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"Degrees & Programs"

RN vs. BSN: The difference between them and what it means for your career

By Elizabeth Exline
October 05, 2021 • 10 minute read

At a glance:

  • A registered nurse (RN) refers to a medical professional who is licensed to work as a nurse.
  • An Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) and state-approved nursing programs also prepare candidates for licensure as RNs, but the BSN degree prepares nurses for leadership roles in practice and for pursuing a nursing graduate degree.
  • A Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN degree) is a postsecondary online nursing degree program that either prepares candidates to become RNs or advances the nursing education for those who previously became an RN by a diploma or associate degree program.
  • Jobs for registered nurses are projected to grow by 9% between 2020 and 2030, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  • Career outcomes with a BSN include working as a registered nurse, an emergency room nurse and a public health nurse, among others.
  • University of Phoenix offers two options to complete the Registered Nurse to Bachelor of Science in Nursing (RN to BSN) degree program: traditional format and the competency-based version.

Skilled nurses in demand

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we perceive careers, but maybe none more than the value and demand for skilled nurses. But even before COVID-19 struck, “the U.S. was faced with a widespread shortage of nurses,” notes the staffing agency Medix.com.

As it is, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects jobs for registered nurses to grow by 9% between 2020 and 2030. But while we all know nurses are a vital part of the medical landscape, the differences between types of nurses are less clear. What, for example, is the difference between an RN and an LPN? Where does a BSN fit into all of this? What even is a BSN?

Here, we’ll answer these questions and more as we explore the ins and outs of nursing and the education you need to pursue a career in the profession.

What is an RN?

The abbreviation “RN” refers to “registered nurse,” which is a medical professional, licensed by a state board of nursing, who provides and coordinates patient care and offers both information and emotional support to patients.

An RN can also specialize in a variety of fields, from oncology (the study of cancer) to emergency room medicine. Or an RN may pursue a career path outside of a hospital or clinic, such as in a rehabilitation center or home-care service.

There are various educational pathways available to become an RN, ranging from an Associate Degree in Nursing or a diploma from an approved nursing program to a bachelor’s level program. BLS explains you must also be licensed by the state in which you work.

All states administer the same national licensing exam, the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN), and they all have the same standard for passing, notes the National Council of State Board of Nursing. Aspiring nurses must pass this exam to receive licensure.

What does a registered nurse do?

The roles and responsibilities of a registered nurse can depend on both where the RN works and what field the RN specializes in.

Generally speaking, however, BLS notes the following responsibilities are typical for an RN:

  • Assess patient conditions
  • Record patients’ medical histories and symptoms
  • Assist with performing diagnostic tests and analyzing the results
  • Administer medicine and treatment
  • Establish plans for patient care or contribute to existing plans
  • Consult and collaborate with doctors and other healthcare providers
  • Operate and monitor medical equipment
  • Educate patients and their families about how to manage illnesses or injuries

Registered nurses also work in tandem with physicians and other healthcare providers, and they may oversee such nursing professionals as licensed practical nurses (LPNs), nursing assistants and home health aides.

What is a BSN?

A BSN refers to a four-year, post-secondary degree program for nurses. Some BSN programs may lead to licensure, and others are aimed at licensed nurses who are seeking to advance their education. The University of Phoenix RN to BSN program is for previously licensed registered nurses who wish to advance their nursing education.  It does not lead to RN licensure.

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What does BSN stand for?

“BSN” stands for Bachelor of Science in Nursing, and it’s a degree program that addresses both general education courses and specific nursing curriculum.

A BSN degree will often cover skills like:

  • Coordinating safe care
  • Health administration
  • Quality improvement and case management
  • Compassion in population health
  • Critical thinking and holistic nursing
  • Leadership

Students can earn a BSN at an in-person college or university, but online nursing degrees can offer the same quality of the program with a more flexible format.

Why do I need a BSN?

Technically, RNs don’t have to have a BSN to work — unless they live in New York State. In 2017, the Empire State enacted legislation dubbed “BSN in 10,” which requires all nurses to obtain their bachelor’s degree in nursing within 10 years of receiving their RN license.

A BSN lays the necessary foundation to pursue new opportunities within nursing, such as administrative positions, research, consulting and teaching.

