BSN vs. ADN: What They Are and How Their Programs Differ

By Allie Blackham

Updated July 27, 2022 | Published April 26, 2021

Updated July 27, 2022

Published April 26, 2021

Allie Blackham is an experienced content writer with a degree in English. Over 15+ years, she has written extensively for health care clients, as well as in many other industries. 


Medical professional

Image description

A medical professional smiles at someone during a conversation in a hospital corridor.

Health care is a growing field with many opportunities for advancement, and identifying the educational requirements for specific positions can help you decide how much schooling to complete. Working as a registered nurse requires the completion of an undergraduate program, resulting in either an associate or bachelor's degree. Learning about Bachelor of Science in nursing (BSN) degree programs and associate degree in nursing (ADN) programs can help you determine which is right for you.

In this article, we discuss the BSN versus ADN degree options for nursing students and identify the major differences between the two programs.

What is a BSN?

A BSN, or Bachelor of Science in nursing, is an undergraduate degree that focuses on the educational topics related to working in a nursing career. The BSN program is typically available through an accredited university or college and takes about three to four years to complete as a full-time student.

Students in this program work in the classroom and a clinical setting, getting hands-on experience at a health care facility. To become a registered nurse, a BSN holder must pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) to receive their certification.

Read more: BSN Degree: Definition and Program Types

What is an ADN?

An associate degree in nursing (ADN) is an undergraduate degree that also focuses on the knowledge and skills needed to pursue a nursing career. An ADN program is usually available through a university or community college and takes about two years for a full-time student to complete. Not all students in an ADN program gain hands-on clinical experience, especially since some of the programs are fully online.

Related: What Can You Do With an Associate Degree in Nursing?

BSN vs. ADN programs

Some of the key differences between a BSN and an ADN program include:

Program length

In most cases, earning an associate degree of nursing takes less time than earning a bachelor's degree. For some students, the difference is one to two years. Since some BSN degree programs offer an accelerated course of study, BSN students may complete this degree in a shorter period of time. A student who’s already completed some schooling may also complete the program more quickly. 

For example, an online college might offer a bachelor's degree program that students can complete in one to two years, but is only available to individuals who already hold a different bachelor's degree. An accelerated BSN program can help eligible students focus on the classes they need to earn their degree in one or two years, rather than four or more years. 

Related: How To Choose a College for Your Future Career

Opportunity for employment

Though graduates of both ADN and BSN programs can technically work as registered nurses, some hospitals and health care facilities might only hire individuals with a bachelor's degree. The preference for a BSN is mainly due to the more comprehensive educational background offered in the bachelor’s program. 

The broader education of someone who’s completed a BSN program also allows these individuals to pursue other jobs outside of hospitals, including working as nursing educators and school nurses. Nurses with ADN degrees may be able to find employment in other health care facilities, such as retirement facilities and assisted living centers.

Related: Guide: How To Get a Job After College

Salary

The education and experience gained from the degree programs can vary, as can the salary range for registered nurses, depending on their title and position.. According to Indeed Salaries, the average national salary for a registered nurse is $89,3779 per year.

Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows that those working in a hospital earn higher average salaries than nurses in residential care facilities. The BLS also predicts registered nursing positions to increase by 9% between 2020 and 2030, creating an additional 276,800 jobs during that time frame.

Related: How To Negotiate Your Salary (13 Tips With Examples)

Curriculum

Though individuals who pursue an ADN and a BSN degree may take similar courses, the key difference is the type of training received. During an associate degree program, students often rely on lab training and coursework to develop their clinical knowledge. Students in the bachelor's degree program often go into more depth, focusing on research capabilities, leadership skills and an understanding of different nursing roles and responsibilities.

The BSN program is often more comprehensive in its curriculum, as it provides aspiring nurses with a better understanding of national health policy, mental health practices and other relevant topics. The goal of most BSN programs is to create graduates who can deliver well-rounded care to patients. By contrast, the ADN program focuses on the fundamentals of the practice, allowing graduates to enter the workforce sooner. 

Related: 5 Steps To Get Into a Nursing Program

Types of roles

Although ADN students and BSN students can qualify for registered nursing positions, the difference in their degree levels can affect the types of roles they can pursue. The choice of degree can also affect their ability to focus their work on specialty practices, such as oncology or neonatal care, as these highly specialized nursing roles may only be open to candidates who hold bachelor's degrees.

A BSN can also help a nurse advance into leadership roles more effectively, such as a nursing manager or director position. During the BSN program, students often receive an education that provides them with a better understanding of nursing practices and leadership. Although an ADN graduate can still pursue advanced positions in a hospital or health care facility, the process of advancement might take longer.

Related: 20 Top Nursing Specialities (With Career Descriptions and Salaries)

Educational advancement

Nurses can pursue higher-level positions, such as an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) position, through the completion of a graduate degree program. Individuals with a BSN have the option of pursuing a Master of Science in nursing (MSN) after completing at least a few years of experience to help them advance to other roles.

Examples of roles available to someone who holds an MSN include nurse practitioner and nurse anesthetist. Nurses with an ADN generally have to earn a bachelor's degree before pursuing graduate-level education.

Some specialized education programs allow individuals who have completed their associate degree to earn their bachelor's degree faster. These programs allow them to take the additional courses they may not have taken during their associate degree program. After earning an accelerated bachelor’s degree, a nurse can pursue a master’s degree to advance in their health care career.

Related: Nursing Interview Question: What Are Your Career Goals in the Next 5 Years?

In this video, registered nurse Alexa discusses common nursing interview questions, provides example answers, and explains why employers ask these questions.


Explore more articles