Licensed Practical Nurse: Degree vs. Diploma

male nurse dressed in scrubs in hospital

Nurses are in demand. That is an economic fact that isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Job openings for licensed practical nurses in particular are expected to grow by 22 percent through 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

These critical entry-level nursing positions provide direct patient care as well as support to doctors and registered nurses and, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, command competitive annual salaries of around $41,540.

But before you start thinking about where you might work or how much money you can make, you want to ensure you have the right qualifications to achieve both. After all, the nursing industry is swimming with acronyms and abbreviations. Wading through the multitude of terms can get a little confusing. Even once you’ve narrowed it down to the field of licensed practical nurse (LPN), there is still one more fork in the road: Should you pursue a degree or a diploma?

Questioning which path is best for you? Read on to find out more about the difference between the academic tracks you can take to become a licensed practical nurse.

Licensed Practical Nurse Program Tracks

There are two academic tracks that a student can take before sitting for the National Council Licensure Exam (NCLEX-PN) and ultimately becoming a licensed practical nurse (LPN): associate degree or diploma. The major difference between any associate degree and a diploma is the amount of credit hours contained in the program.

Associate degrees – which usually require an 18-24-month commitment – include more overall credits with the addition of general education (or core) classes. Some subjects common to an LPN associate degree program include: general psychology, communications and humanities courses.

The other recognized academic track for an LPN is a diploma. Diplomas offer a more specialized look at nursing. They can be completed in as little as 12 months since they have fewer credit requirements that are mainly focused on job-specific nursing skills.

Weighing the Options

With the cost of college tuition rising, many have debated the value of broad, general classes which have their history in a traditional liberal arts education. On one side of the coin, these types of courses can be useful for building a foundation of lifetime skills and/or credits toward furthering your education. On the flip side, you could choose a more specialized track with a faster route to your new career where you will build skills through your work experience.

Both program options offer benefits so it can be helpful to weigh the variables in order to determine which is best for you. Where do you see yourself in 12 months, 18 months or 5 years?

Practical Nursing associate degree

  • Broader skill training
  • More credit toward bachelor’s degree
  • Reputation of a higher credential

Comes with…

  • More financial and time commitment

Practical Nursing diploma

  • Quicker potential completion time
  • Smaller financial investment
  • Equivalent salary expectations

Comes with…

  • Less credit and academic credential

Making the Decision

When deciding between an associate or diploma program it’s important to consider how you see your education fitting into your lifestyle. The industry does not have requirements one way or the other to qualify as an LPN.

Typically as long as an applicant has the requisite license, employers are not as interested in their specific academic credential, according to Allyson Torstveit, dean of nursing at the Rasmussen College Moorhead campus. Torstveit also pointed out that since both tracks qualify you to sit for the NCLEX, there is no expected salary difference or preferential treatment between those holding an LPN associate degree versus a diploma.

There are advantages and disadvantages to becoming an LPN instead of, for example, a registered nurse (RN). Once you decide that LPN is the career for you, make sure you choose the best degree program to fit your individual career goals.

Katy Katz

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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