An Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) Can Jump Start Your Career

Short on money and time? An ADN might be the perfect route to a nursing degree.

smiling nurse carrying laptop bag

Degree Overview

There are many educational paths to becoming a professional nurse. An Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) will give you a solid foundation for a career in healthcare. Popular among registered nurses (RNs), this degree provides opportunities to work in entry-level nursing positions.

You can earn an ADN in two to three years with a curriculum that includes nursing and liberal arts. Then you’ll need to pass a national licensing examination, the NCLEX-RN, to begin working as a registered nurse. The degree is ideal for students who want to pursue a professional nursing career but don’t have the time or money to complete a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree. It can also help licensed practical nurses (LPNs) qualify for an RN license and move into professional nursing.

As an RN with an associate’s degree, you can qualify for a wide range of specialty certifications that can increase your career opportunities and salary potential. The degree can also serve as the foundation for earning a BSN, which can expand your professional and earning potential even more.

An ADN is ideal for students who want to pursue a professional nursing career but don’t have the time or money to complete a bachelor’s degree.

“Associate degree nurses play a very vital role in the nursing community and are an important part of the nursing workforce,” says Donna Cardillo, RN, MA, CSP, FAAN, a nursing career expert, advocate, author, and motivational speaker known as The Inspiration Nurse. “The associate degree can either be a great starting point in nursing and students can take it where they want, or they can also have a very, very satisfying career at the associate degree level.”

Whether you’re a first-time nursing student considering where to start your professional studies or an LPN ready to pursue an RN license, we can help you find out whether an ADN is the right option for you. We’re here to help you learn more about the ADN, what’s involved in earning the degree, and what the degree can mean for your career and professional opportunities.

Curriculum and Clinical Requirements

Curriculum for ADN programs varies by school but includes about 70 credits to prepare you for entry-level nursing and for qualifying for an RN license in your state. “A minimum of an associate’s degree is considered by most to be necessary for entry into professional nursing,” Cardillo says.

A typical ADN program includes a school’s liberal arts core curriculum, which is required of all students pursuing an associate’s degree. These classes are considered prerequisites and usually must be completed before you can enter the ADN program:

  • English Composition
  • Communications
  • Psychology
  • Sociology
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Human Anatomy & Physiology
  • Statistics

Your ADN coursework will focus on nursing skills and practice and typically include:

  • Microbiology and Immunology
  • Medical-Surgical Nursing
  • Introduction to the Nursing Profession
  • Nursing Health Assessments
  • Professional Issues in Nursing
  • Pediatric Nursing
  • Psychiatric Nursing
  • Maternal-Newborn Nursing
  • Community Health Nursing

On-the-Job Training

Clinical hours give you the experience you’ll need to succeed as a nurse. “ADN programs often provide very good hands-on clinical training, as well as a grounding in science, nursing science, nursing theory, and patient care,” says Keith Carlson, BSN, RN, NC-BC, a board-certified nurse coach, nursing career expert, nurse blogger, and host of the nursing career podcast “The Nurse Keith Show.”

Students complete an average of 700 clinical hours, but many do more. This training includes skills labs, simulation labs, clinical rotations, seminars, workshops, community service, and presentations.

Online Options to Earn an ADN

woman studying notes at home

An online degree can be appealing to students who have to work or keep up with family responsibilities while they’re in school. The coursework for an online and classroom-based ADN is the same, but online students need to attend labs for hands-on instruction to complete their clinical hours.

An online degree can be appealing to students who have to work or keep up with family responsibilities while they’re in school.

An online ADN program may be right for you if you have technological skills and the self-discipline and focus to manage the demands of college-level coursework without the structure of a campus classroom. Whether you choose online or on campus, it’s important to understand the commitment you’ll be making.

“All nursing programs are rigorous, challenging, and you have to dedicate a lot of your time and energy in successfully completing a nursing program—so make sure you are in a place to give it your all,” says Damion Jenkins, RN, MSN, who is an NCLEX prep expert, nurse educator, content writer, and CEO of The Nurse Speak.

Find out more about online ADN programs

Applying Other School Credentials to an ADN

Many students often decide they want to become a nurse after working in an allied healthcare field. For example, perhaps you’re a medical assistant (MA) looking to become an RN. Some schools offer an MA-to-ADN path, which allows you to apply some of your coursework from your MA program toward your associate’s degree.

