ADN Versus BSN Nursing Degree... Which Will it Be?

Nancy Burgess

While both degrees can lead to a rewarding career as an RN, there are some significant differences in the academic preparation and, subsequently, the job description and responsibilities that accompany each program.

Diverse nursing students in the classroom.

If you are thinking about attending a nursing program, there is a big choice to make. Which will it be, an Associates Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)?

The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 26 percent demand increase for RN’s by 2020. Either degree can lead to a rewarding career as a registered nurse (RN).

A Look at the Choices

While both degrees can lead to a rewarding career as an RN, there are some significant differences in the academic preparation and, subsequently, the job description and responsibilities that accompany each program.

Both degree programs prepare the graduate to take the National Council Licensing Exam for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN).

Associate Degree in Nursing

The original ADN program was developed in response to a nursing shortage shortly after World War II. It was intended to prepare nurses for hands-on clinical duties, not leadership or management, in a short period of time. Some believe that Associate’s degree programs lack strong nursing theory and understanding of the actual science of nursing.

This is a 2-year degree program that speeds up the educational portion of becoming a registered nurse. The shortened program also dramatically lowers the overall tuition versus a traditional 4-year bachelor’s degree program.

Beyond an ADN

In order to accelerate their transition into the working world, some RN’s choose to start their healthcare career by earning an ADN. Many of them have a further plan in mind. It's straightforward. They work full or part-time as an RN while they also return to school to earn a BSN through an accelerated ADN-to-BSN or, more colloquially, RN-to-BSN degree program.

Most of the RN-to-BSN programs take 18 to 24 months to complete, depending upon the transferable college credits from an ADN or other previously earned degree.

Bachelor of Science Degree

Many entry-level RN positions require a Bachelor of Science in Nursing. This is a traditional 4-year college course, which carries the fundamentals of nursing to a more technical and in-depth level than does an ADN program.

By 2020, 80 percent of registered nurses practicing in the United States will be BSN-prepared. There is current legislation in several states that would mandate a newly licensed RN to complete an ADN to BSN program within 10 years of their graduation from an Associate’s Degree program. Currently practicing RN’s would not be required to commit to a BSN program in order to continue in the profession. This is setting a new standard in nursing.

Looking beyond any proposed legislation, some states already have such laws in effect. North Dakota has enforced the practice of hiring only BSN graduates since 1987 and the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs has followed this standard since 2005.

What is the Difference?

So, other than the time factor, what is the difference between the ADN and the BSN degree curriculums? While both programs delve into standard clinical competency components, a BSN program goes into greater depth in these areas:

  • Nursing theory
  • Critical thinking
  • Nursing research
  • Nursing informatics or technology
  • Leadership and management strategy and skills
  • Community health care
  • Public health
  • Case management, which is offered in a BSN program only

In summary, the critical thinking component of the BSN program is the major difference between the programs. A BSN graduate sets the standard for patient care and the development of a nursing treatment plan. It prepares the student to go beyond the acute care clinical or hospital setting.

Workplace Differences

It's an ongoing debate which degree program prepares an RN to deliver professional and targeted bedside care to patients. Here are the key points of the discussion:


  • Has had more direct patient care clinical experience and preparation
  • Less expensive to attend
  • Less time commitment being a 2 year program, not 4 years


  • Has had more academic theory and management courses
  • Potentially higher earning power due to more advanced, BSN-minimum nursing positions, including healthcare administration and faculty positions
  • Poised to enter an advanced degree program beyond a BSN; this includes a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree program as well as advanced practice certification like a nurse practitioner (NP) or certified nurse anesthetist (CRNA)

Making the Right Decision

Looking at the pros and cons of each degree program, ADN versus BSN, and a clear set of career goals will guide the student to choose the right education path.