People often think the abbreviations “RN” and “BSN” refer to the same thing, but they actually differ in many ways. An individual with a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) may work as a registered nurse (RN), but an RN does not necessarily hold a BSN. Sound confusing? Read on for a more in-depth discussion on the differences between an RN and a BSN, which should clear things up and help you choose the right career path.
What Is an RN?
Registered nurses provide and coordinate patient care, educate the community about health issues, educate patients on healthcare, and provide support to patients and their families. Beside every doctor, you can probably find an RN assisting. To become an RN, an individual must complete a formal training program comprising coursework, lab studies, and clinical rotations.
After completing training, students must pass the NCLEX-RN to obtain licensure, which is required in all states. Individuals can become RNs through these three paths:
- Complete an associate degree in nursing (ADN)
- Complete a diploma nursing program
- Complete a BSN
What Is a BSN?
A BSN is a degree program for aspiring nurses. Unlike the associate degree and diploma nursing programs, which take two years to complete, a BSN requires four years of study. Students complete a core nursing curriculum and general education courses. BSN graduates may have more career opportunities available to them than candidates with just an associate or a diploma.
Career Options for an RN With an ADN or Diploma
Healthcare professionals with an ADN or nursing diploma work in hospitals, inpatient and outpatient care centers, and doctor’s offices. They may also work with home healthcare service providers. These workers can hold jobs in assisted living facilities, long-term care homes, retirement communities, and educational institutions as well.
Individuals with ADNs and nursing diplomas mainly qualify for entry-level positions, technical roles, and support roles. An ADN serves as the minimum education level needed to sit the NCLEX-RN examination, which leads to RN licensure. RNs hold more responsibility and typically earn higher salaries than other popular ADN professions, making this an appealing path for many ADN-holders.
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data from May 2020 indicates a median annual salary range of $30,830–$75,330 for roles suiting professionals with ADNs and nursing diplomas. The following table examines specific job opportunities in greater detail:
|Job Title||Required Education||Responsibilities||Average Annual Salary|
|Nursing Assistant||Diploma or ADN plus state licensure||Provision of basic healthcare services, such as monitoring of vital signs and assessment of nonemergency medical concernsAssisting patients with daily living needs||$32,050|
|Licensed Practical Nurse (also known as Licensed Vocational Nurse)||Diploma or ADN plus state licensure||Provision of basic healthcare servicesMonitoring patients, ensuring their comfort, and reporting changes in their condition to RNs or doctorsTaking samples (e.g., tissue or blood)Administering medication orally and by injection (no IV push medications or blood transfusions)||$50,090|
|Psychiatric Nurse||ADN or BSN plus RN licensure||1-2 years of professional experience in psychiatric services | Psychiatric–medical health nursing certification | Providing medical care for people with mental health conditions or developmental disabilitiesImproving quality of life and assisting patients with daily living needsAdministering medications and drug therapies||$65,670|
|Registered Nurse||ADN plus RN licensure||Providing and coordinating nonemergency and emergency patient careHelping patients and members of the public avoid health problemsTaking samples (e.g., tissue or blood)Administering medicationsPerforming basic laboratory tests and non-complex medical procedures||$80,010|
|Nursing Case Manager||ADN plus RN licensureMultiple years of RN experienceCase manager certification||Typical RN dutiesEvaluating and implementing patient-specific care plansRevising and updating care plans in response to changing patient conditions | Guiding clinical decision-making for routine patient care||$73,800|
Career Options for a BSN
RNs with BSNs work in many of the same settings as their ADN- and diploma-holding counterparts. Hospitals, inpatient and outpatient care facilities, long-term and residential care facilities, educational institutions, doctor’s offices, and assisted living facilities all employ nurses with BSN degrees. However, BSN-holders tend to:
- Hold more complete knowledge of nursing and patient care standards
- Enjoy greater employment access and advancement opportunities
- Earn higher salaries; BLS data indicates significantly higher earnings among labor force members with bachelor’s degrees
Their more thorough knowledge and education better prepare RNs with BSNs to enter advanced degree programs leading to higher-level professions, such as advanced practice registered nursing.