Some ADN programs for students already in entry-level nursing roles—such as certified nurse assistant (CNA) or licensed practical nurse (LPN)—offer a fast track to graduation by eliminating breaks between courses. You may find this option at vocational-technical (vo-tech) schools or with online programs. Students with an LPN license may be able to take an LPN-to-ADN bridge program, a shortcut that builds on the education and experience they already have. 

“Earning an ADN is a great way to quickly start your nursing career by beginning to gain experience and earn an income,” Jenkins says. “What makes an ADN program attractive for a lot of students is that it’s less expensive and time-consuming and offers more flexible options such as evening and weekend and online classes.”

What to Look for in a School

You can find ADN programs at vo-tech schools, community colleges, some four-year colleges, and online. Overall, you want to ensure that your education will prepare you to meet your professional goals. Otherwise, it won’t be worth your investment of time and money.

Accreditation

Accreditation is a review process that determines whether a school or program meets educational quality standards for the profession. You must attend an accredited program to qualify for federal financial aid and scholarships and most state licenses and specialty certifications.

School and program accreditation are awarded separately. You can verify a school’s accreditation on a database maintained by the U.S. Department of Education.

Professional organizations grant accreditation for ADN programs. Verify that your state board of nursing accepts a degree from the program you’re looking at and that it qualifies for the nursing licenses you’ll need. You can contact your state board to find out which programs it recognizes.

Also important to note: You need credits from an accredited program if you want to transfer them to another institution to meet requirements for a BSN or other educational program there.

Check the School’s Reputation

Another way to evaluate a school is to check its reputation. Do this by looking at:

  • The first-time pass rate for students who took the NCLEX-RN in the most recent academic year
  • The percentage of graduates from the most recent graduating class who have jobs as nurses
  • Its ranking among ADN programs in the state

“It’s always great if you can find people who are in the program or have graduated from the program and talk to them about it,” Cardillo says. To get a sense of how professionals in the industry regard a school, talk to nurse recruiters, nurse leaders, and working RNs.

Prerequisites, Admission Requirements, and Required Standardized Tests

Most ADN programs have math, science, and liberal arts prerequisites to prepare you for the core nursing curriculum. Some schools and programs accept high school classes or transfer credits to meet prerequisites, so check their websites to find out if any of your previous education qualifies. Credits from Advanced Placement (AP) courses or the International Baccalaureate (IB) program could qualify.

Admission requirements also vary by school. They could include:

  • Application essay
  • Career statement
  • In-person interview
  • High school GPA of 2.0; college GPA of 2.5
  • Academic and/or professional recommendations
  • ACT or SAT scores
  • Passing score on the Health Education Systems Inc. (HESI) Admission Assessment (A2) Exam
  • Essential Academic Skills (ATI TEAS) assessment test to determine preparedness to enter a health field
  • National League for Nursing Pre-Admission Examination (NLN-PAX) standardized entrance exam for prospective nursing students

Job Placement and Career Counseling

Job placement and career counseling services can be important resources, especially as graduation nears. Find out what’s available when you’re comparing schools. Career counseling services can help you prepare for the positions you want and provide networking opportunities by connecting you with recent graduates and local employers.

Job placement and career counseling services can be important resources, especially as graduation nears.

Questions to Ask

With so many ADN programs to choose from, finding the right one for you can be a daunting task. Information on accreditation and NCLEX pass rates are a good place to start. But also consider asking schools and programs some of the following questions to find the right fit:

  • What is the faculty-to-student ratio?
  • Will I be able to work while I’m in school?
  • Does the school provide assistance for first-time higher ed students?
  • Does the school offer tutoring or NCLEX exam prep?
  • Where will I do my clinical training? Will I be placed, or do I have to find my own training location?
  • Will I be using state-of-the-art equipment for training?
  • If online, how does the school work to create a virtual classroom environment?
  • Does the school offer career placement assistance?
  • Can I afford the tuition?
  • Does this school align with my goals?

“The most important thing to consider is whether the program meets your individual needs,” Jenkins says. “Programs vary wildly with scheduling, cost, program structure, etc. Therefore, I would recommend that all of the components of the program meet your personal preferences, lifestyle requirements, and career goals. Take your time to really get to know a program before choosing.”

Costs and Financial Aid

Associate Degree in Nursing Tuition Costs:

Around $10,000 a year at public institutions

Around $25,000 a year at private institutions

The cost of an ADN program varies based on considerations such as the type of school and length of program. In addition, some schools charge tuition by semester and others by credit. An LPN-to-ADN bridge program typically costs less than a traditional ADN degree at the same school.

Programs price tuition differently, so it’s important to understand how this affects the total cost of a degree. You can typically find the most affordable tuition at public, state-affiliated schools, though out-of-state students pay more to attend these schools.

