The Different Paths to Becoming a Nurse

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


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.

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.


Cost: Tuition costs, course fees, and other academic expenses depend on the higher-learning institution. According to, average cost of tuition and room and board during the 2016-17 academic year breaks down as follows:

  • Public four-year university (in-state students): $20,090 (Total: $80,360)
  • Public four-year university (out-of-state students): $35,370 (Total: $141,480)
  • Private, nonprofit four-year university: $45,370 (Total: $181,480)

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.
Curriculum: BSN curriculums differ between schools but many share common core classes. Below is a list of classes you can expect to encounter in the program:

  • Anatomy & Physiology: It’s important for nurses to have an understanding of the human body and how everything works within it. This can, for example, help them better relay information to doctors.
  • Statistics: Nurses often work with numbers, so it’s important for them to have advanced mathematical skills. For example, nurses must always provide the right dosage to each patient.
  • Introduction to Sociology: By having an understanding of society and social problems, nurses can better understand and relate to their patients, providing a higher level of care.
  • Introduction to Psychology: This course can also help nurses provide a better level of care. By gaining a better understanding of the human mind, nurses are better positioned to positively impact their patients’ attitudes.
  • Communication: Nurses work as part of team, so it’s important that they are able to efficiently communicate with doctors and peers. The course covers effective communication techniques and how to address groups of people.

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


BSN degrees are more expensive than ADNs and nursing diplomas. They also 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.

Source: Payscale

Path 2: Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN)


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

Education requirements: Schools usually require applicants 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.


Cost: According to, the average in-state student who attended a public two-year college or university paid $11,580 in tuition and room and board during the 2016-17 academic year. At this rate, a two to three year ADN program would cost between $23,160-$34,740.

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.

Curriculum: Each school will have a different focus for their program, but there will still be many commonalities between them. Below is a list of classes you can expect to take in the program.

  • Human Anatomy & Physiology: Having an intimate knowledge of the body and how it works is vital to this profession. Students will take introductory and advanced courses in this subject.
  • Dosage Calculating: It’s common for nurses to be responsible for providing patients with their medication, and it’s important that it’s the right dosage. This course will teach students how to measure and calculate dosages.
  • Introduction to Professional Nursing: As a profession, nursing can be very demanding and it’s important that students know what they’re getting into. This course covers the responsibilities and expectations of a nurse.
  • Pharmacology: It’s important that nurses know the uses and effects of the drugs with which they work. This course surveys potential side effects and what to watch for when administering certain drugs.
  • Introduction to Sociology: By gaining a better understanding of society and social issues, nurses can better understand and relate to their patients. These skills can help them provide better care.

Course Load: While ADN courses are dedicated to the fundamentals, that does not mean coursework is any easier than what one 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 throughout the learning process.


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 allow nurses to secure a stable job much easier than someone who simply has a diploma.

Source: Payscale

Path 3: Nursing Diploma or Certificate


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 examines microbiology, healthcare informatics, psychology and other nursing-related fields in order to broaden a student’s knowledge.

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.


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 ($23,160 -$34,740). This is a competitive advantage that diploma programs maintain.

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

Curriculum: Though schools may offer the same program, they will usually differ slightly. Some might feature more lab requirements while others may focus on real-world experience and testing. Below is a list of common classes.

  • Communication: Comfort while speaking to groups of people and efficient communication are important skills. This course covers the theories and skills of a good communicator.
  • General Anatomy & Physiology: Understanding how the human body works and how everything is connected is vital to the profession. Students can expect to take introductory and advanced courses on the subject.
  • Nursing Fundamentals: It’s important that students know the basics of nursing before moving on to advanced studies. This course covers the responsibilities and duties of nurses.
  • Lifespan Nursing: This course covers the care of patients, from children to geriatrics. Certain age groups require specialized care, and it’s important for professionals to know the most common ailments of each age group.
  • Medical Terminology: The medical field uses unique terminology. To efficiently communicate with doctors and peers, it’s important that nurses understand medical terminology.

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.


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, a marked dip in “diploma nurses” has occurred. Many employers are likely to hold the ADN in higher regard, which suggest that nursing diplomas could become a thing of the past.

Source: Payscale


Nationally accredited colleges are associated with vocational and for-profit schools. Many regionally accredited schools do not accept transfer credit from national accreditation organizations, and as a general rule, regional accreditation is considered more prestigious. Today six major regional accreditors operate throughout the United States.

Some programs are separately accredited from a school. When it comes to nursing, you should check if a program holds the approval of the Accreditation Commision for Education in Nursing or the Commision on Collegiate Nursing Education. Both commissions provide accreditation only when they’re certain that students will receive a quality education and an institution’s program results in a degree that will be widely accepted by employers and other schools.

The Department of Education is a government agency that approves accreditors. It also provides oversight on accrediting agencies. An association of over 3,000 degree-granting colleges and an institutional voice for academic quality through accreditation, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation performs a similar role. For a list of accredited schools, check the DOE’s and CHEA’s website.