RN vs BSN: What's the Difference and Which is Right for You?

10 Min Read Published June 10, 2024
Graduation cap with stethoscope

If you’re looking at a nursing school program, chances are, you’re probably deciding between choosing an RN (ADN) or a BSN degree. While both programs will ultimately lead you to the opportunity to become a registered nurse, there are differences between the two-degree pathways. 

This guide will explain the differences between the two degrees, the pros and cons of each, and help you decide whether an RN or BSN is right for you. 

What is an RN?

An RN stands for registered nurse. In this context, it typically means a registered nurse that has an ADN degree, instead of a BSN degree, or, less commonly, an RN diploma. An ADN stands for an Associate’s Degree in Nursing which is a nursing school program that takes two- or three- years to complete. It's typically offered by community colleges or vocational schools and prepares nurses with the education they need in order to become registered nurses. 

Program Length

Typically, an ADN program takes two years to complete. These programs tend to be a little more strict and often do not have part-time options. 

Earning Potential 

According to Payscale, a nurse with an ADN degree can earn $76,000 a year or $32.40 an hour. 

Credits Required

ADN programs typically require 50-70 credits, depending on the institution. While this varies greatly, these credits can all be applied toward a bachelor’s degree so a higher credit requirement is not always the worst. 

Admission Requirements

Admission requirements will also vary depending on the program, but generally these include, 

  • High school diploma or GED equivalent
  • Minimum high school GPA
  • High school chemistry and biology with minimum grade requirements
  • Achieve program-specific standards for SAT/ACT math scores
  • Pass the HESI entrance exam with a minimum score
  • Pass a criminal background check

>>Related: Associate Degree in Nursing Guide

What is a BSN?

A BSN, on the other hand, is a Bachelor of Science in Nursing. Like the ADN, a BSN prepares a nursing student to take the NCLEX, which you must pass to earn your official nursing license. 

Program Length

A BSN degree typically takes four years to complete. A traditional BSN degree provides two years of prerequisite courses and general education courses followed by another two years of nursing classes and clinical rotations.

Earning Potential

According to Payscale, nurses with a BSN degree can earn an average annual salary of $94,000 or $35.82 an hour. 

Credits Required

Most major nursing programs offering a BSN degree require a minimum of 120 credits to graduate. There are a few differences, depending if it is a second-degree program, but some programs may require upwards of 140 credits. 

Admission Requirements

Requirements to gain entrance to a BSN program will vary greatly, especially on the program, but typically admission requirements include, 

  • High school diploma or GED equivalency
  • Minimum high school GPA
  • Meet GPA requirements for prerequisite courses
  • Achieve minimum ACT/SAT scores
  • High school and/or transfer transcripts
  • Earn minimum score on HESI and/or TEAS
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Admissions interviews
  • University/program application
  • Application fee
  • Child abuse clearance
  • Drug and physical testing clearance

>> Related: Bachelor of Science in Nursing Guide

Popular RN or Online RN-to-BSN Programs

Sponsored
Purdue Global

At Purdue Global, discover a faster, more affordable way to earn your Nursing degree. Purdue Global is committed to keeping your tuition costs as low as possible and helping you find the most efficient path to your degree.

Accreditation
CCNE
Location
Online
Prerequisite
RN Required

Enrollment: Nationwide, but certain programs have state restrictions. Check with Purdue for details.

Grand Canyon University
GCU’s RN-BSN program is tailored to meet the needs of the RN adult learner and to maximize the strengths that the working RN already possesses. Transfer up to 90 credits and earn a BSN in as little as 12 months. GCU’s online classes allow you to study at the times that work for your schedule while still enjoying a close connection with your classmates and instructor via online discussions.
Accreditation
CCNE
Location
Online
Prerequisite
RN Required

Enrollment: Nationwide

The University of Texas at Arlington
The University of Texas at Arlington’s online programs are designed to help you achieve more in your nursing practice with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing. They offer convenient, flexible options for completing your RN to BSN or BSN online, both designed to fit into your busy schedule.
Accreditation
CCNE
Location
Online
Prerequisite
RN Required