Most schools publish tuition fees on their websites for comparison. According to the most recent (2017) figures from the National Center for Education statistics, the average annual cost of tuition, fees, and room and board at a two-year public institution is about $10,000, while a similar program at a non-profit, private two-year school costs about $25,000. But when you compare it to the potential cost of a bachelor’s degree, it can be a more attractive option.

“An ADN program costs an average of $12,000 to $30,000, whereas a BSN program can cost an average $40,000 to $100,000 [total cost],” Jenkins says.

Fees and Other Costs

In addition to tuition, you’ll have other costs, such as textbooks. Some programs include these costs in your tuition, while others leave it to you to cover them. They can vary significantly, so make sure to include them to your financial calculations. Some examples of these costs:

Description

Estimated Program Cost


Textbooks, study guides, NCLEX prep materials

$1,650


Uniforms

$300


Shoes

$100


Stethoscope, blood pressure cuff, and other equipment

$300


Nursing kit

$100


Physical exam and labs

$375


Background check and immunization tracker

$100

Financial Aid and Scholarships

If you can’t afford to pay for an ADN degree on your own, you may be eligible for financial aid from your school or the U.S. government. To find out if you’re eligible for need-based assistance, complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Schools and student loan lenders use this information for awarding financial aid and student loans.

You may be in the running for nursing scholarships or financial awards based on academic merit or criteria not tied to financial need. “There is a lot of scholarship money out there that is not financial aid for those who choose to go after it. It’s available for nurses at any level,” Cardillo says.

Potential scholarship sources include:

  • Nontraditional student scholarships
  • Financial awards from your school or program
  • State nursing incentive programs
  • National and local chapters of professional nursing associations
  • Employer tuition reimbursement
  • Military or other government service scholarships

Licensing Required/Certifications Available

After completing your ADN, you can prepare to apply for an RN license in the state where you plan to work. Check your state board of nursing website for requirements and fees. Typically, you’ll need to provide proof of your ADN, clinical hours, and other requirements such as CPR certification, fingerprinting, and background check.

Licensing Requirements

nurse consoles young cancer patient

You’ll have to pass the NCLEX-RN exam to qualify for an RN license. Before registering for this exam, you must apply for a license through your state’s board of nursing. You’ll have to wait until the board verifies your eligibility with the test administration service Pearson VUE before you can schedule your exam.

The test focuses on four areas:

  • The Safe and Effective Care Environment
  • Health Promotion and Maintenance
  • Psychosocial Integrity
  • Physiological Integrity

You’ll take your test on a computer at a designated test site. The exam is called a “variable-length adaptive test” because your number of correct and incorrect answers will partly determine how long the test is. You’ll answer 75 to 265 multiple-choice questions based on your performance as you work through the test. You’ll have a maximum of six hours to complete it.

You’ll either pass or fail the test; you won’t be graded on a specific number of questions or given a percentage. A passing grade indicates you’ve met the competency requirements for a professional nurse.

Are Specialty Certifications Available at this Level of Education?

While there’s no certification required to become an RN, you can broaden your career opportunities by qualifying for specialty certifications in a wide range of areas.

“Having a certification can demonstrate to a potential employer that you’re dedicated and you’re not resting on your laurels,” Carlson says. “You are saying, ‘I’m really interested in this area, and I’m going to become an expert.’ If you’re strategic and you choose well, that can make you stand head and shoulders above other candidates for a particular job.”

Common Nursing Specialty Certifications

Certifications available to RNs with an ADN and the corresponding credentialing organization:


American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC)–Registered Nurse Certifications

  • Nursing Case Management
  • Ambulatory Care
  • Pain Management
  • Medical-Surgical
  • Pediatric
  • Gerontological
  • Psychiatric Mental Health
  • Cardiac-Vascular

  • Certified Medical-Surgical Registered Nurse (CMSRN®)
  • Certified in Care Coordination and Transition Management (CCCTM®)

  • Orthopaedic Nurse Certification (ONC®)

  • Certified Radiology Nurse (CRN®)

  • Certified Rehabilitation Registered Nurse (CRRN®)

Career Outlook and Options

There are many career options for ADN-educated nurses who have an RN license.

The American Nurses Association (ANA) predicts that there will be more than 100,000 nursing jobs available per year by 2022. And with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicting 12% job growth by 2028—due to the loss of more than 500,000 retiring nurses—demand will only grow.

More people are living longer, and this is also contributing to the shortage—as well as creating the need for more complex patient care outside of the hospital.

