RN vs. BSN: Key Differences
What’s an RN License?
RN stands for Registered Nurse. An RN license is a professional credential. It means you’ve been granted permission by your state Board of Nursing (BON) to practice as a Registered Nurse and provide hands-on nursing & community care in your state.
What’s a BSN?
BSN stands for “Bachelor of Science in Nursing.” It’s an undergraduate degree that’s designed to prepare students for the NCLEX-RN exam, RN licensure, and a career in nursing. A traditional BSN is at least 120 credits and takes 4 years to complete.
What’s the Difference?
RNs are nurses who have passed the NCLEX exam and acquired an RN license to work in their state. Earning a BSN degree is one way to become an RN, but it’s not your only option. Read on to discover what other educational pathways are available to you.
How to Become an RN
In order to earn an RN license in your state, you’ll need to complete 3 steps:
- EDUCATION: Graduate from a pre-licensure nursing education program that’s been approved by your state Board of Nursing. Approved education programs for the RN license can include an associate degree (e.g. ADN, ASN or AAS), bachelor’s degree (e.g. BSN), or a diploma in nursing. You’ll find a list of CCNE- and ACEN-approved education programs on your state’s BON website—Virginia has a good example.
- EXAM: Pass the NCLEX-RN exam. Keep in mind that state Boards of Nursing post recent NCLEX-RN test results on their websites. So you can look at the pass rates for any approved education program in your state and decide if it’s doing a good job of preparing students for the exam.
- STATE REQUIREMENTS: Fulfill any other state requirements for RN licensure. For instance, you might be expected to pay certain fees, submit fingerprints for a criminal background check, take a continuing education course in child abuse recognition, etc.
If you’d like to learn more about the process, the NCBSN has a section on the ins & outs of nursing licensure. You can also use their search tool to find your state’s Board of Nursing Professional Licensure Requirements.
How to Earn a BSN
BSN Degree Pathways
Let’s say you’ve looked at the approved education programs in your state—including associate degree and diploma options—and decided that you want to pursue a BSN in order to gain your RN license. You’ll have a number of entry points to choose from:
- Traditional BSN: This is the standard 4-year pathway for students who have no prior healthcare experience or educational qualifications (e.g. recent high school graduates). The degree is a blend of science, humanities, and clinical training. See below for a sample curriculum.
- RN to BSN: The RN to BSN pathway is designed for current RNs who already have an associate degree or diploma in nursing and a valid RN license in their state. In 1-2 years, they can complete enough upper-level undergraduate credits to qualify for a bachelor’s degree.
- Second Degree BSN/Accelerated BSN: The BSN Second Degree pathway is open to candidates who want to study for the NCLEX and become an RN, but who have a bachelor’s degree in another field. Instead of making these students retake a lot of humanities & basic science courses, universities will ask them to focus on core nursing courses & clinical experiences.
- Direct Entry BSN: Sometimes universities will allow top-notch high school graduates to apply for a “Direct Entry” BSN. In this kind of rigorous academic program, students are allowed to start taking nursing classes in the first year and attending clinicals & labs in their second year. In traditional BSN programs, this kind of work often occurs in the last 2 years.
Online BSN programs are available, but they tend to be limited to RN to BSN and Second Degree pathways. And they’re not completely online—you’ll still be required to take part in clinical practicums and hands-on training.
Traditional BSN: 4-Year Curriculum
Strong BSN programs follow the guidelines of AACN’s Essentials of Baccalaureate Education for Professional Nursing Practice and cover areas such as:
- General Education (GE) & Preclinical Courses: Credits in humanities, social sciences, statistics, and basic sciences (e.g. chemistry, biology, anatomy, nutrition, psychology, etc.). These are usually classed as “lower division” courses.
- Core Nursing Courses: Credits in professional nursing, the nursing care of certain groups (e.g. children, adults, women, etc.), health assessment, nursing management & leadership, cultural competence, and more. These are usually classed as “upper division” courses.
- Lab Simulations: Your School of Nursing will have simulation labs where you can safely practice your clinical skills in a hands-on environment. Labs will be designed to look like real-world settings (e.g. operating theater, emergency room, labor & delivery room, etc.).
- Clinical Experiences: During certain nursing courses, you’ll take part in clinical practicums/experiences with real patients under the supervision of a nursing preceptor. In certain years, you might be spending 16-24 hours per week in actual clinical settings.
RN-ADN vs. BSN Nurse: Career Decisions
RN Job Outlook
As long as you have completed a state BON-approved education program, passed the NCLEX exam, and earned an RN license in your home state, you are eligible for RN job openings. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does a good job of outlining common RN job responsibilities and work environments.
There is almost always a high demand for RNs in any state—they are the backbone of the nursing profession. In many cases, your degree or diploma won’t be the most important factor in your application. Instead, employers will be interested in your letters of reference, your GPA & academic achievements, and—most importantly—your clinical experience.
Having said that, we’re going to recommend that you earn a BSN or MSN at some point in your career! The benefits of these degrees will outweigh the initial costs.
