live. Ask someone in the nursing department where the students do their clinicals. You will divide your time between campus and clinical sites.

Which degree program is harder to get into?

Both ADN and BSN programs have stringent admission requirements, so one degree doesn’t have a clear advantage over which is easier to get into.

Check out the requirements for the schools you’re considering. All will want a pretty good GPA, and since they’re so competitive, the higher your GPA the better.

If the school you really want to attend has a long waiting list for admission, you may want to expand your search.

Do BSN RNs have a higher NCLEX pass rate?

Statistically, overall, yes. According to the NCSBN, in 2020 90.3% of BSN candidates passed on the first try, compared with 82.8% of Associate Degree candidates.

But these statistics vary greatly from program to program. Look up the NCLEX pass rates for schools you’re interested in. Some community colleges have a near 100% pass rate, and some 4-year programs have pass rates in the 70%s.

ADN vs BSN Curriculum

The nurse learns clinical skills, basic nursing knowledge, pharmacology, pathophysiology and critical thinking skills in a diploma program or ADN degree. Skills labs and clinical rotations in local healthcare facilities provide opportunities for hands-on practice.

Education in a BSN program teaches those basic skills, but the BSN also helps the nurse develop communication and leadership skills, knowledge of scientific method, finding best practices, and even more critical thinking skills. A BSN program also provides coursework in community health, which will be important in our evolving healthcare system.

ADN vs BSN: Employment Prospects

As the United States continues to experience a nursing shortage, job prospects for nurses are bright. With an aging population, retiring nurses, and insufficient numbers of nursing school slots, the supply of RNs is not keeping up with the demand.

The nursing field is full of career options, whether you have a bachelor’s degree or an associate’s degree. Your degree level may determine what positions you qualify for. Although many job postings will state “BSN preferred” that does NOT always mean “BSN required.” The hiring managers may still hire an ADN RN for the position.

Wondering what it is that registered nurses really DO all day? Click here to read about A Day in the Life of a Nurse.

Do hospitals still hire ADN Registered Nurses?

Yes, hospitals still hire ADN-prepared nurses, although strong preference may be given to applicants with BSN degrees. Nurses are in high demand throughout the country and there are not enough qualified BSN candidates to fill every opening.

In some cases, the hospital will require new hires to obtain a BSN within 2-5 years. (If this is the case, find out if your employer will pay for it).

There may be more job opportunities for ADN RNs in more rural settings.

Healthcare facilities may have a hiring preference for BSN educated nurses, especially if they have Magnet Status, or striving for Magnet Recognition.

More and more healthcare organizations prefer or even require a BSN for entry level nursing positions. A BSN is usually required for public health nursing or school nurse positions.

Do BSN nurses makes more than ADN RNs?

ADN vs BSN salary differences

For entry level registered nurses, starting salaries between ADN and BSN nurses don’t differ by much. The average salary for a registered nurse is higher than the national average salary. ADN nurses make a median hourly wage of $29.69, while BSN graduates can expect a median hourly wage of about $32.92. (

The pay advantage may come later as the BSN nurse has more prospects for promotion into management, education, and administrative roles, commanding a higher salary.

Keep in mind that the pay rates above are an average. Hourly wages can vary immensely in different areas of the country, even within the same state. An RN in New York City makes about $45/hr. while in other parts of New York state the pay is more like $33-35/hr. (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics).

Generally, in states or areas with a higher cost of living, nurses earn higher pay.

The registered nurse salary in Portland, Oregon is the highest in the state with a mean wage in 2020 of $47.45/hr. (U.S. BLS). Forty miles away, in Salem, the mean wage was $44.52 but the cost of living is significantly lower than that of the Portland metro area. The nurses near (but not in) Portland benefit because their hospitals are trying to compete with the pay rates of the major hospitals in the city.

When viewing statistics for nursing salaries, keep in mind that many nurses work three 12-hour shifts a week, so 36 hours instead of 40.

Also consider that advanced practice degrees such as CRNA or NP require a BSN, so these higher-earning nursing careers are averaged into the median earnings for some BSN salary statistics.

You may prefer a BSN as the average BSN RN earns more than the ADN RN.

Alternatively, because an ADN is still an available path to an RN license, some students may opt for the ADN because tuition for an associate degree program can be less expensive than for a baccalaureate degree.

ADN vs BSN Career Opportunities

Depending on career goals, earning a BSN can be important for career advancement. Many leadership roles including management positions in nursing prefer or require at least a BSN.

A master’s degree is frequently required to be a nurse educator.

A BSN is the first step before advanced practice degrees such as Nurse Practitioner or Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist.

What kinds of job are available for RNs?

Do I need a BSN to work in specialty areas?

It certainly depends on the specialty area.

