BSN vs. RN: Learn the Differences and Choose What Is Best For You

April 13, 2023


Reviewed by:

Rohan Jotwani

Former Chief Resident in Anesthesiology, Weill Cornell Medicine, & Admissions Officer, Columbia University

Reviewed: 04/13/23

Can't decide between an RN or a BSN? Confused about the difference? Look no further! Read on for an in-depth guide into the difference between an RN and a BSN.

The field of nursing offers a wide range of opportunities for those who wish to provide care to patients in need. Nursing students have many paths to choose from when entering the profession, with two common options being the Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) and Registered Nurse (RN) programs. 

While both options provide students with the foundational knowledge and skills necessary to become a nurse, there are key differences between the two paths that prospective nursing students should be aware of.

In this article, we will delve deeper into the differences between an RN and a BSN programs, their respective roles in the nursing field, salary expectations, and address some commonly asked questions.

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What Is the Difference Between RN and BSN? 

To begin, an RN is a person who is licensed to practice as a nurse. An RN will have completed all necessary schooling for the position, often an associate degree, and passed the NCLEX-RN exam. Once you meet all testing and education requirements, you must apply for a license in the state where you intend to work.

A Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) is not a different license type; it is simply a degree. Similar to an RN with an associate's degree, a BSN graduate must also pass an exam and apply for a license. So, when considering a BSN vs RN, remember that an RN is a license, while a BSN is a degree earned.

Educational Requirements

The most significant difference between RN and BSN programs is the amount of time it takes to complete each degree. An RN program typically takes two years to complete, while a BSN program takes four years. 

The additional coursework required in a BSN program covers more topics related to nursing, such as leadership, research, and community health.

Career Opportunities and Earning Potential

A BSN degree can provide additional career opportunities and earning potential beyond what is available with an RN degree. Many healthcare organizations prefer or require nurses with a BSN degree for certain positions, such as nurse manager, clinical nurse leader, or nurse educator. More on this below! 

Clinical Training and Leadership Development

BSN programs typically provide more extensive clinical training in areas such as public health, mental health, and community health, which can broaden students' experience and make them more marketable to potential employers. 

BSN programs also place a greater emphasis on leadership, management, and research skills that are essential for more senior nursing roles. RN programs, on the other hand, may focus more on technical skills needed to provide direct patient care in a hospital or clinical setting.

RN Vs. BSN Career Options 

The Institute of Medicine recommends that 80% of nurses hold a BSN, as research shows that higher education levels in nursing can lead to better patient care. 

Compared to an RN with an associate's degree, BSNs typically qualify for all positions that an RN may not. In fact, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing reports that 39% of hospitals and medical centers require a BSN for new hires, and "77% of employers strongly prefer BSN program graduates.” 

While a BSN is not currently required to practice as a nurse, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employment opportunities for RNs will grow 6% from 2021 to 2031, and “registered nurses who have a BSN will have better job prospects than those without one.” 

New York has already enacted a law requiring all RNs to obtain a baccalaureate in nursing within ten years of obtaining their license. As a result of this preference for a BSN, RNs with an associate's degree may find it more challenging to secure a position or advance in their career. 

However, a BSN can expect to start with a higher salary than an RN with an associate's degree due to the difference in education between the two degrees.

RN Vs. BSN Salary 

One of the clearest examples of the difference between RN vs BSNs is the salary expectations. Students who pursue a BSN before obtaining their licensure will be in school longer. Although BSNs cannot practice until later than an RN with an associate's degree, they can expect to start with a higher salary. 

The more experience a nurse has, the higher their salary will be. But a BSN nurse will generally continue to make more throughout their career than their counterparts with an associate's degree. The following table demonstrates the RN vs. BSN salary differences based on experience.

Source: NursingProcess

As we can see from the table, Registered Nurses tend to earn less than those who attained a BSN. Couple this with the industry’s growing preference for BSNs, many students may find the BSN to be the better investment in this industry. 

Let’s take a look at the RN vs. BSN salary by industry.

Source: WGU

BSN-educated nurses generally earn higher salaries than those with associate degrees. These differences in salary are industry-wide averages and provide an incentive for many nurses to upgrade their education from an associate's degree to a BSN.

As the healthcare industry continues to shift towards a preference for BSNs, pursuing a BSN can be a wise investment for nurses who wish to improve their earning potential and expand their opportunities for advancement.

RN-to-BSN Programs 

Upgrading your education credentials can help a Registered Nurse find a better job or increase job security at a current job. Fortunately, RN-to-BSN programs have become more widely available at colleges and universities, providing a pathway for RNs to advance their education and career prospects.

Getting into nursing school can be challenging, but definitely worth the hard work. For RNs who wish to pursue a BSN, keep reading for more information on the country’s top RN-to-BSN programs! 

Capella University 

Capella University's RN-to-BSN program is designed for working nurses who want to build on their RN credential and take the next step in their professional journey. 

The program is tailored to the needs of working nurses, and emphasizes key areas such as patient care technology, information management, and generalist nursing practices to improve the quality of patient care and community health.

The program is aligned with industry standards and has partnerships with organizations like the American Nurses Association and Sigma Theta Tau International. If they choose, students can choose the Capella Accelerated Master’s Pathway (AMP), a flexible option that allows them to study at their own pace.

Purdue University 

Purdue University’s RN-to-BSN program provides students with flexibility and personalization to complete their degree in a way that fits their schedule and career aspirations.

If you’d prefer to opt out of the traditional path, you can complete your degree in as little as 18 months through ExcelTrack. The university accepts up to 75% of your nursing credits for your RN-to-BSN program.

Students have the option to complete coursework online without any mandatory log-in times, seminars, or need to commute. Moreover, they can fulfill their required clinical practice experience at a time and location that works best for them.

Walden University 

Walden University's RN to BSN program offers current registered nurses with a diploma or associate's degree in nursing the chance to earn their BSN degree. 

With a focus on evidence-based practices that can be immediately applied in the workplace, students also have the opportunity to develop important skills such as reflection, independent learning, and enhanced critical thinking that will serve them throughout their careers. 

The program is designed with flexibility in mind, allowing students to balance their studies with their work and personal responsibilities. With multiple start dates throughout the year and no set class times, students can complete coursework at their own pace and on their own schedule.

University of Texas Arlington 

Those who wish to complete their BSN sooner rather than later can earn it in as little as nine months with the University of Texas Arlington. This program provides students with an opportunity to expand their knowledge and skills by focusing on research-based nursing science, nursing leadership, and a liberal arts foundation. 

With a strong emphasis on promoting health and preventing diseases throughout the lifespan, students will also develop decision-making and leadership skills that are vital to the nursing profession.


Still have questions about the difference between an RN and a BSN? Go over these frequently asked questions for your answers.

1. What Comes First, BSN or RN? 

An RN is required to complete all education and exam requirements before applying for their license. This means you will need to complete your BSN before an RN.  

2. What Can a BSN Do That an RN Can't? 

A BSN is a higher level of education than an associate's degree. This allows nurses with a BSN more opportunities for specialization, like working as an intensive care unit (ICU) nurse or in supervisor/managerial roles within a hospital or medical center.  

3. Are RN and BSN the Same? 

An RN is not the same as a BSN. An RN is licensed to practice as a nurse. A BSN is a bachelor's degree earned; a BSN holder cannot practice without licensure.

BSN vs. RN: Choosing What Is Best for You 

Pursuing a nursing license through an associate's degree or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing may be challenging for students. 

The associate's degree allows you to complete your schooling earlier to work sooner. But that may not necessarily mean it is the best path for you. The healthcare industry is shifting towards a preference for a BSN vs RN degree.

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