Enrollment: Nationwide

Liberty University
At Liberty, you’ll benefit from 30+ years of learning, growing, adapting, and innovating for the distance learner — and more than a decade of researching the needs of the online student. You can be confident that we’ve taken the time to learn what’s important to you.
Accreditation
CCNE
Location
Online
Prerequisite
RN Required

Enrollment: Nationwide

Walden University
Walden’s online programs for nursing meet rigorous standards for academic quality and integrity, and the School of Nursing teaching faculty all hold doctorates. With three degree completion options, you can choose a bachelor’s in nursing path that makes sense for your busy, unpredictable schedule.
Accreditation
CCNE
Location
Online
Prerequisite
RN Required

Enrollment: Nationwide, excluding NY, RI and CT. Certain programs have additional state restrictions. Check with Walden for details.

What is the Difference Between an RN vs BSN?

While the majority of the clinical skills taught through both ADN and BSN programs will be the same. The primary difference is that a BSN program also teaches expanded skills in critical thinking, leadership, and research and is often preferred by employers. 

Both ADN and BSN nurses can work a variety of bedside care RN positions in hospitals and healthcare facilities. BSN nurses do have the opportunity for additional career opportunities, such as advancing onto graduate studies, or moving into more administrative and leadership roles. 

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

What is an RN Diploma?

The quickest way to become a Registered Nurse is to enroll in a hospital-based nursing program that will award you a nursing diploma. This is not considered a degree but does satisfy the requirements needed to take the NCLEX. Upon successful completion and passing of the NCLEX, you will be given an RN license. 

Program Length

An RN diploma typically takes one to two years to complete. 

Earning Potential

According to Payscale, diploma-educated nurses earn an average annual salary of $72,000 or $25.12 an hour.

Credits Required

Diploma programs typically require fewer credits than degree programs. You can expect to earn 40-50 credits during the course of the program. 

Admission Requirements

Admission requirements for diploma programs are much less strict than degree programs and also will vary depending on the program, but generally, these include, 

  • High school diploma or GED equivalent
  • Minimum high school GPA
  • High school chemistry and biology with minimum grade requirements
  • Achieve program-specific standards for SAT/ACT math scores
  • Pass the HESI entrance exam with a minimum score
  • Pass a criminal background check
  • Drug screening
  • Physical and mental health exam
  • Application and application fee

Salary Differences for RNs and BSNs

The salaries for ADN and BSN nurses in bedside care are usually similar to start off, but BSN-prepared RNs do usually have more opportunities for higher earnings. According to Payscale, nurses with a BSN degree can earn an average annual salary of $94,000 or $35.82 an hour, while a nurse with an ADN degree can earn $76,000 a year or $32.40 an hour. 

The big difference is that BSN-prepared nurses can advance to higher-earning positions, such as going into an advanced nursing role, or stepping into a leadership or managerial role. Some hospitals place beginning BSN RNs on a higher “step” in their payscale than an ADN, so the earning potential will be higher. 

Is an ADN Degree Worth It?

Some hospitals prefer to hire BSN-prepared RNs, so it is a consideration if you have a specific hospital you know you want to work in. For many years, the American Association of Colleges of Nurses has been considering phasing out ADN programs completely in favor of  BSN programs, but as of now, that is nowhere near happening, so any future nurses do have the ability to choose between an ADN or BSN program. 

It’s worth mentioning that larger teaching hospitals and Magnet hospitals often only hire BSN-prepared nurses. An ADN degree may also limit your abilities to advance in your career and switch specialties.

RN vs. BSN Pros and Cons

When deciding between your ADN and BSN, it can be helpful to consider the pros and cons of each degree. 

From your budget to time constraints to what future career opportunities are important to you, there are specific advantages and disadvantages to choosing an ADN or a BSN. Let’s take a closer look at each one. 

