The Different Paths to Becoming a Nurse

Weigh Your Options

Prospective nurses have three degree paths to consider: the BSN, the ADN and the Nursing Diploma/Certificate. Each will prepare the student to take and pass the NCLEX-RN and apply for state licensure for the title of Registered Nurse. Regardless of the path chosen, a student can improve their career success by:

  1. Establishing a solid history of volunteer and employment experience, which can be done by pursuing community service projects or a part-time job at a medical establishment
  2. Creating a network of professional contacts, be they physicians, RNs, educators or peers, who will help them get their careers off the ground
  3. Staying current on medical trends and engaging in continuing education for nurses

While each path has its pros and cons, especially where time and costs are concerned, the difference in degrees really manifest in the sorts of positions an RN can hold – the more advanced the degree, the better the chance of securing a senior position. Explore our detailed comparison of these three major paths below. If you’re already an RN, you can learn how to obtain your BSN here.

PATH 1: Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) Degree


Educational requirements: Many BSN programs require first-year and second-year students to pass one or more prerequisite courses. Examples of prerequisites include human anatomy, pharmacology, and healthcare ethics.

Program Information

Focus: A BSN program’s curriculum is meant to be a comprehensive introduction to the profession, with an emphasis on instilling students with leadership, communication, and problem-solving skills needed to eventually advance into senior nursing positions.

Length: Most BSN programs require a commitment of at least four years. Students may enroll in an accelerated program, sometimes called an ABSN, or take summer courses to earn their degree faster.

Cost: Tuition, course fees, and other academic expenses depend on the higher-learning institution. According to, average cost of tuition and room and board during the 2013-14 academic year breaks down as such (four-year education cost at these rates also shown):

  • Public four-year university (in-state students): $18,391 (Total: $73,564)
  • Public four-year university (out-of-state students): $31,071 (Total: $124,284)
  • Private, nonprofit four-year university: $40,917 (Total: $163,668)

Course Load: BSN students should expect to complete between 12 and 18 credit hours (or four to six courses) during each semester. A capstone project may also be required during the final year or semester of study.

After the Program

Your credentials: Upon successful completion of the NCLEX-RN exam and licensure, BSN-holders qualify for the vast majority of entry-level nursing jobs at clinics and hospitals. They will also qualify for more advanced positions, such as nurse practitioner or department chiefs, that are typically out of reach for ADN or nursing diploma recipients. Read more here.

Next Career Steps: Beyond entering the field in one of the nursing positions that suits the credential (see above), BSN recipients can continue their education by earning a Master’s of Science in Nursing (MSN) or other graduate-level credential.

Tying It All Together

BSN degrees are more expensive than ADNs and nursing diplomas, and require a longer time commitment. However, these credentials enable job-seekers to land entry-level and management positions more easily and earn more money over the course of their careers.

PATH 2: Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN)


Education requirements: Individuals are usually required to present a high school diploma or equivalent certificate (such as a GED). ADN students are not usually required to have taken any nursing or medical courses prior to enrollment.

Program Information

Focus: As an introductory nursing program, the curriculum of an ADN focuses on the fundamentals of the profession. These not only include technical skills, but also pharmacology, healthcare informatics, and hospital/clinic administration.

Length: Most ADN programs require a commitment of two to three years, or whatever amount of time works out to 60 to 75 credit hours.

Cost: According to, the average in-state student who attended a public two-year college or university paid $10,730 in tuition and room and board during the 2013-14 academic year. At this rate, a two to three year ADN program would cost between $21,460 -$32,190

Course Load: While ADN courses are dedicated to the fundamentals, that does not mean the coursework is necessarily any easier than what you will find in other nursing programs. These courses cover complex concepts related to medical treatment and healthcare management – topics that require students to be attentive and hands-on during the learning process.

After the Program

Your credentials: With an ADN, students are able to sit for the NCLEX-RN exam. RNs with an ADN qualify for many entry-level positions at hospitals and clinics, though preference may be given to individuals who have earned a higher credential (like a BSN).

Next career steps: In order to further your professional qualifications, you will need to pass the NCLEX in order to earn the title of RN. As an RN, you can then elect to enroll in an RN-to-BSN program, which will give you the degree you need to advance into more senior nursing positions.

Tying It All Together

Earning an ADN costs much less than a BSN, but ADN recipients are not able to compete for jobs at the same level as BSN-holders. Similarly, ADN programs are more expensive than those awarding a nursing diploma, but ADN programs will allow nurses to secure a stable job much easier than someone who simply has a diploma.


PATH 3: Nursing Diploma or Certificate


Educational requirements: Minimal academic experience ― in most cases, a high school diploma or the GED equivalent ― is usually sufficient for admission into a nursing diploma or certificate program. These degrees tend to be offered by hospitals or schools tied to hospitals, providing students with ample hands-on experience in a professional setting.

Program Information

Focus: Programs typically come in two forms. The first consists of studies in anatomy and physiology, technical nursing competencies, patient care strategies, and healthcare admin; coursework that covers the core of any nursing career. The second looks at microbiology, healthcare informatics, psychology and other nursing-related fields in order to broaden a student’s knowledge.

Length: This depends on the hospital or school offering the program, but most require a commitment of one to two years.

Cost: Some of the more prominent diploma programs cost as much as $20,000, but, as a general rule, most programs will be less expensive than an ADN ($21,460 -$32,190). Given the ADN’s rise, this is one of the competitive advantages diploma programs can maintain.

Course load: Standard, two-year diploma programs typically require students to take between 7 and 10 credits per semester or quarter. Accelerated diplomas allow students to take more courses at once and earn their diploma more quickly.

After the Program

Your credentials: With an NCLEX-approved diploma, you are able to sit for the NCLEX-RN exam. Nurses who wish to enter the workforce, rather than earn a BSN, will qualify for entry-level positions at hospitals, clinics, and doctor’s offices.

Next career steps: Nursing diploma recipients who successfully complete the NCLEX-RN have two career options: enter the workforce and compete for entry-level jobs, or continue their education with a BSN or other bachelor’s degree.

Tying It All Together

Nursing diplomas provide a hands-on intro for aspiring nurses. Historically, diploma programs were the standard way to enter the field. But with the rise of the ADN, a degree with more uniform national standards, there has been a marked dip in “diploma nurses.” Many employers are likely to hold the ADN in higher regard, which suggest that nursing diplomas could become a thing of the past.