Additionally, a BSN enables nurses to consider pursuing a master’s degree down the road, which is necessary for working as a nurse practitioner or other type of advanced practice registered nurse (APRN).

Then, of course, there is the issue of salary: BLS states that more education translates to higher salaries in nursing. Those with a BSN degree, for instance, on average earn more than LPNs and licensed vocational nurses (LVNs). LPNs and LVNs have less education (typically a one-year, state-approved educational program) and provide basic nursing care.

What is the difference between an RN and a BSN?

The difference between an RN and a BSN is that the RN is a professional role that requires licensure while the BSN is a degree program.

To become an RN, you can earn an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN), an Associate of Science in Nursing (ASN) or a BSN that is designed to prepare graduates for licensure. All of these programs, BLS notes, include supervised clinical experience and science courses, but the BSN also covers topics like communication, leadership and critical thinking.

BLS adds: “Generally licensed graduates of any of the three types of education programs (bachelor’s, associate or diploma) qualify for entry-level positions as a staff nurse. However, employers — particularly those in hospitals — may require a bachelor’s degree.”

RN vs BSN salary

The salary range for RNs depends on a variety of factors. Experience and where you work (both in terms of venue and of the city) affect salaries in multiple ways.

But according to Nurse.org, which cites data from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing 2019 report, the average salary of nurses in 2019 was as follows:

  • RNs with bachelor’s degrees — $80,000
  • RNs with diplomas — $78,000
  • RNs with associate degrees — $75,000

Nurse.org explains the pay gap between nurses with an associate degree and those with a diploma as a result of experience: “The reason that diploma-prepared RNs are reporting higher salaries than associate-prepared nurses is most likely due to years of experience, as opposed to education and positional wage increases.”

Can you become an RN without a BSN?

As outlined above, you can absolutely become an RN without a BSN in most states for now. But the advantages of a BSN — more comprehensive knowledge, more opportunity for advancement and better salary outcomes — make it the educational gold standard for aspiring nurses.

Nursing salaries with a BSN degree

BSN jobs

Earning a BSN offers a variety of potential career paths, including the following:

Registered nurse

Overview: An RN provides and coordinates patient care and educates both patients and the public about health conditions and concerns.

National median salary: $75,330 in 2020, according to BLS.

Education requirements: Either a bachelor’s degree that leads to licensure, an associate degree or a diploma from an approved nursing program is required to become an RN.

Job outlook: Projected growth of 9% between 2020 and 2030, according to BLS.

Nursing instructor

Overview: Perfect for those who love to share knowledge, this role involves teaching patient care to nursing students in both classroom and clinical settings.

National median salary: $75,470 in May 2020, according to BLS.

Education requirements: A bachelor’s degree is required, and a master’s degree may be advantageous.

Job outlook: Projected growth of 9%, according to NurseJournal.org.

Charge nurse

Overview: This role involves managing a shift of nurses in a specific area of a hospital or facility. A charge nurse is responsible for ensuring a certain level of quality of care as well as overseeing admissions and discharges and managing work schedules.

National median salary: $90,353 in August 2021, according to Salary.com.

Education requirements: A bachelor’s degree is typically required, although some LPNs with ample experience may also become charge nurses.

Job outlook: Projected growth of 9% for all registered nurses between 2020 and 2030, according to BLS.

Emergency department RN

Overview: This is a high-pressure, high-reward field of nursing that requires nurses to think and act quickly since most patients arrive without a diagnosis or available medical history and under emergency circumstances.

National median salary: $75,330 for all registered nurses in 2020, according to BLS.

Education requirements: Either a bachelor’s degree, an associate degree or a diploma from an approved nursing program is required to become an RN.

Job outlook: Projected growth of 9% for all registered nurses between 2020 and 2030, according to BLS.

Oncology RN

Overview: Oncology nurses provide medical care and educational support to patients being treated for cancer.

National median salary: $75,330 for all registered nurses in 2020, according to BLS.

Education requirements: Either a bachelor’s degree, an associate degree or a diploma from an approved nursing program is required to become an RN.

Job outlook: Projected growth of 9% for all registered nurses between 2020 and 2030, according to BLS.

