RN vs. BSN: Is There a Difference?

rn vs bsn

A nursing career may seem pretty straightforward on the surface—you go to school, earn your scrubs, secure a hospital 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 a nurse is never just a “nurse.”

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. In the case of RN versus BSN, it should be noted that this isn’t really an apples-to-apples comparison; Registered Nurse (RN) is a job title, while a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) is a degree option commonly taken to become an RN.

This remains a 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 pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX). To be eligible to sit for the NCLEX, candidates must first earn either an ADN or a BSN.

The former requires completion of a program at a career-focused college, which can typically be completed in 18-24 months.1 The latter is generally a four-year commitment up front, but it results in a higher academic credential—something hospitals across the nation are requiring more and more commonly for RN positions.

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 further your education with a BSN degree.

It should also be noted that if you initially decide on going the ADN route but eventually want to earn the higher academic credential, you can do so in an RN to BSN 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, can provide a greater variety of job options. A BSN-qualified nurse may perform the same duties as an ADN-RN, or they may choose to use their advanced education to work in public health or be a nurse educator. Public health nurses focus much of their work on educating communities on prevalent health issues, while nurse educators prepare the next generation of LPNs and RNs.

Another factor to consider is advancement into nursing management or unit leadership—if all things are more or less equal between an ADN and BSN nurse applying for one of these roles, it’s not a stretch to think 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, 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 jobs for RNs will increase at the faster-than-average rate of 15 percent through 2026.2 What that projection doesn’t tell us, however, is the specific educational requirements of those RN jobs.

To decipher those details, we used real-time job analysis software to examine more than one million RN job postings from the last year. The data helped us identify the preferred education level of employers who are looking to hire registered nurses.3

Here’s the breakdown of what we found:

  • Post-secondary or Associate’s degree (50%)
  • Bachelor’s degree (41%)
  • Graduate or professional degree (7%)
  • High school or vocational training (2%)

While it may initially seem like ADN-RNs have the best shot at landing one of these open positions, it’s worth considering that BSN-qualified nurses will qualify for the Associate-level jobs in addition to those seeking candidates who have earned a Bachelor’s degree. In effect, ADN-RNs qualify for about 52 percent of open nursing jobs, while BSN-RNs qualify for approximately 93 percent.3

When it comes to salary, however, an RN is an RN—the 2017 median annual pay for RNs in the U.S. was $70,000, according to the BLS.2  An RN who has earned a Bachelor’s degree in the field can expect to 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 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 destination, while earning a BSN is one of the routes that can empower you to 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 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.”


1Time to completion is dependent on the number of transfer credits accepted and courses completed each term.

2Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, [information accessed September 11, 2018] www.bls.gov/ooh/. 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.

3Burning-Glass.com (analysis of 1,337,678 registered nurse job postings from Sep. 10, 2017 – Aug. 31, 2018)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in Aug. 2013. It has since been updated to include information relevant to 2018.


Jess Scherman

Jess is a Content Specialist at Collegis Education. She researches and writes articles on behalf of Rasmussen College to help empower students to achieve their career dreams through higher education.

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