RN-ADN vs. RN-BSN Salary Differences
In the long run, having a BSN is going to be more financially lucrative than having an associate degree or diploma. Although salary offers for initial RN positions may be the same for all candidates, a BSN will be a big help when you:
- Ask for a Raise: You’ll have more leverage in salary negotiations with a bachelor’s degree in hand.
- Apply for Higher Paid Management Positions: In many cases, having a BSN will be a job requirement.
- Apply for Highly Paid Jobs in Hospitals: See our examples below.
You’ll notice that RNs who work in outpatient care centers (which are part of medical facilities) and general medical & surgical hospitals tend to earn the highest wages.
When the BSN Counts for RN Jobs
There are a number of instances where being an RN with a BSN is going to give you a decided advantage over RNs with an associate degree or diploma in nursing.
Prestige Hospitals & Academic Medical Centers
Big-name hospitals & academic medical centers often prefer to hire RNs with BSN degree. These kinds of institutions are anxious to maintain their reputation for safety & quality. And—according to multiple studies cited by the AACN—RNs with a bachelor’s degree are simply much better at patient care.
The ANCC Magnet Recognition Program® is designed to reward healthcare organizations who meet a set of criteria in nursing excellence (e.g. patient outcomes, professional nursing practice, etc.).
- Although Magnet hospitals aren’t required to hire RNs with a BSN, they often strongly prefer it.
- Nurse managers in a Magnet hospital must have a BSN or graduate degree in nursing.
U.S. Armed Services & VA Institutions
- The U.S. Army, Navy & Air Force require active duty RNs to have a baccalaureate degree. The BSN is preferred—but not required—in the Reserves.
- Any commissioned officer in the U.S. Public Health Service must have a bachelor’s degree in nursing.
- If you wish to be promoted beyond an entry-level position in the Veteran’s Administration (VA), you must have a baccalaureate degree.
Nurse Leadership & Management Positions
Interested in running a unit or supervising a team? You may need a BSN to apply for the job. Employers are often unwilling to consider RN candidates who haven’t taken coursework in leadership, management, community health, and research-driven decision-making. Those are the kinds of classes that appear in the last years of a BSN program.
New York: BSN in 10
New York RNs are now required, by law, to earn a BSN within 10 years of initially being licensed as an RN. That means New Yorkers might as well earn a BSN now and save themselves the trouble further down the line. Other states have been considering similar measures.
RN vs. BSN: FAQs
Can I Earn an RN license Without a BSN?
Yes. To earn your RN license, you can choose one of the following programs:
- Associate degree in nursing (e.g. ADN, ASN or AAS)
- Diploma in nursing at a hospital-based nursing school
- Bachelor’s degree in nursing (e.g. BSN)
However, remember that any pre-licensure education program for aspiring RNs must be approved by your state Board of Nursing (BON). Always check with your BON before applying to a program.
How Can I Become an RN Quickly?
Associate degree and diploma programs in nursing (~2-3 years) will be quicker than BSN programs (~4 years). But we recommend you take a look at our section on When the BSN Counts for RN Jobs before you make a decision. You may decide that the BSN is worth the extra time.
Why Study for a BSN if it’s Not Required for an RN License?
Our section on When the BSN Counts for RN Jobs contains some pretty strong arguments for earning a bachelor’s degree. You’ll be eligible for more prestigious & highly paid jobs. You’ll be trained in leadership skills. You’ll probably be less likely to make medical mistakes.
And you’ll be competing against others with the same qualification. BSN-prepared RNs have been rising steadily since 2013. In 2020, the National Nursing Workforce Survey found that 42% of RNs reported that their BSN qualified them for their first US nursing license.
Can I Become an RN and Earn a BSN Later?
Yes. If you can’t afford the time & money to earn a BSN now, you have the option to:
- Enroll in an associate degree or diploma program in nursing that’s been approved by your state Board of Nursing (BON).
- Pass the NCLEX exam, become an RN, and start working.
- Apply for an RN to BSN program—have a look at our rankings of Best Online RN to BSN Programs for ideas.
There’s one big benefit to this approach. If you’re an employee of an established hospital or healthcare institution, you may be able to take advantage of employer reimbursement programs that help subsidize continuing education.
I Have a Bachelor’s Degree in Another Subject—How Do I Become an RN?
You should look at Accelerated BSN or Second Degree BSN programs that have been approved by your state Board of Nursing (BON). These pre-licensure programs are specifically designed for folks who have a bachelor’s degree in another subject.
Can I Become an APRN with a BSN?
No. APRNs must have an MSN or DNP in order to apply for national certification and APRN state licensure. And Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists (CRNAs) must have a DNP. If you’re interested in becoming a Nurse Practitioner, Certified Nurse Midwife, Nurse Educator, or working in management, you’ll need to think about graduate school.
You could consider earning an associate degree & RN license and then applying to RN to MSN programs. Alternatively, you might want to earn your BSN & RN license, apply for a well-paid job, and pursue an MSN or DNP with the help of employer reimbursement. Talk to your mentors and the School of Nursing about what will work for your budget & time commitments.