What are the Differences Between an RN and an LPN?

7 Min Read Published September 28, 2023
Difference between LPN vs RN: A Comprehensive Guide

Nursing isn't a one-size-fits-all field, meaning you'll have several options to start a nursing career that suits your needs and goals. Prospective nurses often pursue licensed practical nurse (LPN) or registered nurse (RN) licensure to start their nursing journeys.

As you prepare to become a nurse, you'll have to ask a crucial question: LPN vs RN; which is right for me? Although both nursing roles are vital to the healthcare profession, they have several important distinctions.

This article examines RN vs LPN licensure side-by-side to explore their differences. Read on to learn more about how LPN and RN credentials differ in education requirements, scope of practice, salary, and more.

What is the Difference Between an LPN vs RN?

RN and LPN differences lie in their educational requirements, licenses, and scope of practice. In general, LPN education is shorter, lowering the barrier to entry into the career field but restricting the LPN scope of practice. Conversely, RNs have longer education programs, and their resulting licensure offers a broader scope of practice, allowing RNs more independence in the workplace.

Let's take a more detailed look at RN vs LPN differences.

>> Related: RN vs NP

Registered Nurse

RNs must complete an accredited Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) program (or, in rare cases, diploma programs). After that, they become eligible to sit the NCLEX-RN exam and apply for registered nurse licensure in their state.

As a registered nurse, your duties will include basic patient care but expand to more technical responsibilities like medication administration, performing diagnostic tests, and operating medical equipment. Depending on your role, you may also supervise other healthcare workers like LPNs, certified nursing assistants (CNAs), or even other RNs.

Licensed Practical Nurses (LPNs)

LPNs may also be called licensed vocational nurses (LVNs), and like registered nurses, LPNs must also complete an education program before becoming eligible for licensure. LPN programs typically take around one year, and you can find them at community colleges or vocational schools. 

Prospective LPNs must then take and pass the NCLEX-PN exam to become licensed. As an LPN, you'll focus on patient care tasks like monitoring vitals and changing bandages as part of a care team supervised by a physician or RN.

LPN vs RN Duties

Understanding RN vs LPN duties begins with understanding each profession's scope of practice. Scope of practice refers to the practices and professional responsibilities that RNs and LPNs are legally allowed to do under state law.

RN and LPN licensure determines the scope of practice for each type of clinician based on their education, experience, and training. Keep in mind that each state has its own Nurse Practice Act, so RN and LPN scopes of practice may differ slightly from state to state.

LPN vs RN Scope of Practice

Registered nursing licensure requires considerably more education, which leads to a broader scope of practice for RNs. This licensure also means RNs can work independently in most areas, while LPNs must work under a physician or RN.

RNs also give a higher level of patient care, often giving 1:1 (one nurse to one patient) or, in extreme circumstances, 2:1 care (2 nurses to one patient). RNs on med surg nursing units usually have anywhere from 4-7 patients at a time. 

Since LPNs care for patients with a lower acuity, they have higher patient loads during a single shift. Often, LPns care for as many as a dozen patients at a time, with some LPNs reporting to have cared for up to 30 during shifts at senior care centers. 

LPN Job Duties

LPNs can perform various duties, which include the following:

  1. Collecting and charting vital signs
  2. Distributing oral medications
  3. Checking blood sugar levels
  4. Ambulating, assistance with activities of daily living (such as getting dressed or eating/drinking)
  5. Assisting with bathing and toileting
  6. Other patient care/comfort tasks

RN Job Duties

RNs also perform many of the same duties as LPNs. However, an RN's scope of practice is broader and includes other responsibilities, such as:

  1. Assessing patients
  2. Starting IVs
  3. Distributing oral and IV medications
  4. Collecting blood samples
  5. Performing physical exams
  6. Conducting various diagnostics tests
  7. Educating patients and families
  8. Working with physicians to determine patient treatment plans
  9. Counseling patients
  10. Coordinating treatments with ancillary healthcare professionals (such as physical therapy, nutrition consults, wound care consults, or diabetes specialist consults, to name a few).

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LPN vs RN Education Requirements

Both RN and LPN students take classes on ethics and nursing skills and complete hands-on clinical rotations. But there are also many differences between these types of nursing programs. Let's take a closer look at RN vs LPN educational differences:

LPN Education

Education for an LPN can be completed at a vocational school or junior college. Programs are usually about one year long and require successful completion of classroom and clinical hours.

LPN programs can vary significantly in price from $7,000 to $40,000.

