RN to BSN Degree Programs – A Helpful Guide

Nearly a decade ago, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommended that 80% of RNs have a bachelor’s degree or higher by 2020In her review of the progress, Dr. Joanne Spetz, associate director of research at Healthforce Center at UCSF, references findings that graduates of an RN to BSN program post-associate’s degree see an increase in lifetime earnings between 2.6% and 5.1%.

The IOM proposed this particular recommendation with the goal of preparing nurses to meet the demands of diverse populations across the lifespan through continuing education. Completing a two-year associate degree in nursing (ADN) program is the minimum amount of schooling required to become licensed as a registered nurse (RN).

However, some ADN nurses are choosing to earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) through the RN to BSN program. The reasons for that decision vary. Some want to grow their nursing knowledge, and others are seeking career advancement.

Whatever your career ambitions, RN to BSN programs give you the chance to expand your knowledge and clinical skills, and ultimately help in improving healthcare. You can also pursue it online, which means you have the flexibility of completing your studies while you work.

What is an RN to BSN?

Designed with licensed RNs in mind, RN to BSN programs build upon the existing knowledge of practitioners and provide in-depth study in topic areas such as physical and social sciences. These programs also place an emphasis on critical thinking, nursing research, public health, and management and leadership, to give nurses a broader understanding of issues around patient care and healthcare delivery. They also allow for various specializations.

Unlike typical bachelor’s degree programs which last four years, RN to BSN programs can be completed in one to two years.

What Can I Do with an RN to BSN?

As a BSN-prepared nurse, you can find work in a range of inpatient and outpatient settings including hospitals, home healthcare facilities, nursing organizations, healthcare foundations, advocacy groups, and the military.

The RN to BSN degree can also be a stepping stone to a masters in nursing degree which is required by many state licensure boards to become an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN). Like RNs, APRNs have the opportunity to specialize. An RN to BSN graduate may also decide to pursue a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) if they have their eye on a leadership role within the healthcare sector.

Whether you’re planning on returning to nursing school soon after earning your BSN or are satisfied with a baccalaureate degree, here are some nursing jobs to consider:

Public Health Nurse

Public health nurses work to create healthy populations using knowledge drawn from nursing as well as social sciences and public health sciences. Public health nurses may focus on disease and poisoning prevention, emergency preparedness, immunizations, HIV/AIDS treatment, foster care nursing, and communicable diseases. Typically, only an RN license is needed for public health nursing practice, but a nurse with an RN to BSN is eligible for a Certification in Public Health (CPH) after five years of public health experience. The certification demonstrates your commitment to this particular field of practice.

Case Management Nurse

Case management nurses advocate for patients with serious and long-term illnesses, including Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and heart disease, and help to coordinate their care. Trained to work on interdisciplinary teams, case management nurses provide guidance to patient’s families and act as a liaison between patients and insurance companies. They work in a variety of settings including hospices, community and public health centers, outpatient clinics, and oncology centers.

Those who have completed RN to BSN programs are also eligible to take the CCM exam, administered by the Commission for Case Manager Certification (CCMC), to become a board-certified case manager, provided they have completed the requisite case-management employment experience.

School Nurse

School nurses are specialists who work within schools helping to promote student health, assist in optimal student development, and support academic success. School nurses act as an important bridge between academic and physical well-being for the students they treat, coordinating care, and collaborating with local officials on creating systems that support the health of the broader communities in which schoolchildren live.

Degree requirements for school nurses vary by state, with some requiring a minimum of bachelor’s degree in nursing and RN licensure.

Hospice Nurse

Hospice nurses provide holistic care for patients to ease their end-of-life journey. Some of their daily duties include administering medication, checking vitals and ensuring patient comfort. Hospice nurses also track and report on patients’ progress during hospice team meetings and provide invaluable support to patient family members and caregivers.

Hospice nurses can take exams for one of five hospice and palliative certifications, designed for advanced practice nurses, registered nurses, pediatric palliative nurses, nursing assistants, and those dealing with perinatal loss. Offered by the Hospice and Palliative Credentialing Center (HPCC), each certification establishes commitment to safe, ethical, and evidence-based care.

ICU Nurse

Critical care nurses, including ICU nurses who work in intensive care units (ICUs), provide care for infants, children, and adults under the most serious life-or-death circumstances, making their work both challenging and incredibly rewarding.

There are a range of certifications from the American Association for Critical-Care Nurses (AACN) available for both RNs and advanced practice registered nurses with experience in critical-care. Certifications target specialties including adult, pediatric, and neonatal care.

Surgical Nurse

Surgical nurses or medical-surgical nurses help to set up surgery – including sterilization, surgical draping, and patient skin antisepsis. They also focus on infection prevention in patients, preoperative care, and are skilled in surgical equipment, products and procedures.

To become a surgical nurse, you must complete a nursing program and be a registered nurse with some experience in surgical procedures. You can pick a bachelor’s degree program that allows you to specialize in surgical nursing.

Surgical nurses, also called perioperative nurses, can take certification exams administered by the Medical-Surgical Nursing Certification BoardAmerican Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) for Medical-Surgical Certification, or the Competency & Credentialing Institute – Perioperative Certification.

Should I Pursue a RN to BSN Program?

Depending on your career goals, an RN to BSN program may be the educational path for you. While it is possible to practice as a registered nurse with an associate degree or diploma administered by a hospital, an RN to BSN program equips you with additional knowledge and skills and opens the door to a number of specialized nursing careers as you can see from the list above.