The following table offers a high-level breakdown of the types of jobs available to RNs with BSN degrees:
|Job Title||Responsibilities||Average Annual Salary|
|School Nurse||Providing basic healthcare services and health information to student populationsDeveloping health education curricula||$48,550|
|Public Health Nurse||Leading educational programs, advocacy campaigns, and targeted public health interventions on behalf of government health agencies and social services providersPreventing illness and injuries in targeted population groups||$59,560|
|Critical Care Nurse||Providing healthcare services to critically ill individuals in intensive care units, emergency rooms, recovery wards, and other inpatient settings||$75,620|
|Registered Nurse||Delivering basic to intermediate levels of patient careEducating patients and the public on illness and injury preventionOrdering and performing non-complex medical tests and administering medicationsLiaising with doctors to monitor patient statuses||$80,010|
|Emergency Room Nurse||Providing RN services in emergency room settings||$69,960|
|Medical and Health Services Manager||Planning and administration duties in healthcare institutions | Participating in human and financial resource allocation decisionsLiaising between nursing staffs and executive management in hospitals and other institutional settingsBSN plus extensive experience and a business degree required||$118,800|
Career Outlook for RNs
RNs are in high demand and can expect a 7% job growth from 2019-2029, according to the BLS. As the population continues to grow, so will the need for qualified healthcare professionals like RNs. That need will further increase as more RNs reach retirement age. As of May 2020, RNs earned a median annual wage of $73,330, according to the BLS, though actual earnings vary significantly depending on position and location.
Prospective RNs can choose from several career paths, but those with BSNs typically find the best career opportunities and highest earning potential. Knowing the difference between an RN and a BSN can help an aspiring RN choose the right program and degree level.
Comparing RN vs BSN Education Requirements
Compared to BSN degrees, ADN programs take less time to complete. Full-time students can typically earn an associate degree in two academic years, while standard bachelor’s programs take four.
ADN and BSN programs both prepare learners to provide care that conforms to prevailing professional standards. However, ADN programs tend to focus on technical and clinical skills. Longer, more intensive BSN programs also cover this training, plus advanced, research-based education and a broader, more complete view of healthcare and its relationship to institutional structures.
The following table offers a complete summary of the differences between basic RN programs and BSN degrees:
|Two academic years||Four academic years (standard programs) | Accelerated programs (3-4 years) are also available|
|Costs are lower, since programs are shorter||Costs are higher, since programs are longer|
|Admission standards are usually less demanding||Admission standards are usually more demanding|
|Curriculum focuses solely on core technical competencies||Curriculum covers core technical competencies plus health policy and informatics, evidence-based research literacy, and institutional and administrative insights among other advanced topics|
|Designed to prepare students for entry-level roles with moderately limited career ceilings||Designed to prepare students for roles with advancement potential or future studies at advanced degree levels|
|Diploma and ADN degree-holders have lower NCLEX-RN pass rates||BSN degree-holders have higher NCLEX-RN pass rates|
Many nursing students pursue diploma and associate programs so they can begin their careers more quickly, and then they complete a BSN later on. These individuals already hold RN credentials (and likely experience) by the time they pursue a BSN, meaning they can typically complete the bachelor’s in two years rather than four. Earning a bachelor’s degree at any time allows RNs to pursue specialized areas of nursing and earn higher wages.
Additional RN vs BSN Differences to Consider
Demand for RNs remains high, and healthy BLS growth projections for the 2019-2029 period signal strong near-term opportunity. However, while RNs with diplomas or ADNs still benefit from excellent access to job markets, hospitals and healthcare institutions increasingly prefer candidates with BSNs.
In 2011, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) unveiled its plan for the future of nursing, calling for 80% of RNs to hold BSN degrees by 2020. 2020 came and went without the NIH reaching this target, largely due to the effects of COVID-19 on nursing education. Still, BSN programs have steadily grown in popularity since the NIH’s initial announcement. The percentage of working RNs with BSN degrees also rose dramatically during the 2010s.
