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There are plenty of job options in health care but one of the most popular is nursing. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 3.1 million registered nurses across the U.S. making it the largest health care profession.

There are three paths that lead to a nursing degree: a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), a hospital diploma or an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN). For those who want to get into the field quickly, the ADN is a great option.

What is an ADN degree?

An Associate Degree in Nursing is an entry-level degree that can be completed within two years. At some schools the degree is considered an Associate of Science in Nursing (ASN), but that’s simply semantics. The courses, requirements and path for both associate degrees are identical. Many ADN programs can be found at local community colleges, making it affordable for many students. Students who already have a bachelor’s degree in another field of study can often obtain an ADN as quickly as 18 months. 

Often the ADN or ASN degree is compared to a BSN. These programs cover much of the same content, but the bachelor’s degree requires approximately four years of study and has a higher focus on enhanced science courses, leadership and management. There is also a greater emphasis on humanities and preparation for a master’s degree.

The vast majority of ADN programs take place in person. While some of the classroom courses can be completed online, the hands-on clinical portion required for the degree must be done face-to-face. 

Receiving an ADN degree opens doors to many other areas of nursing. Students who graduate with an ADN degree and pass the licensing exam to become a registered nurse can usually find a job fairly quickly, then may be able to work with their employer to pay for additional degrees. 

What to know about applying for and finding a program

To apply for an ADN degree, students must have a high school diploma or GED. Additionally, each school will have its own specific requirements. Generally speaking, these include minimum SAT or ACT scores, a GPA above 2.0, two to three years of math and two to three years of science. 

Kim Cooper, dean of nursing at Ivy Tech’s Terre Haute Campus in Indiana, believes the number one factor in choosing an ADN program is accreditation. She recommends looking at the state board of nursing to ensure the school is listed and is not conditionally accredited. She also suggests finding a school with national accreditation. 

Beyond accreditation, students should explore the success rates for passing the licensing exam called the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX). It’s a factor that was important to Rebecca Tierney, nursing professional development specialist at Indiana University Health North in Carmel, Indiana. Tierney was accepted into a bachelor’s program but chose to get an associate degree instead because the exam passing rates were higher. Although she eventually acquired her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, she was glad she obtained an associate degree first. 

“The BSN programs really focus on leadership, and that piece is kind of removed from the ADN program. There’s more practical experience,” Tierney said. “I don’t feel like I missed out on anything going the ADN route.”

Cooper also suggests considering the school’s cost before selecting a program. Some schools do not accept financial aid, which can be important for someone relying upon assistance to pay for education.

How to pay for school

School can be expensive regardless of the degree. On average, private programs are more expensive than public ones. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 2-year degrees are not only shorter than 4-year degrees, they’re also cheaper per year: $10,704 per year versus $27,357. That means the typical ADN will cost $21,408, whereas a BSN will cost $109,428. Tuition will ultimately depend on the institution. On average, private schools are more expensive than public ones. Plus there are expenses for labs, supplies, textbooks and fees for the licensing exam. 

The benefit to a local community college is that it can be less expensive than other institutions. But there are other ways to find tuition that can open the door to many other school options.

When it comes to finding assistance to pay for a two-year education, financial aid is the most frequently used option according to the National Center for Education Statistics. They reported that 78% of all first-year students received financial aid in the 2017-2018 school year. 

Scholarships can also help pay for an education and don’t require repayment like financial aid. Many schools offer scholarships through their financial aid departments. For a list of external scholarships, you can search HealthJob's nursing scholarship database. Students may also want to consider finding employment at a health care institution. In some circumstances they may assist in paying for a degree. 

While obtaining an ADN degree is time consuming and makes it difficult to hold a full-time job, it’s possible to have part-time work and still continue education. Some ideal part-time jobs allow for studying while working or might provide practical experience such as a nursing assistant. 

Even while waiting a year to get into her program, Tierney said she worked as a pharmacy assistant which has helped her career. However, knowing that she’d eventually be in a bedside-role, she wishes she’d found a job that would have given her additional practical experience. 

Registered Nurse Tamara Wooten received practical experience by working full-time as a medical assistant until her ADN program began. Wooten, who works in pre-admission testing and the call center at Indiana University North, also took additional science classes in the interim which helped prepare her for school. 

What to expect day-to-day during the program

Cooper estimates that her students spent about 30 hours each week focusing on school. That includes time in the classroom, hands-on clinical hours and studying. 

Classroom time covers basic requirements such as English, math and psychology. It also provides job-specific education with courses in physiology, anatomy and labs to understand elements of nursing such as giving shots and how to assess people. 

