Licensed Practical Nurse: Degree vs. Diploma

male nurse dressed in scrubs in hospital

At first glance, it seems like getting started in the nursing field would be pretty simple—you get into college, complete a program, meet any employer requirements and then get a job. Seems straightforward enough, right? While those steps are generally on the right track, there’s a little more you’ll need to get sorted out before taking the first step toward becoming a nurse. Near the top of that list? Making sense of your nursing education options.

It's important to understand that there are many different types of nursing careers—and different levels of nursing education to go along with them. Before you can embark on a nursing career, you need to understand what your options are. If you’re strongly considering becoming a licensed practical nurse (LPN) and wondering about the differences between a degree versus a diploma, it may be time to take a step back so you have a clearer picture of the options.

Practical Nursing Diploma vs. Associate’s degree in Nursing: What’s the difference?

Two of the most common career starting points in nursing are becoming either a registered nurse (RN) or a licensed practical nurse (LPN), and as you might expect, there are some significant differences between the two.

First, let’s clarify the difference between an LPN and an RN. Licensed practical nurses—sometimes called vocational nurses—have a smaller scope of practice than RNs. Their duties typically include helping patients with basic tasks of daily life—like bathing and dressing—as well administering medications, aiding in wound care and monitoring patient vital signs for changes in status.

Registered nurses (RN) are responsible for a wider range of job duties, such as developing care plans, administering medications (including intravenous medications) and treatments to patients, consulting with physicians, and educating patients about a diagnosis.

To start a nursing career as an LPN, you’ll need to earn a Practical Nursing Diploma, pass the NCLEX-PN exam and meet all other state licensure requirements. To work as a registered nurse, you have the option to pursue either an Associate’s degree in Nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). Once successfully completed, would-be RNs will also need to pass the NCLEX-RN exam and meet all other state licensure requirements.

Both LPN and ADN programs will offer the courses you need to feel confident in working with patients. Whichever education path you choose, you can expect to graduate with a solid foundation in patient-centered nursing and practical skills in line with the scope of practice for whichever nursing role you’re pursuing.

Though both programs will put you on track to begin a nursing career, choosing the option that’s right for you will depend on your career goals as well as other factors, like how long you’re willing to wait to begin your medical career. Next, we’ll explore the pros and cons of both to help you make your decision.

LPN diploma: Pros and cons

Pros

Shorter time to completion: If your goal is to get started as soon as possible, an LPN diploma is your best bet. You can earn an LPN diploma in as few as 12 months, then sit for the NCLEX-PN exam to become licensed.1

Lower cost: It’s no surprise that a shorter education program is also typically the more affordable option. If you’re looking to get into the nursing field for less expense, the LPN route may be an appealing option.

Positive career outlook: Thanks to the aging baby boomer generation, LPNs are seeing a steady solid employment picture. This profession is projected to grow by nine percent from 2019 through 2029, creating an additional 65,700 jobs nationwide according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).2

Simple path to become an RN later: What if you want to start your nursing career quickly with an LPN diploma but you want to make sure you still have advancement opportunities down the road? You’ll be happy to hear that there are simple options for doing just that! LPNs can always enroll in the Rasmussen University Professional Nursing program, which offers a bridge path from LPN to RN that can be completed in as few as 12 months.1 You’ll be able to build on your existing knowledge rather than starting from scratch.

Cons

Less autonomy on the job: Although LPNs can embark on their career quickly, they don’t have quite as much independence in working with patients as RNs do. LPNs typically need to be supervised by an RN or physician, though the exact regulations vary by state.

Lower pay: The BLS reports a 2020 median annual salary of $48,820 per year for LPNs.2 While that’s nothing to scoff at, especially considering the relatively low barrier to entry, it is still less than what RNs make.

RN Associate’s degree in Nursing: Pros and cons

Pros

More credits toward a Bachelor’s degree: If a Bachelor’s degree is on your radar for the future, an Associate’s degree will help you achieve more credits that may count toward a BSN later on. With Rasmussen University’s RN to BSN program, you could be eligible to transfer up to 134 credits!

Skills training for a broader scope of practice: The extra time it takes to earn an Associate’s degree comes with a bit more specialized training than the broad nursing skills you’ll learn with an LPN diploma. For example, students enrolled in the Rasmussen University Professional Nursing ADN program will also take courses like Multidimensional Care and Mental and Behavioral Health Nursing.

Higher salary: Because RNs have a broader scope of practice and can take on more nursing job duties, it only makes sense that they have greater salary potential. The BLS reports that the median annual salary for registered nurses was $73,300 in 2019.2

Cons

Longer time to completion: Earning an ADN takes a bit longer than an LPN diploma. It’s common for programs to take up to two to three years, although Rasmussen University’s ADN program is designed to allow students to graduate in as few as 18 months.1

Greater cost: As you might expect, a longer degree program comes with a higher financial commitment. Though RNs are positioned to earn a higher salary than LPNs, the difference in up-front cost may be a downside for students who want to enter the workforce without a large investment first.

Choose the road to begin your nursing career

In the debate of a nursing degree versus a diploma, there are pros and cons to weigh on both sides. If you know that becoming a licensed practical nurse is right for you, an LPN diploma can help you get started quickly and affordably. An Associate’s degree, on the other hand, is best suited for those who want to enter the field as a registered nurse.

Whichever education path you choose, a nursing career could be in your future! Learn more about getting started by reserving your spot for a Rasmussen University Nursing Information Session.

1Completion time is dependent on transfer credits accepted and the number of courses completed each term.
2Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, [accessed March 2021] www.bls.gov/ooh/. Salary information represents national, averaged data for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. Employment conditions in your area may vary.

Will Erstad

Will is a Sr. Content Specialist at Collegis Education. He researches and writes student-focused articles on a variety of topics for Rasmussen University. He is passionate about learning and enjoys writing engaging content to help current and future students on their path to a rewarding education.

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