September 25, 2021

Your Guide to the Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN)

What is an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN)?

An Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) is one of three ways to become a Registered Nurse. It's an 18-month to two-year nursing degree that offers you a wide range of career possibilities and work environments and the ability to work with patients from infants to the elderly and everything in between. Nurses who have earned their ADN and passed the NCLEX-RN work directly with patients as health care professionals, while also having the opportunity to pursue a higher-level nursing degree at a later date while still earning a good living.

When choosing a career in nursing, you have numerous options. Nurses play a critical role in the medical system, and when you pursue an Associate’s Degree in Nursing, you can go from your first day of school to hands-on practice as a licensed nurse in under two years. 

In this comprehensive guide, we have collected the information you need about what pursuing an ADN entails, from why an ADN degree is a smart choice to helping you find the best programs. We’ll also provide you with what you need to know about paying for your education.

Benefits of Getting an ADN Degree

The two-year Associate’s Degree in Nursing is the shortest route to becoming a Registered Nurse.

  • It provides the education and clinical training needed to sit for the required certifying exams and obtain their license.
  • Becoming a Registered Nurse with an ADN degree promises an expedient route to a solid income in a field with a growing demand and opens many doors.
  • It allows those interested in entering the nursing profession to begin working in an entry-level position in just two years, providing essential and invaluable experience and the ability to practice in specialty areas.
  • Having your ADN provides much of the necessary clinical training and education required for more advanced nursing degrees such as a BSN (Bachelor of Science in Nursing), thus allowing those interested in pursuing those degrees the ability to test out of many prerequisites and pursue the next level more easily.

>> Related: What Degree Do You Need to Be a Nurse?

What Do ADN Nurses Do?

Nurses who have earned their ADN provide patient services that are what most patients imagine when picturing nursing care:

  • They speak directly to patients about their symptoms,
  • Monitor and record vital signs,
  • Administer medication
  • Provide invaluable guidance on topics ranging from self-care after surgery, to nutrition and wellbeing, to dealing with illnesses and injury.

Registered nurses who have earned their Associate’s Degree in Nursing work in every healthcare environment and in every community. They work with healthy patients and with those who are critically ill, with the very young and the very old. They are integral to quality patient care and are responsible for a wide variety of duties, including:

  • Examining patients and speaking with them about their symptoms and health histories
  • Recording patient information for physician diagnosis and decision-making
  • Delivering essential information and counsel with the goal of improving health
  • Playing a key role in patient education regarding illness and injury management
  • Operating medical equipment
  • Performing diagnostic tests and analysis of results
  • Collaborating with other health care professionals to ensure a high quality of patient care

Where Can ADN Nurses Work?

Registered nurses with their ADN can work in any environment in which hands-on healthcare is needed, as well as many others. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics,

  • The majority (61%) of RNs work in hospital settings, whether those are state, local or private facilities.
  • 18% of RNs work in doctors’ offices, home healthcare and outpatient care settings.
  • 7% work in nursing and residential care facilities.
  • Others work in government, in educational services and in corporations

Registered Nurses with an ADN degree have a wide range of environments in which they can work, including:

  • Hospitals
  • Physicians’ offices
  • Nursing care facilities
  • Home healthcare services
  • Government agencies
  • Educational services
  • Support services
  • Schools
  • Community centers
  • Urgent care centers
  • Offices
  • Patients’ homes
  • Pharmacies

Registered Nurses who have earned their ADN have the opportunity to work in every healthcare specialty, including:

  • Family medicine
  • Pediatrics
  • Oncology
  • Home health
  • Substance abuse
  • Geriatric care
  • Emergency
  • Hospice
  • Rehabilitation
  • Surgery
  • Labor and Delivery
  • Anesthesia
  • Psychiatry
  • Public health
  • Radiology

ADN Nurse Specialties and Certifications

Additionally, nurses who have earned their Associate’s Degree in Nursing are able to pursue additional certifications in specialty areas through the American Nurses Credentialing Center, including:

  • Ambulatory Care Nursing
  • Cardiac Vascular Nursing
  • Gerontological Nursing
  • Medical Surgical Nursing
  • Nursing Case Management
  • Pain Management Nursing
  • Pediatric Nursing
  • Psychiatric Mental Health Nursing

Advantages of an ADN Degree

Nursing is one of the most rewarding career choices available. In fact, according to the Medscape Nurse Career Satisfaction Report 2016, practicing nurses enjoy their work so much that they have a hard time singling out one top-most-rewarding aspect of their career. Nurses who have earned their ADN enjoy a sense of fulfillment in helping others. They also appreciate the gratitude expressed by the patients they serve and the solid earnings and job security that their chosen field offers.

