Nursing Credentials 101: From LPN & LVN to BSN & DNP

Nurse-CredentialsNursing is a complex profession so it stands to reason that the acronyms which accompany these crucial medical mavens can be extremely confusing. If you’ve found yourself questioning the difference between nursing credentials – such as LPN vs. LVN or professional vs. practical nursing – don’t worry, you’re not alone.

But the decision to go back to college can be extremely difficult. Raising a family and working full-time while going to school makes for a relatively chaotic lifestyle. That’s why nursing programs are an excellent choice. Once you’ve completed the program, passed the necessary exams and earned your certifications, you’re ready to begin working.

But before choosing the program that best fits with your career aspirations, you have to decipher the alphabet soup of nursing credentials to understand what you’re looking for. This guide will help you wade through the sea of terms as you start down the path of identifying which one might be in your future.

CNA: certified nursing assistant

Degree level:  high school diploma

Mean salary: $35,208

As its title suggests, CNAs assist nurses with patient admittance and vitals. It is the lowest level credential that one can have in the nursing field and it does not make a person a nurse. CNAs are required to pass a specialized exam to work in the field but it is typically only tied to a single course so there is a quicker point of entry.

LPN: licensed practical nurse

Degree level: diploma/associate

Mean salary: $42,557

Becoming an LPN requires either an associate degree or a diploma and can be accomplished in as little as 12 months. After completing a program from an accredited school, LPNs sit for the National Council Licensure Exam (NCLEX-PN) to become certified.

Many LPNs work in clinics or private home settings and are responsible for registering patient vital signs such as heart rate and blood pressure, collecting blood samples and feeding, dressing, and caring for patients.

TIP: LPN tracks are often the first-choice of people who want to begin a career as a nurse but do not have time to commit to a longer program right away.

LVN: licensed vocational nurse

Degree level: diploma/associate

Mean salary: $42,640

LVNs have identical positions to LPNs. The only difference is that the term “vocational nurse” is the title used in California and Texas. Like LPNs they complete an associate or diploma degree program and must pass the NCLEX for certification.

RN: registered nurse

Degree level: associate/bachelor’s

Mean salary: $64,886

RNs, or professional nurses, are the most in-demand positions in the U.S. An RN credential is either earned through an associate or bachelor’s degree. There are also opportunities for LPNs to continue their education and earn an RN credential through a mobility program. RNs are certified through the NCLEX-RN examination which contains higher level nursing topics than the LPN version.

TIP: The increased training gives RNs the tools to be responsible for more holistic care of patients from beginning to end of their treatment and allows them to work in a variety of settings from hospitals to critical care.

BSN: Bachelor of Science in nursing

Degree level: bachelor’s

Mean salary: $73,091

A BSN is a registered nurse that has earned a bachelor’s degree. Nurses attain their bachelor degree through a traditional four-year program at a university or continue their education from an existing RN associate’s degree through a completer program in as little as 12 additional months.

TIP: The American Association of Colleges of Nursing has called for 80 percent of nurses in hospitals to hold a bachelor degree by 2020. The additional educational credits can open the door to the 370,000 jobs in the last 12 months alone that all preferred to hire someone with a BSN.

MSN: Master of Science in nursing

Degree level: master’s

Mean salary: $73,768

The most common graduate-level degree in nursing is MSN but there are several variations including Master of Nursing (MN) and Master of Science (MS) or Master of Arts (MA) with a major in nursing. As with any profession, you can continue to open career opportunities by bolstering your nursing degree with additional education.

TIP: One option for MSNs is becoming a nurse educator since most state nursing boards require the faculty to have at least one credential higher than the level of the program they are teaching.

CRNA: certified registered nurse anesthetist

Degree level: master’s/doctorate

Mean salary: $157,000 - $214,000

The CRNA is a graduate-level certification that nurses are eligible to pursue after completing a BSN program. Accredited CRNA programs culminate in either a master’s degree or doctorate with the opportunity to sit for a national certification exam. Nurse anesthetists are compensated highly for bearing the heavy responsibility of putting patients under anesthesia prior to surgery.

CNM: certified nurse-midwife

Degree level: master’s

Mean salary: $70,000

CNMs, also referred to as certified midwives (CMs), are registered nurses that hold a master’s degree and work with women through pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum. There is a national certification exam at the end of the program to designate the skill of midwifery.

COHN: certified occupational health nurse

Degree level: master’s/doctorate

Mean salary: $63,472

Occupational health nurses (OHNs) work with companies to create a safe work environment for employees. The COHN is another graduate-level certification for registered nurses with a BSN. Depending upon the program, COHN programs can lead to either a master’s or doctorate degree and culminate with a certification exam.

NP: nurse practitioner

Degree level: master’s/doctorate

Salary range: $90,583

NPs are registered nurses with a graduate-level degree, sometimes also referred to as advanced practice registered nurses (APRN). There is a growing trend requiring NPs to have a terminal degree, or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP).

TIP: NPs are one of the main positions that hospitals are hoping to lean on to help alleviate the shortage of doctors that is expected in the coming years.

NR: nurse researcher

Degree level: doctorate

Salary range: $95,000 - $100,000

Nurse researchers are doctoral-prepared registered nurses that followed a scientific path of nursing. After completing a bachelor’s and master’s degree they either pursue a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in a nursing-related subject or a Doctor of Nursing Science (DNS). These nurses work side-by-side with other scientists to study illnesses and other healthcare initiatives.

Whew! Did you get all of that?

This comprehensive list was designed to clear up some of the confusion around some of the more similar sounding nursing credentials – RN, BSN, LPN, to name a few – and maybe even shed some light on some new specialties like BSN completer and COHN.

Make sure you bookmark this page so you can come back and use it as a reference as you continue on in your research. It will be a valuable tool to help you plan your career in nursing.

To learn more about about how these terms fit in to a degree check out the nursing programs at Ramussen College. If you’re still a little unsure about where you fit in the flourishing healthcare industry, download this Healthcare Career Outlook for further information on all of the in-demand medical professions.


*Author’s Note: Salary information for diploma, associate and bachelor’s degrees was taken from a analysis of nursing-related job openings by title from Nov. 1, 2012 to Oct. 31, 2013. Salary information for master’s and doctorate degrees is from



External links provided on are for reference only. Rasmussen College does not guarantee, approve, control, or specifically endorse the information or products available on websites linked to, and is not endorsed by website owners, authors and/or organizations referenced.

Katy is a Content Marketing Specialist at Collegis Education who writes student-focused articles on behalf of Rasmussen College. She enjoys creating engaging content to help former, current and future students on their path to a rewarding education.

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