RN Diploma vs. ADN vs. BSN Degree: What’s the Difference?

RN Diploma vs. ADN vs. BSN Degree: What’s the Difference?

Nursing is a rewarding profession since it allows one to directly affect and enhance the lives of patients and their families in moments of need. As a career, it provides multiple avenues to specialize in and offers job security, given the perceptual high demand for hospital care workers. Additionally, a nursing career leads to multiple lucrative career pathways that make the practice sustainable. As such, 89% of registered nurses are either moderately satisfied or extremely satisfied with their jobs (HRSA Health Workforce, 2022).

Before aspirants become registered nurses, they need to choose from three undergraduate pathways, namely a Registered Nurse (RN) Diploma, an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN), or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). Each mode of undergraduate education bears its share of advantages and disadvantages, caters to its own set of learners, and paves a clear path toward licensure as a nurse, especially if a degree is considered the best online nursing program.

This article defines and then pits RN vs BSN vs ADN degrees in various areas. Moreover, our team of researchers gathered information on the admission requirements, careers, and advantages of each type of undergraduate nursing education.

RN Diploma vs. ADN vs. BSN Degree Table of Contents

  1. Nursing Education Pathways
  2. ADN vs RN vs BSN Degree Requirements
  3. ADN vs RN vs BSN Degree Careers and Earning Potential
  4. ADN vs RN vs BSN Degree: What are the advantages?

Nursing Education Pathways

The road to becoming a nurse begins at the undergraduate level, in which three central options are available, RN vs ADN vs BSN. Getting to know them thoroughly is crucial when making a decision. It is important to note that accredited programs should come as priorities since they have been vetted by industry experts.

What is an RN Diploma?

An RN diploma is an undergraduate nursing program that, upon completion, awards a diploma, allowing graduates to pursue a career as registered nurses. Some programs span two to three years (Coursera, 2023), but there are also those that can be completed in 12 months. They are normally shorter in duration than associate or bachelor's degree programs, with an average of only 50 credits required to graduate.

RN diploma programs are designed to provide students with the core nursing skills, practical experience, and theoretical understanding required for entry-level nursing practice. Moreover, these programs, while less frequent in recent years, have historically provided a road for aspirants to enter the nursing profession and earn licensure as registered nurses. Currently, there are special programs that turn the usual RN vs BSN setup into an RN to BSN package that can be completed in about 18 months.

  • Average Program Length: 1 - 2 years
  • Required Credits to Graduate: 50

What is an ADN?

An ADN is a two-year undergraduate program that prepares students to work as registered nurses. Typically offered by community colleges, ADN programs focus on the basic nursing coursework, clinical rotations, and hands-on training essential to entry-level nursing practice. These are often completed with an estimated 60 to 70 credits, which cover preparatory programs for entry-level nursing and obtaining licensure. ADN nursing graduates are able to take the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) exam to become registered nurses.

So, what is an ADN in terms of popularity? According to Zippia (2023), 46% of registered nurses hold associate degrees, more than those who have bachelor's degrees (44%), master's degrees (5%), and diploma certificates (5%). ADN programs are popular because they are shorter in duration and less expensive than bachelor's degree programs, making them a viable path for prospective nursing careers. With this, ADN degrees are considered some of the cheapest online nursing degrees that offer balanced education.

  • Average Program Length: 2 years
  • Required Credits to Graduate: 60

What is a BSN?

A BSN is an undergraduate program that affords thorough education in nursing for over four years. Usually offered by colleges and universities, these programs tackle a wide range of topics, such as nursing philosophy, research, leadership, and community health, and are completed with around 120 credits on average. BSN graduates are qualified to take the NCLEX-RN exam and become registered nurses.

Because of its emphasis on critical thinking, leadership abilities, and enhanced career options in specialty nursing roles, managerial positions, graduate education, and research, the BSN degree is fast becoming the preferred educational track for nurses. Even though the ADN vs BSN matchup regarding the educational attainment of registered nurses is in the former's favor, the same cannot be said for nurses in general. Data from Zippia (2023) shows that 43% of nurses have a bachelor's degree, 35% have an associate's degree, 9% have an RN diploma, and 7% completed their master's.

  • Average Program Length: 4 years
  • Required Credits to Graduate: 120

Source: Zippia, 2023

ADN vs RN vs BSN Degree Requirements

In terms of admission requirements, RN vs BSN vs ADN are quite similar, with only minor differences among them. With BSN vs RN, the former requires a slightly higher GPA, while the latter sometimes asks for fewer requirements.