The top advantages of an ADN degree include,

  • Quick route to higher earnings potential. If you are anxious to become a registered nurse and start caring for patients while earning a nurse’s salary, an ADN degree is the fastest way to get there. Once you’ve earned your ADN you will be eligible to sit for the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) for Registered Nurses. The program, which bypasses general education classes and focuses entirely on the coursework needed for a nursing education, can be completed in four semesters.
  • Lower cost for education. Nurses who pursue an Associate’s Degree in Nursing are not only able to achieve their goal more quickly, but generally are able to do so at a lower cost.

The two-year programs that teach the ADN curriculum are often much less costly than a four-year degree and can more readily be pursued at local community colleges or through online programs. These do not entail the additional costs that go along with a baccalaureate program, such as room and board. Students are often able to pursue ADN degrees on a part-time basis, allowing them to earn money while furthering their career goals.

  • Excellent preparation for a career in nursing. When you graduate from an accredited nursing school with an Associates’ Degree in Nursing, you will be fully prepared to provide high quality care while having received the education needed to pass the Registered Nurse licensure exam (NCLEX). This is the same exam taken by those who have pursued a Bachelor of Science in Nursing.

The education provided by accredited ADN programs is so comprehensive that pass rates for ADN graduates taking the NCLEX is on par with that of students who have earned their BSN degree.

  • Predictable path to an advanced degree. A growing number of medical facilities are transitioning to a recruitment and advancement model that favors nurses with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing. Pursuing a BSN degree at the outset can be cost prohibitive and represents a significant time commitment, but by first earning your Associate’s Degree in Nursing, you will be able to begin working with patients and earning a competitive salary in just two years, and enroll at a later date in a bridge program that credits you for the education you’ve already attained.

Many ADN-degreed nurses are even able to take advantage of tuition reimbursement benefits offered by their employers: the facilities where they work help to fund their pursuit of an advanced degree.

ADN Salary and Pay

If you are considering a career in healthcare, becoming a Registered Nurse by earning your ADN degree offers significant advantages. According to statistics published by Glassdoor, Registered Nurses who are graduates of ADN programs earn an average base salary of $69,270, with a range of $47,000 as a low and $91,000 as a high. As work experience grows, so too does salary, and nurses who have their ADN are able to begin gaining experience after just two years of nurse education.

According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, there is a national nursing shortage, and this means that Registered Nurses who have their ADN are in high demand. To attract more ADN-degreed Registered Nurses, many employers are offering a wide range of benefits and perks, including vacation pay, pay differential for working specific shifts, tuition reimbursement, onsite childcare, sick leave, and more.

ADN Career Outlook

The demand for Registered Nurses with ADN degrees is already high, and is expected to continue to grow, in part because more than half-a-million new RN positions are anticipated through the year 2026. Add to that remarkable number the fact that another half million RNs will be needed to replace those who leave the field through attrition and retirement, and it is no wonder that ADN careers are so popular.

Much of the new opportunities for Registered Nurses with ADNs comes from the fact that our population is aging:  longevity increases the need for care, particularly for those with chronic diseases.  There will also be increasing need for ADNs as healthcare becomes more focused on wellness and preventive care. As a result, the need for Registered Nurses is expected to jump by 19% as compared to an 11% average growth rate for all other occupations.

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Key Differences Between ADN and BSN Degrees

Graduates of a two-year ADN degree are Registered Nurses. Like those who complete the four-year Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree, they have all of the education and clinical training that they need to sit for and pass the NCLEX exam and to get their nursing license. However, there are significant and immediate differences between the two that need to be taken into consideration. These include:

  • It takes substantially less time to complete an ADN degree than a BSN degree. An ADN degree can be obtained in just two years of full-time classwork, while a BSN takes twice that amount of time. Those two years can be spent earning valuable hands-on experience and becoming established and respected within the workplace, as well as earning a solid income.
  • Depending upon the program that you choose, an ADN degree can represent a much smaller financial investment than a BSN degree. It is also possible to pursue an ADN degree on a part-time basis or through an online program: this means that students can continue to work full time and earn income while achieving their educational goals.