The American Nurses Association predicts that there will be more than 100,000 nursing jobs available per year by 2022.  

“Nursing is the most diverse profession on the planet, and there are many current and growing opportunities for nurses at every level,” Cardillo says.

Some of the areas in which experts see increased opportunities for rewarding careers for ADNs:

  • Home healthcare
  • Outpatient hospitals/surgery centers/ambulatory care centers
  • Rehab hospitals
  • Long-term care
  • Nursing homes and eldercare
  • Hospice care
  • Urgent care
  • Travel nursing
  • Psychiatric care

There also are opportunities for ADN-educated nurses in physicians’ offices, schools, insurance companies, and workplaces that have wellness facilities.

While there are many jobs options, it’s important to note that more education will open more professional doors, especially for nurses interested in acute care.

Demand has grown for nurses with BSNs partly in response to a recommendation by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) (now the National Academy of Medicine) that 80% of RNs worldwide should have a BSN.

“An ADN is a great way to break into the profession of nursing with the caveat that since the IOM report came out, many hospitals are choosing only to hire nurses with bachelor’s degrees,” Carlson says.

Cardillo says growing demand could affect those policies: “During times of nursing shortages, hospitals are going to have less restrictions and be more inclined to hire nurses with associate degrees if they need to fill a gap.”

Salary Potential

The salary you earn with an ADN will depend on where you live, your position, your employer, your level of experience, and demand for qualified nurses.

According to the BLS, the average salary for RNs is $77,460, though this number encompasses RNs at all levels of education—ADN, BSN, and above.

“Nursing is one of those careers that demonstrates pay increases with earned on-the-job experience,” Jenkins says. “The difference is when it comes to promotion and annual pay increases. A BSN or MSN-prepared nurse may have larger pay increases over time [compared to an ADN-prepared nurse].”

Nurses working in government and in hospitals earn the highest salaries, according to the BLS. Specialty certifications, especially for in-demand areas, can add to your earning potential.

Find out more about ADN salaries

Opportunities to Advance Your Education and Career

An ADN can be the first step in a lifelong career in nursing. For many nurses, the next logical step is to earn a BSN, which can expand your education in areas such as leadership, population health, and administration. And if your aim is to work in a hospital, especially in acute care, you may find that a four-year degree offers more opportunities.

If you do want to pursue a BSN—perhaps at your employer’s urging—you may be able to take advantage of employer tuition reimbursement programs. “Many people choose to first pursue an ADN program so they can enter the workforce, gain real-world experience, and then have employers assist in covering the costs of a BSN or MSN program at a later time,” Jenkins says.

An ADN serves as an excellent foundation for earning a four-year degree. The most efficient approach involves enrolling in an RN-to-BSN bridge program, which allows students to build on knowledge gained in an ADN program without duplicating coursework.

A bridge program allows you to complete a BSN in about two years or less, about half the time of a traditional bachelor’s degree. You can also apply ADN college credits toward a bachelor’s degree in an area outside of nursing, such as public health, depending on specific school and program requirements.

Stay Informed with Professional Resources

Staying on top of trends in nursing can help you plan educational and professional goals. By joining student nursing organizations, general professional nursing organizations, and specialty organizations in your areas of interest, you can gain access to resources for networking, mentorship, and continuing education.

Staying on top of trends in nursing can help you plan educational and professional goals.

Membership in nursing organizations can also offer access to private job boards and professional journals with the latest nursing news.

“It’s never too soon to be affiliated with nursing professional associations. That’s a very important part of being a professional nurse, and it starts when you become a student nurse,” Cardillo says.

Name of Organization

What They Do


Mentors students preparing for initial licensure, promotes nursing standards and skills, and publishes student magazine


American Nurses Association (ANA) (Students can join with subscriber status)

Provides educational programs and continuing education modules, career center, peer-reviewed journal, and professional tools


Provides ADN-focused news and resources, peer-reviewed journal, and national nursing honor society for ADN students


Specialty nursing organizations such as the Emergency Nurses Association (ENA) or the Society of Pediatric Nurses (SPN)

Provide insight to research, specialty certifications, and career opportunities in specialty areas

Most professional organizations also have public social media accounts that can help you keep track of hot topics without formal membership. Following industry publications such as the American Journal of Nursing, a peer-reviewed journal, and reports by nursing thought leaders can make an impact on your career.

“Doing this can help you keep an eye on the direction in which the nursing profession is headed and may change your perspective on your plans for your future,” Carlson says.

Associate’s Degree in Nursing


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