Most nursing specialties in the hospital just rely on on-the-job training. You are hired as an RN (whether ADN or BSN) and then undergo specific training in that department.

Examples of these specialties are labor and delivery, oncology, pediatrics, ICU, NICU (neonatal intensive care), cardiac telemetry, or cardiac cath lab.

After you have some experience in your specialty area, you may obtain a relevant certification such as WCON (wound care ostomy nurse) or OCN (oncology certified nurse).

The exciting thing about a nursing degree is that there are a variety of RN positions available with a single degree. And you can change your specialty later without having to go back to school. You could start on a general medical surgical floor and later transfer to critical care (ICU) nursing.

You’ll just need orientation and training in the new department to supplement the nursing experience and skills you already have.

Are BSN nurses safer than ADN?

Some research suggests that BSN educated nurses have better patient outcomes than associate degree nurses. A study published in 2003 in the Journal of the American Medical Association by Dr. Linda Aiken RN PhD et al revealed that patients cared for by BSN prepared nurses had better post-surgical outcomes than those cared for by RNs with only an ADN.

Haskins & Pierson (2016) performed a systematic review of nine published studies on this topic. The authors found these studies further indicated that RNs trained with a BSN or higher education level had better patient outcomes than RNs with an ADN alone.

The Institute of Medicine has recommended that nurses obtain BSN. Benner et al. (2009) recommend that a BSN be “the minimal educational level for entry into practice.”

As with any profession, it depends on the individual. There are many outstanding ADN nurses who I would trust with my life.

Will a BSN make me a better nurse?

As more and more hospitals prefer to hire BSN nurses, obtaining a BSN should be your goal, even if you start out as an ADN nurse and continue your education online.

The “book learning” of a BSN degree can never substitute for clinical experience, but will give you more insight into management; healthcare systems; scientific method and evidence-based practice; and community health.

If you plan to become an advanced practice RN, such as an NP (nurse practitioner) or CRNA (nurse anesthetist), you will need your BSN before admittance into the MSN (master of science in nursing) or DNP (doctorate of nurse practice) programs required for these degrees.

How do I decide between RN degrees?

How do you decide which path to choose?

The answer to that question is not simple. Only you know the answers to these questions:

What kind of school experience do you want?

Do you want to go away to college, or stay close to home and attend community college?

What school can you afford?

Do you have any prerequisites already completed for your nursing program?

If you’re starting from scratch, is it going to take you almost 4 years (including prerequisites?) even if you pursue an ADN?

Can you afford to spend 4 years in college or do you need to be working as a nurse as soon as possible just to make ends meet?

Many nursing students are older with families. Which kind of program fits into your life?

Can you move away somewhere to go to nursing school?

What is the competition for nursing jobs like in your area? Can you even get hired by a local hospital with an ADN?

Do you want to go directly into an area that traditionally requires a BSN, like Community Health?

Does every RN need a BSN?

In today’s nursing environment, your plan should include obtaining a BSN at some point.

The question is: which degree should you pursue right now? Should you aim for the BSN right now, or earn an ADN with the plan to add an online BSN in the next few years?

Talk to recruiters at your possible nursing schools. Talk to nurses around you and ask them what their career paths have looked like.

Explore the job postings for RNs at hospitals near you. What is the starting pay? Do the listings say they require BSN to apply, or simply prefer BSN?

When you search online for information, pay attention to who is providing the information. Many of the top articles you’ll encounter in an internet search are from nursing schools who are trying to entice you into their programs. They will want you to believe that, of course, their program is the best and only way to earn your RN degree.

I have no vested interest into which program you choose. I actually wrote this article to try to sort out the massive amount of information around the ADN vs BSN debate.

Can you start your career with an ADN?

Absolutely, and many nurses do.

I earned my ADN from a community college, was hired quickly and worked as a well-paid, well-respected med-surg and oncology nurse for several years, including being a travel nurse.

I then moved to critical care (Cardiac ICU) where I had the same orientation and took the same patients as my BSN colleagues. None of us knew or cared who had an ADN or BSN. We were all skilled and educated RNs, working together to achieve the best outcomes for our patients. My ADN RN husband worked in the Emergency Department, earning trauma certifications and becoming a charge nurse.

My Magnet hospital encouraged its nurses to obtain their BSNs and were willing to pay for it, so I earned my BSN through an online program. That earned me a raise of about a dollar an hour and continued to do the same job I always did.

I did learn some advanced nursing expertise in my BSN program and I now feel more employable with the BSN, no matter where I go. I recently saw an interesting job listing for a Clinical Research Nurse which required a BSN. If I wanted to apply, I would be happy to have those BSN letters after my name.

Comment below if you have questions while you’re trying to figure out YOUR nurse path. I’m eager to learn what questions future nursing students have, so I can write about the information you need.

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