Types of ADN Programs

Once you’ve decided to pursue an Associate’s Degree in Nursing, you will find that there are multiple routes available to you. The right one for you will depend upon your current situation, whether you are interested in taking classes on a full-time or part-time basis, in person or online, and whether or not you have already started working towards a nursing degree or career in healthcare.

The fastest and most direct route to an Associate’s Degree in Nursing is to enroll in and graduate from an accredited program offered by a community college, university or nursing school. These programs can be taken on a full time or part-time basis, in person or online, and can be completed in as little as 18-to-24 months. There are also programs for those who are already Licensed Practical Nurses and who want to pursue an ADN degree. 

  • ADN program – This is the most straightforward and quickest way to become a Registered Nurse. ADN programs are available on a full-time and part-time basis, and most programs offer the opportunity to take classes at night or online. Graduation from these programs prepare you to take the National Council Licensure Exam for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN).
  • LPN-to-ADN program – Licensed Practical Nurses (or Licensed Vocational Nurses in California and Texas) can pursue an Associate’s Degree in Nursing in one or two years. These programs are available at vocational schools and community colleges, as well as online. Graduation from these programs prepare you to take the National Council Licensure Exam for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN).

Online ADN Programs

If you are interested in becoming a Registered Nurse, an online ADN program offers several advantages. Online programs are generally less expensive than pursuing in-person degrees and can often be completed at a faster pace. Though you will still be required to fulfill the clinical hour requirements, pursuing your degree online allows you to continue your current employment while still offering you all of the nursing education that you need. As long as an online program is accredited, it offers the same qualifications as an in-person program does, preparing you to take the National Council Licensure Exam for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN).

One of the biggest advantages of enrolling in an online ADN program is that it can expedite the process, allowing you to cut down on the time that it takes to earn your degree by eliminating the need to spend hours on courses that do not directly contribute to the practical aspects of nursing care.

Online ADN and LPN-to-ADN programs offer distinctive advantages, including:

  • Flexibility. They offer the ability to learn while accommodating existing work schedules and busy lifestyles
  • They are eligible for federal financial aid
  • Efficiency. They offer you the ability to earn your ADN degree in less time
  • No waiting list for ADN or LPN-to-ADN programs, as admissions are “rolling” throughout the year
  • No commute
  • Full and part-time programs are available
  • Accessible no matter where you live
  • Less expensive than degrees earned in traditional educational settings

There are a number of factors for you to consider when choosing the program that is right for you. In addition to the program’s reputation and cost, you need to determine whether a program will work for your individual needs and convenience. An online ADN program that requires you to attend a percentage of classes in person may not make sense: likewise, a program that is not in your immediate area and that requires you to participate in clinical hours at a specific facility may also pose a challenge.

It is also very important when searching for either an online ADN program or an online LPN-to-ADN program that the program you select has been accredited. Accreditation assures both you and future employers that the program from which you have graduated meets current, evidence-based standards. There are two accrediting bodies for RN programs: the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN), which accredits all levels of nursing degrees, and the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE), which provides accreditation for programs offering Bachelors’ degrees and higher.

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Classes and Clinicals

An accredited Associate’s Degree in Nursing program provides graduates with the coursework and clinical hours required for a career as a Registered Nurse. It entails two years of full-time study if pursued in person, though online programs can be completed in less time and the curriculum can also be taken on a part-time basis, allowing greater flexibility and the ability to continue earning a living while pursuing your degree. After you have graduated you will have the knowledge needed to sit for the NCLEX examination.