The standard curriculum for an LPN will include:

  1. Introduction To Nursing
  2. Legal And Ethical Aspects Of Nursing
  3. Nursing Theory
  4. Anatomy and Physiology
  5. Documentation and Medical Terminology
  6. Lifespan Growth and Development 
  7. Infection Control and Prevention
  8. Patient Safety
  9. Medication Administration 
  10. Basic Patient Care:  Hygiene, Mobility, Comfort & Rest
  11. Med Surg Nursing
  12. Mental Health

RN Education

Education for an RN ranges from two years for an associate’s degree in nursing from a community college (ADN) to four years for a bachelor’s of science in nursing (BSN). 

The cost of becoming an RN depends on your education level. Earning an ADN from a community college can range from $6,000-$20,000. In contrast, a BSN from a 4-year university can range in price from $20,000-$100,000.  

The standard curriculum for an RN will include:

  1. Nursing Fundamentals
  2. Ethics in Nursing
  3. Nursing Theory
  4. Biomedical Statistics
  5. Anatomy and physiology
  6. Microbiology
  7. Chemistry 
  8. Nutrition
  9. Nursing Assessment
  10. Psychology
  11. Pharmacology
  12. Gerontology
  13. Mental Health
  14. Obstetrics
  15. Emergency Care
  16. Population-based Practice
  17. Clinical rotation requirements for each specialty

RN vs LPN License

The requirements for earning and maintaining RN and LPN licensure vary from state to state, so you must pay close attention to your state's individual standards. But these are the primary differences between RN vs LPN licensure:

LPN Licensure

Licensure for an LPN requires:

  1. A diploma from an accredited, licensed vocational, or community college LPN program. 
  2. Pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-PN) for certification to practice in the United States.  
  3. Renewal of your LPN license every two years by completing your state’s required hours for continuing education.

RN Licensure

Licensure for an RN requires:

  1. Graduation from a nursing school accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) and the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE).
  2. Pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX- RN) to be licensed as a registered nurse.
  3. Renewal of your RN license every two years by completing your state’s continuing education requirement hours.  

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LPN vs RN Salary & Career Outlook

Generally, RNs will make more than LPNs due to their technical skillset and education. Regardless, LPNs still have promising salary prospects and career outlooks.

The median pay for LPN/LVNs is $54,620 per year or $26.26 per hour, according to the most recent report from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Comparatively, RNs make nearly $30,000 more per year, earning a median annual salary of $81,220, which is $39.05 per hour (BLS).

By percentages alone, RN vs LPN growth looks comparable. The BLS projects that the RN career field will increase by 6% between 2022 and 3032, while the outlook for LPNs is close behind at 5%. During that period, the US will need an additional 34,900 LPNs, with a staggering demand of 34,900 RNs to fill open positions.

LPN vs RN Differences in Career Advancement

RNs and LPNs have an excellent opportunity for career advancement by gaining more work experience and higher education.

LPN career advancement opportunities include moving into alternative healthcare environments, including physician offices, mental health institutions, geriatric facilities, physician offices, and home health care. An LPN may also consider advancing their education by completing an LPN to RN bridge program to work as a registered nurse.  

RNs also have excellent career advancement opportunities by moving into various areas of the hospital or institution setting. RNs may want to consider moving into leadership or educator roles and gain higher administrative experience. 

Also, RNs may consider advancing their career potential with higher education through one of the following pathways:

  • RN to BSN (if you don’t already have a BSN)
  • MSN (Masters of Science in Nursing)
  • NP (Nurse Practitioner)
  • DNP (Doctor of Nursing Practice)

LPN vs RN | How Do I Choose Which Is Right for Me?

With an understanding of RN vs LPN differences, you can start deciding which suits you. Ultimately, whether you become an LPN or RN is a highly personal decision that only you can make. But, you may want to consider factors such as time, budget, and career goals before choosing your desired track.

For example, LPN schooling is much shorter and cheaper than registered nurse education, including becoming an RN-ADN. So, LPN licensure may allow someone with a restricted budget to start working in the nursing field sooner, allowing them to start saving for more advanced education.

On the other hand, getting an RN licensure right away helps nurses advance faster, especially if they choose a BSN track. So, starting with an RN might be best for nurses who are passionate about climbing the ladder.

No matter which license you choose, you'll enter a career that is the backbone of the healthcare profession, striving to give the highest level of patient care possible.

Sarah Jividen
RN, BSN
Sarah Jividen
Nurse.org Contributor

Sarah Jividen, RN, BSN, is a trained neuro/trauma and emergency room nurse turned freelance healthcare writer/editor. As a journalism major, she combined her love for writing with her passion for high-level patient care. Sarah is the creator of Health Writing Solutions, LLC, specializing in writing about healthcare topics, including health journalism, education, and evidence-based health and wellness trends. She lives in Northern California with her husband and two children. 

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