With the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projecting employment of registered nurses to grow 12% from 2018 to 2028, having a BSN degree could also give you an edge in this saturated job market. Some employers prioritize job applicants with a baccalaureate degree over those without one, according to AACN’s Employment of New Nurse Graduates and Employer Preferences for Baccalaureate-Prepared Nurses. The idea is that having higher education qualifications can ultimately help practitioners to improve patient outcomes.

Apart from education, possessing certain soft skills may help RNs in their daily work. With wide-ranging complex patient healthcare needs, BSN nursing roles call for workers with strong communication and organizational skills, the ability to empathize, and emotional stability to keep them steadied amid the demands of the job.

If you want to continue working while you’re in school, consider schools that offer RN to BSN programs online.

Advantages of an RN to BSN Program

From strengthening your skills to broadening employment opportunities, there are numerous benefits of completing an RN to BSN program. Below are a few of them:

1. Expand Your Nursing Skills

Several studies, including a guest editorial in the Journal of Nursing Education, have found that when RNs advance their education, it can lead to stronger skills in nursing practice, leadership, professional integration, and research and evaluation.

2. Increase Your Job Market Appeal

According to the AACN’s latest survey on Employment of New Nurse Graduates and Employer Preferences for Baccalaureate-Prepared Nurses, more than 88% of employers now require or strongly prefer nurses with a baccalaureate degree. The AACN also notes that chief nurse officers in university hospitals prefer to hire nurses with a BSN degree.

3. Improve Patient Care

Higher nurse education has been linked to better patient outcomes in numerous published studies. The AACN has reported on studies over the last 10+ years on BSN-prepared RNs who are better prepared in evidence-based practice, reduction in patient death rates, and lower failure to rescue rates.

4. Become a Nurse Manager or Nurse Leader in a Magnet Hospital

Magnet hospitals, which meet some of the highest standards of care according to the American Nurse Credentialing Center, require all nurse managers and nurse leaders to have a BSN or higher degree in nursing. Magnet hospitals are among the most sought-after workplaces for nurses, with superior nurse-to-staffing ratios and higher nurse satisfaction.

5. Become a Higher-Level VA Nurse

In order to advance beyond an entry-level position within a Veteran’s Administration hospital – the largest employer of registered nurses in the U.S., according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing – nurses need to have a BSN.

Education Requirements

An RN-to-BSN program is offered at a college or university and typically requires applicants to have a diploma or associate degree in nursing from an accredited nursing program, a specific GPA requirement, and a current RN license. An application form and fee, personal statement, resume, and letter (s) of recommendation are also required.

Before submitting your application, be sure to check if your desired program has a list of prerequisite courses for prospective students.

RN to BSN Curriculum

An RN to BSN program combines general education courses – including literature, history, sociology, and math – with a full spectrum of science courses such as biology, chemistry, anatomy, and microbiology.

Nursing-specific courses may cover human nutrition, healthcare informatics, evidence-based practice, community health nursing, cultural competence in nursing, and concepts in nurse leadership.

RN to BSN Program Accreditation

In choosing an RN to BSN program, look for one that has been accredited by an independent accreditation agency recognized by the U.S. Secretary of Education. Accreditation ensures that the RN to BSN program meets the highest standards for educational practice.

Look for accreditation from agencies such as the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE), an autonomous accrediting agency; and the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN), an accrediting agency governed by a board of 17 commissioners elected by representatives of ACEN-accredited nursing programs.


It’s important to be thorough with your research when you’re selecting an RN to BSN program and weighing your career options. Here are a couple of questions that can help to guide you as you make this life-changing decision:

How long is a RN to BSN program?

Many universities offer accelerated online RN to BSN programs that can be completed in three consecutive semesters over the course of one year.. A full-length RN to BSN program can take anywhere from two to four years, depending on whether you’re enrolled as a full-time or part-time student.

Is an RN to BSN more competitive than a general BSN program?

An RN to BSN program is designed specifically to meet the needs of practicing RNs who are looking to advance their education and career opportunities. Any student pursuing a BSN, either through an RN to BSN program or a traditional, four-year BSN program, faces similar challenges and opportunities, and emerges with an equivalent degree.

What is the difference between an RN and a BSN?

registered nurse (RN) is a nursing professional who treats patients and provides support to both patients and families. A BSN is a bachelor’s degree of science in nursing. The BSN degree program is for students looking to become a registered nurse, or for RNs with an associate degree looking for additional education and professional opportunities.

Is the NCLEX-RN the same for an RN and a BSN?

The NCLEX-RN is the national licensing exam for RNs, and the test is the same whether applicants have an associate degree or BSN degree. However, the AACN notes that this multiple-choice test only ensures minimum technical competency for basic nursing. The association encourages nurses to pursue a BSN, noting the following: “The NCLEX-RN is only one indicator of competency, and it does not measure performance over time or test for all of the knowledge and skills developed through a BSN program.”

How Much Does a RN to BSN Cost?

Costs for RN to BSN programs vary widely depending on whether the program is online or on campus, where the college or university is located, and whether the school is public or private. Fortunately, there are a number of opportunities to reduce the cost of RN to BSN tuition through nursing financial aid options like: scholarships, loan forgiveness, tuition reimbursement, residency programs, and continuing education.

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