Every ADN program is different and is a reflection of both national standards and the individual program’s priorities and philosophies, but all have the goal of ensuring their graduates are both competent and have a robust understanding of the special role that nurses play in our healthcare system and in the world at large. To that end, every program is specifically designed to ensure that graduating students are provided with both hands-on experience and comprehensive coursework. A standard ADN will provide its students with courses that teach the skills needed to meet nursing standards of care. These can include:

  • Bedside skills including making up a bed
  • Distinguishing between normal and abnormal breath sounds
  • Nursing terminology and abbreviations for patient medical charts
  • Systems of the body and how to distinguish between normal and abnormal function
  • The use of catheters
  • Tube feeding systems
  • Mathematics needed for dispensing medication
  • Basic lab skills

Some examples of the types of classes that may be offered include:

  • Human anatomy and physiology
  • Microbiology
  • Anthropology
  • Psychology
  • Basic pharmacology
  • Nutrition
  • Nursing theory

Beyond the classwork required for graduation, nursing students in ADN programs are required to fulfill a specific number of clinical hours in order to provide them with the hands-on experience that they will need to provide competent patient care. Whether you sign up for a full-time ADN program or a part-time or online ADN program, you will have the opportunity to work with local healthcare providers such as hospitals, nursing homes, clinics or physicians’ offices in order to gain invaluable clinical experience under the supervision of a clinical instructor.

ADN Program Requirements

ADN programs vary based on the individual school, but prospective students should be aware that acceptance into an ADN program has become extremely competitive.

Despite the growing need for nurses, many programs are shrinking in size as a result of fewer available nurse instructors combined with an effort to reduce student-to-teacher ratios. Those who want to gain admission should do everything they can to ensure that they meet the basic general requirements for admission, as well as take additional steps such as performing volunteer work at a local clinic or hospital and pursuing classwork in related subjects including biology and anatomy.  The requirements for ADN programs are likely to include many of the following:

  • Proof of either a high school diploma or GED. Many schools will require you to have earned a minimum GPA for entry into their program.
  • High school Chemistry and Biology with a minimal grade
  • Math competency as demonstrated through SAT or ACT math scores or math placement tests
  • HESI exam with a minimum score
  • Criminal background check

What to Consider Before Enrolling in an ADN Program

Choosing to pursue an Associate’s Degree in Nursing is a big decision that involves a significant commitment of your time and your resources. When making your decision, consider the following:

  • An ADN program represents a significant time commitment: Pursuing your ADN represents a two-year commitment when approached as a full time endeavor, and may take longer if you enroll as a part-time student. Still, doing so is an investment in your future that opens you to a world of new opportunities and a career that will last a lifetime. The education you receive will make a substantial difference in your knowledge, skill and earnings power. You will be treated with respect and have the ability to work directly with patients in a key role within a healthcare team.
  • ADN programs are increasingly competitive: It is true that ADN programs are getting more difficult to qualify for, but if you dedicate yourself to your goal you will be richly rewarded. There is a national nursing shortage, and the need for qualified Registered Nurses who have invested the required time in their education is only going to grow.
  • ADN programs can be expensive: Though a two-year educational program represents a significant financial investment, there are many organizations and resources that offer financial aid. Additionally, once you’ve graduated from an ADN program you will find yourself eligible for positions that offer significantly higher earnings. The short-term financial strain will quickly be replaced by a solid, reliable income and you will find that the investment in yourself is well worth it.

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How Much does an ADN Degree Cost?

The costs of an Associate’s Degree in Nursing varies depending upon the type of program you choose to attend, including whether it is an LPN-to-RN program. Factors that affect tuition pricing include where the school is located, whether you choose to enroll at a vocational school, community college, private college or state school, and if the latter, whether you are attending as an in-state student or an out-of-state student.

Some programs offer the ability to pay per-credit pricing while others permit students to pay a per-semester price, then pursue as many credits as they feel capable of completing during that period of study. There are also cost differences between an in-person or online program.

Though cost is always an important consideration, it is also important that you remember the significant benefits and increased earnings that follow earning your ADN degree, as well as that you can lower your costs significantly by attending public institutions, seeking financial aid, and applying for governmental grants.

