An Overview of Undergraduate Nursing Degrees

Nursing schools are gaining in popularity as a growing number of men and women decide to pursue a career in this field.

[Here’s why this is the case and what’s behind nursing school’s popularity: The Evolving World of Nursing: Where Is it Heading?]

“A Registered Nurse (RN) (the most common nursing designation today) works to promote health, prevent disease, and help patients cope with illness,” explains Robert Rosseter, Chief Communications Officer
 of the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (ACN). “RNs are also strong patient advocates who work in all settings where health care is delivered.”

Many nursing schools offer several different degree paths to become an RN, so it’s important to explore your options, which range from a nursing license to a four-year registered nurse degree.

People who want to become an RN will need to complete one of the following degree options, as well as pass a national licensure examination, the NCLEX-RN licensing exam, that allows them to practice in their state:

Diploma (RN)

This program makes it possible for nurses to get their training right in a hospital setting and usually takes two to three years to complete. Unlike an associate or bachelor degree in nursing, the training is focused specifically on nursing itself and doesn’t typically confer academic credit. While people who favor diploma programs say that they receive intense training and preparation for success in the field, the reality is that diploma RN programs are being phased out in the United States because employers increasingly require nurses to have an academic-based degree.

Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN-RN)

It usually takes two to three years to complete an ADN. This program prepares students for an entry-level nursing job in the healthcare field as an RN. The types of requirements for an ADN include liberal arts classes, science, basic nursing, and clinical experiences. Fifty percent of nursing degrees are awarded through the ADN.

Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN-RN)

This is a four-year liberal arts degree program, typically consisting of one year of pre-nursing and three years of designated nursing school. The BSN track typically includes core liberal arts, science, basic nursing classes, and clinical experiences, as well as more advanced classes that focus on specific key areas of nursing. Employers increasingly prefer nurses to have BSN degrees, so graduates with this degree will be qualified for many jobs and well-positioned to progress into higher-level responsibilities. A BSN is an undergraduate education, a professional degree, and clinical experience all rolled in one.


From registered nurse to bachelor of science in nursing, this option is offered in a limited number of states. It allows diploma- and ADN-RNs to apply their prior credits and/or professional experience toward a BSN.

These programs build off the education and experience that the RN has acquired, and provide the critical thinking and problem solving skills that undergraduates typically gain through liberal arts coursework. In addition, RN-BSN programs deepen the science/nursing education and leadership skills of their students.

Accelerated BSN

The accelerated BSN is geared toward people who already have a bachelor degree in another field and want to become an RN. Since these students have already completed their liberal arts requirements with their first bachelor degree, this program allows its students to focus specifically on nursing coursework and clinical experiences. An accelerated BSN can take between a year and 18 months to complete.

One important note for students considering an accelerated BSN is that these programs typically have prerequisites that students may or may not have met in their first undergraduate program. This coursework can be fulfilled at a local college, but it’s critical to communicate with the nursing schools to determine if they’ll accept each course you’re considering.

Another Option: Certification

Licensed Practice Nurse (LPN)

Although not an undergraduate degree, “a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) is another distinct nursing role,” Rosseter says, adding that LPNs are employed primarily by hospitals. “People who want to become an LPN must graduate from an education program that takes anywhere from a year to 18 months to complete and then pass a national licensure exam [NCLEX-PN].” LPNs are qualified to work under the supervision of an RN or a physician, but they won’t be able to work independently or take on any leadership capability. This is more of patient care program. However, LPNs can perform many essential direct-care functions.