Nursing Education: What Degree Do Nurses Need?

If you want to become a nurse, the first step is getting your nursing education.

However, there are a lot of different degrees, certificates, and diplomas to choose from.

With all these options, it can be a challenge to figure out exactly what credentials you need to start–or advance–your nursing career.

So, in this post, we’ll break down every level of nursing education to help you figure out which track is right for you.

What Education Is Needed To Become A Registered Nurse?

The bare minimum education requirement to become a Registered Nurse in the United States is an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN). This type of nursing degree can be completed in a two-year program at a community college or technical school.

However, employers are more frequently requiring a Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing (BSN), which must be completed at a four-year university. If you hope to work in a distinguished healthcare facility or Magnet hospital, you’ll definitely need your BSN.

Fortunately, if you already have your ADN, you can enroll in a BSN completion program. Better yet, these BSN programs can be completed online, and you may even be able to obtain your undergraduate nursing degree in less than a year.

If you haven’t gotten your Associate’s degree yet, we recommend you enroll in a BSN program.

What Education Is Needed To Become A Nurse Practitioner?

The difference between a Registered Nurse and Nurse Practitioner is that a Nurse Practitioner carries out more advanced responsibilities, meaning NP’s need additional education.

While an RN only needs an ADN or BSN to become licensed, a Nurse Practitioner must complete an NP-focused Master’s of Science in Nursing program in order to practice.

If you decide to enroll in one of these MSN programs, you’ll have a multitude of specialities to choose from, including but not limited to:

However, keep in mind that the first step to becoming an NP will typically be to obtain your BSN so you’re prepared for the additional educational challenges that an MSN program presents.

Why Is Nursing Education Important?

From the perspective of healthcare facilities, nursing education is important because it displays that nurses are prepared to meet the challenges of being a nurse. 

Since the goal of these facilities is to continually improve patient outcomes, having more knowledgeable nurses can help them achieve those goals.

From the perspective of nurses, education is important because it allows you to better care for patients. You can even become certified in a number of nursing specialities, allowing you to deliver specialized care.

Additionally, since nurses with more education can help facilities improve patient outcomes, the more educated you are, the more desirable you’ll look in the eyes of employers. This is why nurses with higher levels of education tend to be paid more.

6 Levels of Nursing Education

There are several different levels of nursing education you can undertake. This includes:

  • Non-degree education
  • Undergraduate degree education (including Associate degrees)
  • Advanced degree education

Below, we list every type of nursing degree you can obtain in order from the lowest level to the highest level.

1. Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) Certificate

The lowest level of nursing education is a non-degree option: Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) Certificate.

You can obtain a CNA certificate in as little as 4-12 weeks through a post-secondary certificate program, making this the quickest route to get involved in the nursing field.

As the name suggests, the certificate prepares you to become a Certified Nursing Assistant. CNA’s provide assistance to the licensed nursing staff in providing care to patients.

It’s worth noting that the duties of CNA’s can be limited since they lack the more advanced education credentials we’ll discuss below. Their responsibilities typically include, but are not limited to:

  • Bathing and grooming patients
  • Gathering medical supplies
  • Answering patient calls

If you want to dip your toe in clinical healthcare but aren’t ready to fully commit, becoming a CNA may be a good starting point.

2. Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) Diploma

The second-lowest level of nursing education and only other non-degree option on this list is the Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) Diploma.

While LPN’s can provide some basic patient care, like monitoring patient vital signs and changing bandages, their primary objective is to support RN’s and the rest of the clinical care team.

In most states, LPN’s cannot administer any treatments or exams. Instead, they focus more on communication, ensuring the care team is up to date on patients’ conditions and concerns.

So, while LPN’s are still limited in the duties they’re able to carry out, the good news is that LPN Diplomas can typically be obtained in about a year. This means you can start working directly with patients in only a relatively short amount of time.

3. Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN)

The Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) is the minimum educational requirement to become a Registered Nurse. 

Since RN’s perform more advanced duties, like administering medication and operating medical equipment, they require more advanced education. The good news, however, is that you can obtain your ADN in about two years through a community college or technical school.

This degree prepares students for entry-level nursing roles, and features a combination of classroom coursework and hands-on, clinical experience.

Once you get your Associate Degree in Nursing, you’ll be eligible to take the NCLEX. This is the exam all Registered Nurses must complete in order to become licensed. Without licensure, you won’t be able to practice as an RN.

Since RN’s require a higher level of education and perform more advanced duties, they can expect to earn a higher salary than they would with a non-degree credential like a certificate or diploma.

4. Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing (BSN)

While an ADN is the minimum requirement to become an RN, a Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree is quickly becoming the standard, especially for facilities that provide an exceptional level of patient care.

The key difference between a BSN and ADN is that a BSN degree program goes beyond the basics covered in an ADN program. This makes sense given that the Bachelor’s degree typically takes about four years and additional credit hours to complete.

Since BSN-educated nurses are able to take on more advanced roles, the salary for these Registered Nurses tends to be higher than ADN-educated nurses.

Fortunately, there are BSN degree pathways for both nurses and non-nurses:

  • Pre-licensure BSN: For non-nurses with no prior degree
  • RN-to-BSN: For licensed RNs who already hold an ADN or Nursing Diploma
  • Accelerated BSN: For those with a non-nursing undergraduate degree
  • Concurrent Enrollment BSN: For those enrolled in an ADN program who want to work toward their BSN simultaneously

Additionally, you can opt to enroll in an online BSN program, which provides you more flexibility and a quicker route to your undergraduate degree. This is an especially great option of Associate-level Registered Nurses looking to advance their education while continuing to work.

Finally, a BSN can also give you the educational foundation necessary to pursue more advanced levels of nursing education, like a Master’s of Science in Nursing.

5. Master’s of Science in Nursing (MSN)

The second-highest level of nursing education is the Master’s of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree

The key difference between a BSN and MSN is that this level of education is designed to prepare nurses to become Nursing Leaders and Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRN’s).

Types of nurses that are considered APRN’s include:

An MSN can also prepare nurses for less clinically-focused roles, like:

  • Nurse Educators
  • Nurse Administrators
  • Nurse Informaticists

Typically, you’ll need to earn your BSN before enrolling in an MSN program. However, there are multiple routes through which you can obtain your MSN, including:

  • BSN-to-MSN: For those who have completed their BSN degree
  • Direct-entry MSN: For those with a non-nursing undergraduate degree
  • RN-to-MSN: For RN’s with no BSN that want the quickest track to an advanced degree
  • Dual Enrollment MSN: For those who want to obtain an advanced degree, like an MBA, in addition to their MSN

Keep in mind that the MSN can be completed online, providing you affordability and flexibility. In fact, most programs typically take one to two years to complete. This can be especially important for working nurses looking to get their Master’s-level education.

Finally, because MSN-educated nurses are prepared to take on even more advanced responsibilities and specialties, the salary for Nurse Practitioners and other APRN’s tends to be quite a bit higher than BSN-educated RN’s.

6. Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) or PhD in Nursing

Finally, the highest level of nursing education you can achieve is the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree or the PhD in Nursing

The PhD and DNP are different from an MSN because these are terminal degrees, meaning there are no higher educational credentials you can obtain. 

While both the DNP and PhD are doctoral-level degrees, there is a difference between them. While the DNP is more clinically focused, the PhD focuses more on research.

So, the DNP is meant to prepare nurses for executive-level nursing roles in clinical settings, and the degree will give them an in-depth understanding of topics like healthcare policy and leadership.

Meanwhile, the PhD in Nursing prepares nurses to work as researchers and educators. Most of the time, PhD nurses will work at universities, where they can teach up-and-coming nursing students or research various topics to improve the nursing field.

Whichever terminal degree you go for, you’ll be ready to be a leader in nursing. Whether you want to lead in a clinical or academic/theoretical capacity is up to you!

Which Nursing Degree Is Best?

The best nursing degree will depend on your personal goals.

However, for most aspiring nurses, a BSN will likely be best. That’s because this degree will prepare you to become a Registered Nurse and allow you to work in top-tier healthcare facilities.

Additionally, getting your BSN will prepare you to enroll in a graduate degree program if you decide you want to go for your advanced nursing education.

You Have Lots of Nursing Education Options!

Before deciding to enroll in a nursing degree program, take some time to think about why and consider your long-term goals.

Getting any degree will take a time and financial commitment, so it’s not a decision you should take lightly.

To find a nursing education program suited to your needs, click here!

Nursing Education FAQ’s

What is the Lowest Level of Nursing Education?

The lowest level of nursing education is the Certified Nurse Assistant (CNA) Certificate.

What is the Highest Level of Nursing Education?

The highest level of nursing education is the Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP) or PhD in Nursing.

How Many Years Does It Take To Become a Nurse?

The minimum requirement to become a Registered Nurse is an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN), which typically takes about two years to complete.

However, some healthcare facilities require you to have at least your Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing (BSN), which usually takes about four years to complete.

Can You Get Your Nursing Degree Online?

Yes, you can get your nursing degree online!

Check out our top-rated BSN programs and top-rated MSN programs to get started.

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