Paying for the ADN Degree – Financial Aid, Scholarships, Grants, Loans

Education of any kind represents an investment in yourself, and no matter how promising your future will be with an ADN degree, paying tuition can still represent a burden.  Fortunately, there are many options available to help, including grants, scholarships and loans. Here are just a few:

  • Scholarships. A number of organizations offer scholarships that are specifically dedicated to encouraging students to pursue degrees in nursing. Searching online reveals numerous options. A few notable examples include:
    • The Jane Delano Student Nurse Scholarship was named for the principal organizer of the Red Cross Nursing Service. The scholarship makes $3,000 available to a limited number of students who have volunteered with the Red Cross. To be considered, applicants are asked to write an essay about both the lessons they learned while volunteering with the organization and what contributions they envision themselves making to the nursing field and patient care.
    • The Caroline E. Holt Nursing Scholarship is given to three students each year by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). To qualify, students must be enrolled in an accredited nursing school, must have demonstrated financial need and provide letters of recommendation as well as a statement of their goals. Each student chosen for the award will receive $2,500. The DAR makes other nursing scholarships available to residents of specific localities, including the District of Columbia and Lowell, Massachusetts, as well as to nursing students who are members, descendant of members or eligible for membership in NSDAR.
    • The Behavioral Health Academic Scholarship was created by American Addiction Centers to support students enrolled in degree programs targeting behavioral health and/or substance abuse. Nursing students are eligible to receive one of three scholarships given out each year, which range in value from $5,000 to $2,500. Selection is based on academic achievement and submission of a personal essay.
    • The National CPR foundation provides scholarships for students pursuing careers in healthcare. Scholarships are distributed monthly to students who submit 500-to-750-word essays on why they want to pursue a healthcare degree. Each scholarship is valued at $500.
  • Grants. A variety of grants are given out to students who demonstrate financial need. These are offered by the federal government, as well as by states and individual colleges. Like scholarships, grants do not require that you repay them. The selection of students who qualify is based on information submitted on the FAFSA form (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). Once you’ve filled out the form, you will receive notification of a financial aid award, either with your acceptance letter or at some point thereafter. The amount of these awards varies based on availability of funds and on perceived ability of the student’s family to pay, but the average amount distributed is $5,000 per student. Pell Grants are also available, but generally are limited to students with needs that are considered most urgent based on annual family income.
  • Student loans. Though student loans will eventually need to be repaid, students who enroll in ADN programs do so with the knowledge that once they’ve earned their degree, they are likely to earn a significant salary. The best source of a student loan is the federal government, which provides both more protection and lower interest rates. Applying for these loans requires filling out the same form that you use to apply for a grant — the FAFSA. Students who have significant need may qualify for loans that do not accrue interest until after they have earned their degree. Private loans are also available through banks, credit unions and other sources. Make sure that you read all terms carefully, as there are unethical organizations that can include misleading terms, hidden fees, and high interest rates.
  • Payment plans. If you are going to pay cash for your tuition, the ADN program that you enroll in may allow you to set up a payment plan. Many schools also offer financial aid, so contact the school directly to ask what options are available.

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Next Steps to Enroll in an ADN Program

Once you’ve made the decision to pursue an Associate’s Degree in Nursing, there are a number of important steps that are either required or recommended to help you achieve your goal.

  • Investigate the programs that are available to you. Just as in choosing any college program, you want to determine what type of program you want to apply to and is best suited to your life and needs. Considerations include location, program reputation, how competitive the program is, and cost. Once you’ve identified those that are of interest, make a checklist for each one’s application requirements and deadlines.
  • Complete your high school diploma or GED. If you already have done so, collect all pertinent transcripts and proof of graduation. If you are still in school, remember that higher GPAs, involvement in school activities and in volunteer programs will make you more attractive to those making decisions about which students to accept. Participation in volunteer activities at local hospitals or with the American Red Cross is a good idea, and so is seeking mentorship through local nursing professional associations or attendance at nursing camp.
  • Apply to the accredited ADN programs that you have identified.
  • Apply for financial aid if needed.

Is an ADN Degree Right for Me?

Choosing to pursue an Associate’s Degree in Nursing is a big decision that should be based on your own personal goals, dreams and needs. This means spending time thinking about your long-term goals, the type of job responsibilities you want and feel up to assuming, the kind of income you hope to earn, and the type of work environment you see yourself in. Perhaps most importantly of all, you should ask yourself whether you want to make the kind of real difference in other people’s lives that an ADN-degreed Registered Nurse can make.

Registered nurses with ADN degrees play integral roles in healthcare teams. In addition to being valued for being compassionate and knowledgeable, they are also relied upon for their professional judgment and their dedication to patient wellbeing and care. The job market for RNs is experiencing tremendous growth, and by equipping yourself with an ADN degree you put yourself in a position of nearly limitless opportunity.

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