The clinical experiences cover a variety of settings so that future nurses will gradually feel comfortable no matter where the job takes them. They may do clinical work in hospitals, nursing homes, physician offices or outpatient clinics. This work usually takes a full day while the students take care of patients and observe doctors and RNs perform their job duties. It provides these students an opportunity to acclimate to the environment. 

It’s this clinical experience that Wooten and Tierney feel helped them significantly to become a nurse. The quality of the clinical program was one factor that helped Wooten select her school despite it being more than an hour drive each way.  

What to expect after graduation

Receiving a degree at graduation doesn’t make someone a nurse. After graduation applicants need to apply to their State Board of Nursing to take the NCLEX-RN. The test is specifically for those who desire to become a registered nurse versus the NCLEX-PN exam for practical nursing. The latter has different educational requirements and different employment opportunities. 

Graduates who have obtained a BSN, ADN or hospital degree will register to take the same NCLEX-RN examination. The state board will determine eligibility by reviewing any criminal history and ensuring the appropriate degree has been obtained. 

It takes approximately six weeks to receive results from the NCLEX, though unofficial results may be available two days after the test for an additional fee. Once a candidate passes the exam, they are officially a registered nurse. While many students find employment before they graduate, others might choose to transition to another degree like a BSN. 

Every state has varying degrees of requirements in order to renew a nursing license. Those requirements might include continuing education courses or practical work experience. Several states don’t have any requirements for license renewal, but Cooper noted that employers might have different expectations. 

Who is a good candidate for an ADN degree?

Being a nurse requires dedication, curiosity and a desire to interact with people. Nurses should be inquisitive and have a willingness to help other people. Cooper added that nurses need to be able to have difficult and sometimes uncomfortable conversations with other people. 

“They have to be ready to take care of people who are likely at their worst self, with their goal to get them to their best self whatever that is,” said Cooper. For some, obtaining an ADN degree is a good option because it can be completed quickly. Wooten decided to become a nurse later in life after tending her grandmother’s bedside. Finding a way to reach her dream and start helping people was important.  

Wooten’s return to school isn’t unusual. Adults over the age of 25 comprise 72% of the population of those seeking an ADN degree. Price, proximity to home and speed of completion are all benefits of community college making an ADN degree more appealing to what’s considered a non-traditional student.

Wooten said the biggest reward is being able to help others in some way and making a difference in their lives. 

Tierney said the desire to help others has followed her in her nursing career. “It was that human piece,” she said. “You need that piece to be a good nurse.”

What types of jobs are a fit for an ADN?

Cooper said that many graduates from the ADN program are focused on bedside and day-to-day interactions, while those who graduate with a BSN degree are more likely to go into leadership, education and management. 

Nursing opens many career options, whether private or public practice, whether to work just evenings or just weekends or focusing on a specific age group. Nurses can be found in a prison setting, schools, pharmacies, government agencies, urgent care centers or in private home care. 

“I don’t know any other career where you could do all of these things and still have the same degree,” said Cooper. 

Can BSNs and ADNs get the same job?

Those who obtain an ADN degree and pass the licensing exam are considered a Registered Nurse. Some employers might require a BSN degree, but others might not. Generally, most registered nurses will be expected to take bedside roles when they start their career, so it doesn’t matter if a nurse has an associate or bachelor’s degree. 

The median pay for registered nurses in 2019 was $73,300, or $35.24 per hour. Salary can vary by state, industry, experience and education. Lifetime pay for nurses who have obtained their BSN is usually higher than those who obtain an ADN, and the starting salary for RNs with a bachelor’s degree is slightly higher on average

Registered nurses with an ADN may choose to obtain their bachelor’s degree immediately or after several years of practical experience. The RN to BSN program, or bridge program, takes approximately two years but some can be completed within a year. The degree may be completed online for those who are currently a practicing nurse.

The future of the ADN degree

The need for nurses is expected to continue to climb according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It’s growing faster than all occupations on average partly due to demand as the population ages and a need for more staff at long-term care and rehabilitation centers. There’s also a need to fill openings as nurses retire. 

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommended that by 2020, 80% of nurses should have a BSN, but it’s not a requirement. Cooper estimates at least 90% of her students obtain additional degrees and believes any additional education can be enriching for everyone, but there’s still a need for all degree levels. 

“I think there’s value in both (degrees),” she said. “I think there’s space at the table, or at the bedside, for all of us. I think it’s just a different space.”

Bottom Line

For those who want to become a registered nurse, an ADN degree can help them get into the field quickly. It can be a useful stepping-stone to receive a bachelor’s degree in nursing or for other advanced medical degrees. Becoming a registered nurse can lead to a wide variety of opportunities and career paths. 

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