RN Diploma Admission Requirements

  • High School Diploma or GED. Applicants will need to submit their high school diploma or an equivalent, such as a General Educational Development (GED) certificate.
  • Proof of English Proficiency. Applicants may need to take an English proficiency test to prove their competency in the language, especially for non-native speakers.
  • Math and Science Courses. Since science and math figure in many nursing practices, RN diploma programs will require applicants to submit their high school grades in these courses.
  • Minimum GPA: The minimum grade point average (GPA) required by some RN diploma programs is at least 2.5 to 3.

ADN and BSN Admission Requirements

  • High School Diploma or GED. Schools would want to affirm if an applicant has finished high school, so one should submit a high diploma or an equivalent document like a GED.
  • Official Transcript. A transcript affirms that a student has completed high school-level courses, and is, therefore, qualified to enter a college undergraduate program.
  • Entrance Exam. As part of the admissions process, some ADN and BSN programs require students to take a nursing entrance exam, such as the Test of Essential Academic Skills (TEAS) or the Health Education Systems, Inc. Admission Assessment (HESI A2). These exams measure academic readiness in subjects such as reading, arithmetic, science, and English language usage.
  • Minimum GPA. The minimum grade point average required by ADN and BSN programs is usually at least 3.0.
  • Letters of Recommendation. These letters, coming from former mentors, employers, and teachers, narrate an applicant's character, competence, and attitude as a learner. The accounts reflect how an applicant would be as a student.
  • Essay. An essay fleshes out an applicant's goals as a student and the level of dedication given to earn a degree. It also showcases one's competency in written communication.
  • Interview. Some ADN and BSN programs, including specialized ones like an ASN degree, have school staff interview applicants to determine their aspirations and motivations to earn a degree, as well as assess their confidence and oral communication skills.

Majors of Registered Nurses: 85% - Nursing; 3% - Nursing Science; 1% - Psychology; 1% - Business

ADN vs RN vs BSN Degree Careers and Earning Potential

Unlike other disciplines like an online radiologic technologist program, there is no RN vs BSN vs ADN in terms of the types of occupations graduates can apply for since there is little difference in the entry-level jobs available. After all, the three nursing degree programs are designed to train aspirants into becoming registered nurses, with an RN diploma more centered on experiential training, while an ADN employs a more generalized approach. Looking at the BSN meaning, a bachelor's degree combines both. The difference between rn and bsn leads to variations in earning potential between the three, with RN vs BSN being on the opposite sides of the spectrum.

RN Diploma Earning Potential

An RN diploma has decent earning potential considering that it focuses on clinical practice more than administering traditional college. This means students are usually job-ready when they earn a diploma. As such, according to Payscale (2023), the average salary of an RN diploma holder is $71,000. This increases considerably should a graduate become a registered nurse. RN certificate holders have access to a wide variety of entry-level jobs based on a graduate's chosen specialization. In an RN vs BSN context, the former's salary might be smaller from the get-go, but the head start granted to graduates allows them to work their way to better roles and salaries even before a BSN student graduates.

ADN Earning Potential

An ADN has slightly higher earning potential compared to an RN diploma since it provides college courses along with practical training. The added knowledge afforded by the courses widens the skillsets of graduates and expands the potential applications of the practice. This is reflected by the $75,000 average salary approximated by Payscale (2023). Given the small difference in earning potential between an RN diploma and an ADN, Zippia (2023) bundled both and projected a more conservative $55,268 average salary for graduates. A salary jump to $70,032 is seen for registered nurses (Zippia, 2023).

BSN Earning Potential

BSN has the highest earning potential in the RN vs BSN vs ADN comparison since it offers a comprehensive education that includes a wider variety of subjects such as humanities, social sciences, research, leadership, and community health. BSN programs also feature clinical experiences, which allow students to obtain hands-on experience in a variety of healthcare settings. As such, Payscale (2023) estimates the average BSN salary to be $91,000. Again, Zippia (2023) provides a more conservative estimate for BSN graduates, at $63,583, but shows the considerable compensation increase when one becomes a registered nurse, at $82,132.

A BSN degree is considered a higher level of education and is quickly becoming the recommended educational track for registered nurses. With this, 71.7% of employers have a strong preference for candidates with BSN degrees, and 27.7% require a BSN when employing nurses (AACN, 2022).