RN - ADN 

Pros:

  • More affordable: Because ADN degrees are Associate degrees from a community college, they will generally be more affordable than a Bachelor’s degree. 
  • Faster: In general, an ADN can be a faster degree to complete, although that does vary on the program's prerequisite requirements and if there is a waitlist of any kind. 
  • Can complete while working: Getting your ADN could potentially allow you to work and earn money while you pursue any additional education. 
  • Employer tuition assistance programs: You may also be eligible for an employer tuition assistance program if your ADN allows you to become employed somewhere and then you choose to go back to school. 
  • Step toward earning your BSN: You may be able to complete your BSN online after getting your ADN, saving you time and money in commuting costs.  

Cons:

  • Lower salary: Your nursing salary may be lower as an ADN than a BSN nurse.
  • Fewer career opportunities: Career opportunities are significantly more limited than with a BSN.
  • Potential downsides down the road: If you want to pursue more education, it could be more difficult to be a full-time student and qualify for financial assistance while working as a nurse. 
  • Fewer job opportunities: Some hospitals may require you to have a BSN, so you may not be able to work in certain areas. 

RN - BSN

Pros:

  • Job preference: Many hospitals prefer to hire BSN-prepared nurses, and some may even require it. 
  • Expanded knowledge: With a four-year program instead of a two-year one, a BSN will provide you with a larger base of knowledge as a nurse. 
  • More career opportunities: Having your BSN opens up more career opportunities and the potential for a higher salary.
  • Prerequisites for graduate programs: You can advance directly into a graduate program, such as an MSN degree program, without any additional classes. 
  • Prerequisite for APRN roles: A BSN is required for any Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) role, such as a Nurse Practitioner or CRNA. 
  • Time to complete: Getting your BSN directly may take less time than getting your ADN first, then going back for your BSN because any lapse in time may require additional classes. If you get your ADN, for instance, then wait several years before getting your BSN, you may need to take additional prereq classes to qualify for a BSN program, so it could end up taking longer (and cost more money) than if you had just done the BSN program from the beginning.

Cons:

  • Cost: A BSN program may be more expensive than an ADN program, in some cases, significantly so. 
  • Time: The BSN program will usually take longer than an ADN program. However, this is not always the case, and the full scope of the ADN program should be considered. For instance, if you enroll in an ADN program that has a year waitlist and requires classes that fill up quickly, meaning you might have to wait a year before getting into one, your three-year ADN program could easily turn into a four-year one, which is the same amount of time a BSN degree could take. 
  • Competitive programs: The program may be more competitive than an ADN program. A BSN program may require more prerequisites and a higher GPA for admission, for instance. 

How to Choose Between an RN and a BSN

If you’re choosing between an ADN and a BSN degree program, the good news is that there is no wrong or right answer -- the best degree is the one that works for you. You have to consider what your immediate resources are right now, along with your long-term goals. 

If you’re a busy parent who needs to make an income right now and the local community college is just down the road from you, an ADN program might make the most sense to get started as a nurse. On the other hand, if you know you want to become an NP and if you have the ability to take more time pursuing your degree and are able to make it work financially, starting off with your BSN is a great choice. 

We urge you to consider your available options, including time, finances, and other obligations, and look at your long-term career goals before making a final decision on choosing an ADN or BSN program. 

FAQs

  • Is an ADN the same as an RN?
    • An ADN is a degree, earned in two years at a college or university, while an RN is awarded after successfully passing the NCLEX. 
  • Which is better RN or BSN?
    • A BSN degree is a better option because it will open more opportunities including administration, leadership, and earning an advanced degree. 
  • What can a BSN do that an RN Cannot?
    • After graduating with a BSN degree, you will take the NCLEX examination. Once passing this, you will apply for your state RN license. 
  • What is the salary difference between BSN and RN?
    • According to Payscale, nurses with a BSN degree can earn an average annual salary of $94,000 or $35.82 an hour while a nurse with an ADN degree can earn $76,000 a year or $32.40 an hour. 

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Chaunie Brusie
BSN, RN
Chaunie Brusie
Nurse.org Contributor

Chaunie Brusie, BSN, RN is a nurse-turned-writer with experience in critical care, long-term care, and labor and delivery. Her work has appeared everywhere from Glamor to The New York Times to The Washington Post. Chaunie lives with her husband and five kids in the middle of a hay field in Michigan and you can find more of her work here

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