As healthcare systems evolve to meet the complex needs of patients, there's a growing demand for advanced nursing roles such as nurse practitioners and nurse managers. However, you need high-level skills to become a leader in the healthcare system—and an associate's degree often is not enough to achieve this.

If you want to further your nursing career, earning a bachelor’s degree can open the door to many positions and high-level credentials. By understanding the distinction between an associate vs. bachelor’s in nursing, you can decide which academic path is right for you.

Download our guide to discover which nursing degree is right for you.

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What is an associate's degree in Nursing?

An associate's degree in Nursing (ADN) provides a foundation in health sciences and its clinical applications for patients.

“The associate's degree really focuses on your care models—anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, and how to read medical language,” says Deborah Roy, Director of the RN-to-BS in Nursing degree program at Regis College. “It's all of that introductory information you need to go in and take care of patients.”

ADN programs typically cover the most essential knowledge needed to assess patient well-being and implement daily care plans. Nursing students in these programs also learn to manage disease processes and collect diagnostic data, such as blood pressure, medical history, and specimen samples.

Even with this foundational education, graduates with an ADN are eligible to sit for the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) to obtain RN licensure. After that, nurses can begin working in two years and even prepare for additional education.

What is a Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing?

A bachelor’s (BS) in nursing combines all the clinical fundamentals of an ADN program with more analytical coursework that examines the reasoning behind nursing methodologies.

“What is not taught in an ADN program is some of the higher-level theory, philosophies, leadership, advanced application of practice, and larger implications of policy,” Roy says. “A BS in nursing program encourages students to assess the effectiveness of nursing practices and to look at contextual factors that influence health outcomes.”

A bachelor's degree in nursing offers two key advantages: higher salary potential and broader career opportunities. This is because many employers prefer or require a bachelor’s degree for RN positions in specialized medical fields or supervisory roles.

Associate vs. Bachelor’s in Nursing: Key Differences

Associate and bachelor’s degrees are both viable educational options that can jumpstart a rewarding career in nursing. However, the option that’s right for you largely depends on your professional goals, how much time and money you are able to invest, and how quickly you want to start working.

Here’s a comprehensive degree comparison to help you determine which is right for you.

Program Duration

Since traditional associate's degree programs only last two years, they are often available at community and technical colleges. This also means that this degree option has fewer financial barriers associated with higher education.

There are even accelerated ADN programs that allow you to shorten enrollment to as little as six months. However, these are rigorous full-time programs that often cost more and require you to demonstrate higher proficiency in math and science. Therefore, an associate's degree is beneficial for prospective nurses who want to enter the field quickly and affordably.

Bachelor’s degree programs are four years and are typically offered through universities and colleges. Students must be able to commit to a longer enrollment period without earning income, which may be challenging if they have personal obligations or limited financial support.

However, students can attend a bachelor’s in nursing program full-time or part-time, which can make a significant difference in whether or not they can work while enrolled. Even the modality of the courses—in-person, online, or hybrid—offers additional scheduling flexibility. Similar to ADN programs, there are also accelerated bachelor’s degree programs that can help you transition back to school after becoming an RN.

Curriculum and Training

Earning an associate's degree prepares graduates for entry-level nursing positions, equipping them with the foundational skills and knowledge to carry out direct care.

“With the associate's degree, you're learning the role of a nurse in a more task-driven environment or educational level,” says Sharon Higgins, Interim Dean of Regis’s Young School of Nursing.

On the other hand, a bachelor’s degree comes with a broader curriculum that includes leadership training, critical thinking, public health analysis, and research shaped by personal interests. As a result, BS degree holders enter the field with the confidence and insight to take on more complex roles.

“Baccalaureate-prepared nurses are going to ask much more targeted questions,” Higgins explains. “They're going to have a language that gives them an advantage over ADN nurses in terms of the interdisciplinary conversations.”

Career Opportunities

Nursing graduates with an ADN can start their nursing careers very quickly, but are limited to patient care responsibilities. Since ADN programs are designed to tackle nursing shortages by reducing barriers, more professionals are entering the field this way to fill the gap in patient care. This is why the curriculum is highly concentrated and includes fewer opportunities for deep critical thinking.

As a result, employers may perceive bachelor’s degree holders as a better long-term investment, even though all RNs have to demonstrate the same proficiencies for licensure.

“Over the course of a person's professional career, they will be very limited in what they can do in terms of branching out into different specialties and different kinds of work,” Roy says. “The ADN tends to be the nurse that stays at the bedside.”

Obtaining a bachelor’s degree gives graduates a career advantage from the beginning. The most prestigious healthcare facilities, such as magnet status hospitals, often prefer a bachelor’s degree in nursing—even for entry-level RN roles. The same applies if you’re interested in specialized departments, such as cardiac care, critical care, emergency care, or hematology.

Salary Potential

Without the ability to take on advanced roles, nurses with an ADN may find their earning potential capped at a certain point. RNs who don’t have a bachelor’s degree already face limitations on which healthcare facilities they can work in, and living in an area with fewer job openings may reduce these options even further.

On the other hand, nurses with a bachelor’s degree have a higher earning potential over the course of their careers. In fact, the income gap between ADN and BS-trained nurses only grows as the latter move into more advanced positions. According to Payscale, nurses with a bachelor’s degree earn an average annual salary of $94,000, while ADN nurses earn an average of $77,000 per year.

Transitioning from an Associate to a Bachelor’s Degree Program

If an ADN and BS in nursing are both appealing to you, earning each degree and pacing your education may be the best way to achieve a nursing career. To transition from an associate to a bachelor’s degree program, start by evaluating your career goals and whether you can manage this commitment. For instance, what program length can you commit to, and how much time can you devote to coursework?

You also need to consider whether you prefer to start working before continuing your education. RN-to-BS transition programs typically require some work experience, but you can decide if you want to spend more time on the job to develop your skills further, prepare for the financial costs, or qualify for an employer-sponsored reimbursement program.

Research RN-to-BS programs to find a format and curriculum that aligns with your personal needs and professional qualifications. You also need to make sure the programs you’re interested in accept transfer credits from the institution you earned your ADN. This not only ensures you are getting the most out of your previous education, but it can also help with affordability.

Reaching out to financial aid is another way to ensure you can afford to go back to school. In addition to federal aid and personal funds, there are research nursing schools that offer scholarships that you may be eligible for. If you plan to pay out of pocket though, consult an admission counselor to find out what payment plans are offered to help you manage the cost.

Take the Next Step in Your Nursing Career

If you have already obtained RN licensure and want to develop a more versatile career, the RN-to-BS program at Regis College can help you expand your nursing skill set. The program is tailored to nursing professionals who are ready to refine their expertise to become leaders in the field.

The program is in an online format and can be completed in as little as 12 months, building upon your current RN experience. The curriculum strongly emphasizes research and critical thinking to inspire nursing students to think about how they can make an impact within the context of current public health trends, public policy, and healthcare advancements.

To learn more about the program, reach out to a Regis College admissions counselor to request information and find out if this transitional degree aligns with your career goals.

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