Average Salaries of RDN, ADN, and BSN Graduates: $71,000 - RN Diploma; $75,000 - ADN Degree; $91,000 - BSN Degree

Entry-level Jobs for Nursing Graduates

Registered Nurse

A registered nurse offers direct patient care, examines patients' health, and administers drugs and treatments as directed by doctors. They work with the healthcare team to establish and implement care plans, educate patients and families about health issues and self-care, and advocate for their patient's well-being and needs. RNs also monitor vital signs, do diagnostic tests, and offer emotional support to patients and their families throughout the healthcare process.

Median Salary: $77,600

Staff Nurse

A staff nurse is in charge of direct patient care in a healthcare setting such as a hospital, clinic, or long-term care institution. They evaluate and monitor patients' health problems, administer drugs and treatments, and work with the healthcare team to establish and carry out care plans. Staff nurses also offer emotional support to patients and their families, educate them about their health issues and treatment plans, and keep patients safe and comfortable.

Median Salary: $67,766

Nurse Specialist

A specialty nurse is a registered nurse who has received further training and study in a particular area of nursing, such as pediatrics, critical care, oncology, or mental health. They give specialist care to patients in their specialty area, including assessment, treatment, and education customized to the unique patient population and condition. Specialty nurses frequently collaborate with interdisciplinary teams, stay current on innovations in their profession, and provide specialized interventions and support to improve patient outcomes.

Median Salary: $115,613

Community Health Nurse

A community health nurse promotes and improves individuals' and communities' health and well-being. They may work in public health agencies, community clinics, schools, or home health services. Community health nurses analyze community health needs, provide health education and preventative treatment, work with community groups, and take part in efforts to address public health challenges and promote community wellbeing.

Median Salary: $66,675

Occupational Health Nurse

An occupational health nurse specializes in promoting and safeguarding employees' health, safety, and well-being at work. They assess and manage occupational health risks, conduct health screenings and vaccination, plan and execute health and safety programs, and work with employers to establish a safe and healthy workplace. Employees may also receive injury and sickness treatment, ergonomic examinations, and health education from occupational health nurses.

Median Salary: $89,078

Source: Payscale, 2023

ADN vs RN vs BSN Degree: What are the advantages?

In an ADN vs RN vs BSN comparison, each nursing education pathway has its own set of special features, thus yielding advantages in certain areas. Picking one that can best cultivate an aspirant's skill development comes as a top priority, as proven by a 2021 study titled "Effects of nurses’ individual, professional and work environment characteristics on job performance" and published in the Journal of Clinical Nursing. It states that "the job performance of nurses is a priority issue in delivering quality healthcare services. Further efforts need to be pursued by nurse managers to ensure a positive work environment to increase their nurses’ job performance (Sarikose & Göktepe, 2021)."

This ascertains the presence of skill gaps in today's nursing landscape amid the times' evolving goals. As such, the paper points out that "the results of the study show that three sub-dimensions of the PES-NWI (nursing foundations for quality of care, staffing and resource adequacy, nurse manager abilities, and leadership and support for nurses), colleague solidarity and education level were important factors affecting job performance."

Our team of researchers gathered data on the three pathways.

RN Diploma Advantages

  • Short Program Length. RN diploma programs are typically shorter than ADN and BSN programs. These also require fewer credits to graduate, making it easier for students to enter the professional realm.
  • Easier Admissions. An RN diploma tends to have fewer admission requirements compared to a BSN and an ADN.
  • Focus on Clinical Education. Some RN diploma programs require students to complete more clinical hours than ADN or BSN programs. This can provide students with a stronger foundation in clinical skills and make them more appealing to employers.
  • Cheapest Option. Since RN diplomas are shorter and carry lighter academic loads than ADN and BSN programs, besides not administering college courses, they tend to have the cheapest education costs among the three. An RN diploma, on average, costs $4,000 to $15,000 per year (Brown, 2022).
  • RN-to-BSN Programs. There are special RN diplomas that are linked with a BSN program for more comprehensive nursing education, which appeals to employers. RN diplomas can also be taken with the intention of pursuing further education down the line.

