Nurses serve an indispensable role in health care systems, and the expert care they provide is grounded in pertinent academic and clinical preparation. If you are thinking about a career in nursing and already have a bachelor’s degree in another field, you may be closer to your goal than you realize.
What Are Second Degree Options for Becoming a Nurse?
To begin a career as a registered nurse, students with bachelor’s degrees from a different major may opt for an Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing (ABSN) or an Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN). How do ABSN vs ADN options compare?
An Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN) or Associate of Science in Nursing (ASN) has traditionally offered a shorter entry time into the nursing workforce compared to a bachelor’s degree. ADN programs in nursing typically take about two years to complete, though some options may be completed in 12 to 20 months if you have an existing bachelor's degree.
With the growing popularity of accelerated bachelor’s programs, however, prospective students have another option to expedite professional preparation. These programs are commonly referred to as Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing (ABSN) degrees. While a traditional Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) requires four years of study, an ABSN can be completed in as little as 15 months.
Data from the most recent National Nursing Workforce Study shows trends in educational levels for registered nurses. Over the last several years, the number of RNs entering the field with an associate’s degree has been slightly decreasing while the number entering with a BSN has been steadily increasing. This widening gap means that, among new RNs, approximately 20% more hold bachelor’s degrees than associate’s degrees.
Leading organizations such as the American Nurses Association (ANA) and the American Organization for Nursing Leadership (AONL), have endorsed recommendations to increase the percentage of BSN-prepared nurses for entry to practice.
What Are the Career Differences for ABSN vs ADN-Prepared Nurses?
Nurses are in critical demand across today’s health care landscape as shortages are encumbering patient care nationally. The American Nurses Association (ANA) has issued a statement describing the escalating workforce challenges and outlining advocacy efforts for the future.
Registered nurses (RNs) are licensed to provide care associated with assessment, analysis, intervention, and evaluation. There are, however, disparities in career potential for ABSN vs ADN-prepared nurses.
According to occupational information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, an RN with either a bachelor’s degree or an associate’s degree qualifies for many entry-level staff nurse positions. Some roles, however, will require a bachelor’s degree. This is particularly true of hospital positions, and the BLS’s Work Environment data shows that approximately 60 percent of RNs are employed in hospitals.
A Career Guide from the popular job site Indeed also describes the differences in nursing careers for BSN and ADN-prepared nurses. While nurses with either degree typically practice in hospitals, outpatient services, and home health care roles, more specialized jobs may vary. BSN-prepared nurses may commonly pursue roles as school nurses, case managers, or nurse educators. Opportunities more specific to ADN-prepared nurses include settings such as retirement communities and assisted living centers.
A Fact Sheet from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) outlines research that shows the value of BSN preparation for patient care. Considering the statements of leading organizations and the body of literature that shows improved patient outcomes associated with BSN preparation, most organizations prefer the BSN. Some employers do not hire ADN graduates and most pay more for having a BSN. In many cases, nurses hired with ADN degrees are required to return to school for a BSN.
In comparing the two paths, Indeed notes that the “potential for advancement and higher pay is greater” for nurses with a BSN degree.
The median annual salary for all registered nurses, indicated by the most recent data from the BLS, is $77,600. This is approximately 70 percent higher than the median for all occupations.
Data from the compensation research firm Payscale breaks down the pay differences by degree. Reports show a salary difference of approximately $16,000 annually, with a BSN degree resulting in an average salary of $89,000 compared to $73,000 for an associate’s degree.
How Does Preparation Differ in ABSN vs ADN Education?
Both ABSN and ADN programs prepare nurses with the skills and knowledge required to prepare them for taking the required NCLEX licensing exam and entry-level nursing practice. There are differences, however, in the program content and measurable outcomes for the two degree pathways.
In comparing ABSN vs ADN programs, the key difference, according to the Indeed Career Guide, is in the program emphasis. Though core coursework is similar in both programs, the ADN typically emphasizes foundational nursing skills, while a BSN includes a more intensive focus on theory and evidence-based practice.
The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) report identifies vital differentials of bachelor’s-level nursing preparation compared to associate’s programs, including the priority of:
- Physical and social sciences and humanities
- Nursing research
- Public health
- Nursing management
Typical coursework in an ABSN program may include content such as social health policy, holistic nursing for complex care, and quality improvement practicums. This comprehensive approach equips nurses for career development and future leadership opportunities.
Costs and Value
Tuition for both ABSN and ADN programs varies widely depending on course requirements, location, and school. While the cost of an associate’s program is often less than the cost of a bachelor’s program, it is important to also consider the differences in career preparation and earning potential. Further, because most organizations will require a BSN degree at some point, many nurses with ADN degrees will need to return to school later.
Nursing schools that are highly regarded in their communities and beyond are sought-after by students because of the employment potential for graduates. Long-term benefits often outweigh short-term costs. Some differentiating factors to consider in evaluating the cost-to-value include:
- Level of personalized attention and support
- Strength of clinical placement programs
- Faculty credentials
- Quality of facilities for hands-on training
- Engagement in local and regional health care landscape
- Success measurements, such as testing and employment
Because of the differences in coursework for ABSN vs ADN programs, the AACN has concluded that BSN-prepared nurses are significantly better prepared to provide needed expertise and to impact health care on a macro level. AACN’s summary highlights several examples over the last several years where governments, health care leaders, and nursing authorities have emphasized the value of bachelor’s-level nursing preparation. Research shows that, after completing BSN degrees, nurses excel in:
- Critical thinking
- Case management
- Health promotion
Data shows that first-time NCLEX test-takers with a bachelor’s degree in nursing have consistently outperformed those with associate’s degrees for the last several years. The most recent pass rate for BSN graduates was 86.06%, while the rate for ASN graduates was 78.8%.
More than ten years ago, the Institute of Medicine (now the National Academy of Medicine) published a recommendation that at least 80% of RNs hold bachelor’s degrees. Since this time, the number of BSN-prepared graduates taking the NCLEX exam has been steadily rising. The most recent numbers indicate that 65% of RNs have attained bachelor’s-level education in nursing.
Second-career nurses with BSN degrees will be a significant part of achieving high-level goals in the nursing profession. To learn more, read: Is A New / Second Career in Nursing Right for Me?
Discover Why ASBN Students Are Choosing the University of Indianapolis
The Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing (ASBN) at the University of Indianapolis (UIndy) offers a holistic approach that integrates nursing science and evidenced-based care with professional development and service. Coursework is 100% online, complemented by two on-campus residencies and in-person clinical placements that are local to the student.
Features of the program include:
- Award-winning faculty with real-world experience
- A diverse and inclusive community
- State-of-the-art nursing simulation labs
- Proactive student support
- A dedicated coordinator for seamless clinical placement
- Current NCLEX pass rate of 88.1%
All UIndy nursing programs are accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education, and NCLEX exam pass rates are well above the national average—positioning UIndy graduates for success in today’s nursing careers.