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RN vs. BSN: Is There a Difference?

photo of two nurses looking at a patient's chart together

A nursing career may seem pretty straightforward on the surface—you go to school, complete state licensure requirements, secure a job and spend your days treating patient after patient. While that may encapsulate most nurses’ journeys into the field at a high level, you’ve likely discovered in your research that there’s a lot more to it.

A nurse can be a licensed practical nurse (LPN), registered nurse (RN) or a nurse practitioner (NP). With options ranging from an Associate’s degree in Nursing (ADN), Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), to even a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), Nursing degrees cover a wide range. There are also a number of nursing specializations that come with their own set of potentially perplexing abbreviations and acronyms.

Even if you’re certain about your nursing career dreams, it can be confusing to know which degree path you should pursue. If you’re trying to make sense of RN versus BSN, it should be noted that this isn’t exactly an apples-to-apples comparison. That’s because registered nurse (RN) is a licensed credential that individuals earn and maintain (as well as a job title), while a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) is a degree that many RNs obtain.

This remains a potentially confusing topic for nursing hopefuls who are still largely unfamiliar with the field, so join us as we dig into the real differences between the two RN nursing paths.

RN vs. BSN: Education requirements

The first thing you should know is that in order to become an RN, you must meet all state licensure requirements. While there may be differences in requirements from state to state, one universal requirement for RN licensure is to pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN). To be eligible to sit for the NCLEX, candidates must first earn either an ADN or a BSN from an accredited nursing program.

An Associate’s Degree in Nursing program, like the Rasmussen College Professional Nursing program, can be completed in as few as 18 months.1 A Bachelor of Science in Nursing is generally a four-year commitment up front, but it results in a higher academic credential—something hospitals across the nation may prefer more for RN positions.1

While you can still become an RN without earning a BSN, the major difference is the path and time commitment required. You can go straight to the job market as an ADN-RN, or you can opt to begin at a more advanced level of education with a BSN degree.

It should also be noted that if you decide the ADN route makes the most sense for you now, you can always advance your education later on. Once you’re established and working as an RN, you can complete an RN to BSN online program in as few as 18 months.1

RN vs. BSN: Job types

In general, RNs perform the typical nursing duties that you’re most accustomed to seeing—things like charting patients’ symptoms, operating medical equipment, educating patients on illness and working as a part of a medical team, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).2

Having a BSN under your belt, however, may open the door to a greater variety of job options in specialized nursing units as well as nursing management and leadership roles. For example, if you hope to work as an intensive care unit (ICU) nurse or a shift supervisor at a hospital, you’ll likely be required to have a BSN.

If all things are equal between an ADN and BSN nurse applying for one of these roles, many employers may prefer the candidate with additional education. Of course, not all advancement scenarios will play out like this, but for nurses who value career flexibility or may have plans to eventually earn a graduate-level nursing degree, earning a BSN is worth considering.

RN vs. BSN: Job outlook & salary

You may already know that nursing is in high demand. In fact, the BLS projects that employment of RNs will increase at the much-faster-than-average rate of 12 percent through 2028.2 What that projection doesn’t tell us, however, is the specific educational requirements of those RN jobs.

To dig a little deeper into those details, we used real-time job analysis software to examine more than one million registered nurse job postings from the last year. The data helped us break down the minimum education requirements employers were seeking for these roles.

Here’s the breakdown of what we found:3

  • Associate’s degree: 60 percent of job postings.
  • Bachelor’s degree: 35 percent of job postings.
  • Graduate degree or more: 2 percent of job postings.

Considering this represents the minimum requirements found in these job postings, it’s noteworthy that more than one-third of all RN positions are seeking BSN candidates. These nurses are also qualified for the 60 percent of positions calling for an ADN, but the higher credential qualifies them for nearly 575,000 additional RN job openings.3

When it comes to salary, however, an RN is an RN—the 2019 median annual salary for registered nurses in the U.S. was $73,300, according to the BLS.2 An RN who has earned a Bachelor’s degree in the field may earn slightly more than RNs with an Associate’s degree, but perhaps the bigger opportunity for higher earning potential comes in the form of the specializations or managerial roles that may become available further down the road on the career path of a BSN holder.

RN vs. BSN: The bottom line

By now, it’s likely become clearer that it’s not necessarily a matter of RN versus BSN. Becoming an RN is the end goal, while earning a BSN is one of the paths that can help you reach it.

Determining which Nursing degree is the best fit for you all depends on your personal needs and career aspirations. Both an ADN and a BSN will make you eligible for RN licensure, but it should be noted that more and more hospitals are pushing for nurses with BSNs.

If you feel earning an ADN is the right option for this phase of your career, you can learn more by checking out our article, “What Can You Do with an Associate’s Degree in Nursing?

If you’d prefer working straight toward your BSN, consider the information in our article, “What Is an Accelerated BSN? Your Fast Track to an Advanced Nursing Career.”

1Completion time is dependent on the number of transfer credits accepted and number of courses completed each term.
2Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, [information accessed August, 2020] Salary data represents national, averaged earnings for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. This data does not represent starting salaries and employment conditions in your area may vary. (analysis of 1,642,243 registered nurse job postings from Aug. 1, 2019 – July 31, 2020)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in 2013. It has since been updated to include information relevant to 2020.

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 College. 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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