ADN Advantages

  • Cheaper than a BSN. ADN programs often cost less than BSN programs. This is due to the fact that ADN degrees are usually provided in community schools, which have lower tuition than four-year universities. There are even cases when ADNs are cheaper than some RN diplomas. An ADN costs around $6,000 to $20,000 (Brown, 2022).
  • Availability. ADN programs are offered in more locations than BSN programs. This can be a significant benefit for students who reside in rural areas or who desire to attend a nearby school.
  • Shorter than a BSN. ADN programs are normally finished in two years, whereas BSN programs are typically completed in four years. This might be a significant benefit for students who are eager to begin their nursing careers.
  • Diverse Career Opportunities. While a lot of healthcare institutions require a BSN, an ADN can still find plenty of work in organizations like home health agencies, long-term care facilities, and community health clinics. Should you decide to further your education but with a different focus, you will also be welcome to apply to other schools such as the best schools for athletic training or schools with respiratory therapy programs. Can you get a PTA degree online as well? It turns out that you can.
  • Flexible Education. ADN programs are frequently offered in the evenings or on weekends, making it easier for students to manage their studies with jobs and other responsibilities.
  • Competitive Salaries. Although normally ADN nurses make less than their BSN counterparts, the wage disparity is decreasing. Some ADN nurses are currently receiving earnings comparable to BSN nurses.

BSN Advantages

  • Highest Average Salary. BSN nurses are typically paid more than RN diploma holders and ADN graduates. Recalling the data from Payscale (2023), BSN graduates earn an average of $91,000, higher than that of ADN graduates ($75,000) and RN diploma holders ($71,000).
  • Highest NCLEX Passing Rate. According to NCSBN (2022), 85% of applicants who were BSN graduates passed the exam, a higher share than those with an ADN (80%) in 2022. A similar case can be seen in the 2020 results, with BSN graduates (90%) faring better than ADN graduates (82%) (NCSBN, 2020).
  • Most Preferred by Employers. According to the latest AACN (2022) report, 71.7% of employers have a strong preference for candidates with BSN degrees, and 27.7% of medical institutions require a BSN when employing nurses.
  • Plenty of Advancement Opportunities. ADN and RN diploma nurses have fewer prospects for growth than BSN nurses. BSN nurses are more likely to advance to positions of leadership, such as nurse manager or clinical director. They're also more likely to be hired for specialist jobs like nurse practitioner or nurse anesthetist.
  • Superior Knowledge and Skills.  BSN programs are often more in-depth than ADN and RN diploma programs. Nursing research, leadership, and ethics are among the themes covered in BSN programs. This provides BSN nurses with a more thorough understanding of the nursing profession as well as the capacity to provide more comprehensive care to patients. Moreover, nursing organizations and state boards for nursing are reportedly pushing for nurses to earn at least a BSN degree.
  • Better Autonomy. A BSN degree qualifies a nurse for a greater range of responsibilities, such as handling new health technologies, making home healthcare decisions, deciding on post-op and preventative care, and coordinating a comprehensive plan of care for the duration of a patient's stay. This level of autonomy is critical in addressing the increasing demands on the healthcare system caused by a nursing shortage and an aging population.

Average Annual Cost of Undergraduate Nursing Pathways: $4,000 to $15,000 - RN Diploma; $6,000 to $20,000 - ADN Degree; $40,000 to $100,000 - BSN Degree

Making A Goal-based Decision

In the RN vs BSN vs ADN comparison, the gathered information appears to favor a BSN as it shows more advantages in several factors, including compensation, career opportunities, and employer preference. But this does not mean that ADN programs and RN diplomas are not worthwhile options. At the end of the day, these programs are faster to complete than a bachelor's degree by two to three years, affording graduates a lengthy head start in establishing their careers and advancing their skills. And both options provide quality education, with RN diplomas centered on clinical training and ADN programs imparting a mix of academic and practical training.

Moreover, in an ADN vs BSN comparison, a BSN degree may be strongly preferred by most employers, but the share of those making that statement has been steadily going down in the past few years. According to AACN, 82.4% of employers had that opinion in 2020 (AACN, 2020), which slid to 77.4% in the following year (AACN, 2021). Currently, it is at 71.7% (AACN, 2022). ADNs are slowly catching up to BSNs.

This shows that each nursing undergraduate pathway caters to particular audiences with specific aims and is influenced by their current life situations. So, which is the overall best in the RN vs BSN vs ADN comparison? The best choice for you among accredited online nursing programs entirely depends on your current assets and career and educational goals.



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