Operating room RN

Overview: An OR nurse works with patients before and after invasive surgery or medical procedures, assists in the operating room and may liaise with the family of the patient.

National median salary: $75,330 for all registered nurses in 2020, according to BLS.

Education requirements: Either a bachelor’s degree, an associate degree or a diploma from an approved nursing program is required to become an RN.

Job outlook: Projected growth of 9% for all registered nurses between 2020 and 2030, according to BLS.

Public health nurse (PHN)

Overview: Also known as a community health nurse, a public health nurse works to promote health and prevent disease and disability within the general population.

National median salary: $48,140 in 2020, according to BLS.

Education requirements: A bachelor’s degree is typically required.

Job outlook: Projected growth of 17% between 2020 and 2030, according to BLS.

School nurse

Overview: School nurses cater to students in educational settings who become ill, need to manage medications or suffer injuries during the school day.

National average salary: The average earning potential for a school nurse is $48,330 per year, according to NurseJournal.org.

Education requirements: A bachelor’s degree is typically required.

Job outlook: Projected growth of 7% between 2019 and 2029, according to NurseJournal.org.

Medical and health services manager

Overview: These professionals work in offices at healthcare facilities and are responsible for planning and coordinating business activities.

National average salary: The average earning potential for a medical and health services manager is $104,280 per year, according to BLS.

Education requirements: A bachelor’s degree is typically required.

Job outlook: Projected growth of 32% between 2020 and 2030, according to BLS.

Median incomes are reported by the U.S. Bureau for Labor Statistics and are not specific to University of Phoenix graduates. Further, these national averages may include earners at all stages of their career and may not accurately reflect entry level wages or variations by region. Your earning outcome may vary. University of Phoenix does not guarantee salary level. 

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How to get a BSN

University of Phoenix offers two options for registered nurses looking to earn their BSN:

  • Registered Nurse to Bachelor of Science in Nursing: Designed to enhance your nursing practice, this online degree program consists of sequential, 5-week courses covering such skills as applying clinical reasoning and judgment, managing healthcare resources and practicing in community and public health settings.
  • Competency-based RN to Bachelor of Science in Nursing: This online program empowers you to expedite your BSN by leveraging your existing skills. You must have at least one year of professional experience and be comfortable in a self-led format to succeed in this program, which allows you to focus on learning new information after demonstrating competency in skills or subjects you already know.

How long does it take to earn a BSN?

A traditional BSN, without experience or previous education, can take four years. But online RN-to-BSN programs can be completed much faster since they enable students to study what they don’t already know from experience or prior education.

The RN to BSN program at University of Phoenix, for example, takes approximately 14 months to complete (with the transfer of 87 credits from your ADN) and the competency-based version of the same program takes approximately 12 months to complete.

Frequently asked questions

  • Does having a BSN make you an RN?

No. You must be licensed by your state of residence to officially become an RN.  Additionally, the University of Phoenix RN to BSN program requires students to already be licensed nurses.

  • Can I get a BSN without being an RN?

All students in the University of Phoenix’s RN to BSN program must be licensed nurses. However, other BSN programs may have different entry requirements.

  • Is nursing school difficult?

Yes, nursing school is demanding — and so is the field. You have to learn a lot of different information, and the stakes are high. But it is also a rewarding field with significant potential for career growth.

  • What type of nurse is most in demand?

According to BLS, the occupation of a registered nurse is projected to add the most jobs of all types of nurses between 2018 and 2028. (It will also offer the third-largest number of jobs of any occupation.)

The occupation of nurse practitioner is projected to have the fastest rate of employment growth (28%) over the same decade, although that role requires an advanced degree.

Other in-demand nurse specialties, according to NurseJournal.org, include certified nursing anesthetist, certified dialysis nurse, certified legal nurse consultant, certified nurse-midwife and nurse case manager.

No matter where your career as an RN takes you — into public health, the operating room or advanced practice someday — a BSN offers a solid foundation on which to build your nursing dreams.

Learn more about RN to BSN programs at University of Phoenix!

Wondering what nursing in the real world looks like? We pull back the curtain on the nursing careers of three University of Phoenix alumni.