However, while RNs with diplomas or ADNs still benefit from excellent access to job markets, hospitals and healthcare institutions increasingly prefer candidates with BSNs.
This indicates that BSNs offer both superior long-term job security and an expanded array of long-term career options. RNs can quickly upgrade their diploma or ADN credentials to bachelor’s degrees through RN-to-BSN programs, offered nationwide by nursing schools.
RN vs BSN: Which Path Is Right for You?
Diploma programs and ADNs often appeal to those seeking quick entry to the nursing profession. Some RNs do not wish or plan to advance into leadership or management positions, making shorter, less expensive diplomas and ADNs efficient, practical options.
RNs with diplomas or ADNs can expect lower overall earning potential. However, these professionals may also experience less stress, since their positions carry less responsibility. Conversely, BSNs generally make a better option for learners who want to maximize their career options and lay the foundation for future study in advanced degree programs.
BSN programs’ more rigorous and comprehensive curricula also appear to impact patient outcomes. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing notes that RNs with BSNs tend to provide higher-quality care and adhere more closely to safety and quality standards.
The tables below summarize relative advantages and disadvantages of these two educational paths:
ADN: Pros and Cons
- Schooling takes less time, facilitating faster entry into the workforce
- Modified core curricula teach essential skills quickly and efficiently
- RNs can accrue professional experience more quickly since they have a shorter path to licensure
- Future career advancement opportunities remain readily available with additional schooling
- Employment opportunities may be limited relative to job-seekers with BSNs
- RNs with diplomas or ADNs tend to earn lower salaries and have relatively limited advancement potential
- Candidates with diplomas and ADNs have lower first-time NCLEX-RN pass rates
- Future employment trends could compel RNs with diplomas or ADNs to upgrade to BSN degrees
- Some employers require ADN/diploma RNs to earn a BSN within a certain time frame after hiring, at times as a stipulation in their contract
BSN: Pros and Cons
- Increased earning power and career advancement potential
- BSN programs develop more complete skill sets, which studies link to better care standards and improved patient outcomes
- Candidates with BSNs have higher NCLEX-RN pass rates
- Direct access to specialized and concentrated training in niche practice areas
- Improved job market access
- BSNs position RNs for future career advancement and entry to advanced degree programs
- BSN programs take longer and cost more money
- Candidates delay workforce entry and thus take more time to accumulate professional experience
Frequently Asked Questions
Does having a BSN make you an RN?
BSN-holders do not automatically receive RN licensure. Candidates must still pass the NCLEX-RN examination. However, test-takers with BSNs have higher exam pass rates than those with diplomas or ADNs.
Can I get a BSN without being an RN?
Yes. BSN programs accept students with no previous healthcare education or professional experience. RNs with diplomas or ADNs can enroll in specialized RN-to-BSN programs to upgrade their education.
Is nursing school difficult?
In general, all types of nursing programs are considerably difficult, given the complex and technical nature of the subject matter. That said, some nursing programs are designed to allow students to continue working as they study part time.
What pays more, RN or BSN?
What type of nurse is most in demand?
Generalist RNs continue to benefit from favorable job market trends, but a 2021 NurseJournal report listed five nursing specializations with particularly high demand. These programs include certified dialysis nurse, certified legal nurse consultant, and nursing case manager.
Reviewed by: Elizabeth Clarke (Poon)
Elizabeth M. Clarke, FNP, MSN, RN, MSSW
Elizabeth Clarke (Poon) is a board-certified family nurse practitioner. A native of Boston, Massachusetts, Clarke tired of the cold and snowy winters and moved to Coral Gables, Florida to complete her undergraduate degree in nursing at the University of Miami. After working for several years in the UHealth and Jackson Memorial Medical systems in the cardiac and ER units, Clarke returned to the University of Miami to complete her master of science in nursing (MSN). Since completing her MSN, Clarke has worked providing primary and urgent care to pediatric populations. Clarke is a paid member of RV EDU’s freelance review network.