Earning a Bachelor of Science in Nursing

Learn what you
can do with this
in-demand degree.

smiling female student with classmates

Learn what you can do with this in-demand degree.

If you’re thinking about becoming a nurse, a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) will provide you with the level of education many employers expect their registered nurses (RNs) to have. While you can work as an RN with an associate degree, nurses with a BSN are typically given more responsibility, supervisory roles, and higher salaries. And they’re in demand.

A BSN program typically takes four years and includes liberal arts courses to fulfill general education requirements and classes specific to your major in nursing. It’s an excellent education for entry-level nurses who want to make a meaningful contribution toward better patient care in the ever-evolving field of nursing.

As of 2019, only 56% of U.S. nurses had a BSN or higher degree, according to the Campaign for Nursing’s Future, an initiative of the Center to Champion Nursing in America. But demand for these highly educated RNs is much higher: According to a 2019 survey by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, 82.1% of employers “expressed a strong preference for a bachelor’s degree.” Whether you’re an experienced nurse considering a return to school or a first-time nursing student, we can help you determine whether a BSN is the right educational option for you. We’re here to help you learn more about this degree, the educational formats available, and the professional opportunities it can help you achieve.


BSN Overview

A bachelor’s in nursing provides knowledge and experience that contribute to a rich foundation in patient-centered care, physical assessments, clinical judgment, leadership, and community, says Kathleen Poindexter, PhD, RN, CNE, ANEF, who is president-elect of the National League for Nursing (NLN), assistant dean of undergraduate programs and faculty development at Michigan State University, and associate professor in the school’s College of Nursing.

With a BSN, you can qualify for entry-level positions in patient care that can lead to roles as a nurse manager, charge nurse, or nurse leader as you gain experience. The degree also gives you the foundation to pursue specialty certification or graduate-level nursing degrees.

Nurses work in an ever-changing, complex healthcare environment, so it makes sense that there’s growing demand for RNs with bachelor’s degrees.

The gap between supply and demand for nurses with BSNs is expected to increase even more as the large baby boomer population ages and the need for more advanced healthcare services expands. According to AACN, many employers, including the military, the federal government, and Magnet-status hospitals (which are recognized for excellence in nursing and patient outcomes) now require a BSN for nurse managers and nurse leaders.

Nurses work in an increasingly complex healthcare environment, so it makes sense that there’s growing demand for RNs with bachelor’s degrees. Another reason for the demand is that research indicates that a college degree leads to better patient care.

“Today, nurses have much more responsibility for the patients,” Poindexter says. “They’re pressured to deliver higher quality care, more patient-focused, based on best evidence.”


Who Is this Degree Best For?

A BSN is intended as an entry-level degree for first-time college students. It’s also for people who have a degree in another field but want to switch to a career in nursing. And it’s a good choice for licensed RNs who completed a nursing diploma or associate degree to qualify for their initial license but now want to pursue a BSN to expand their career opportunities.

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Degree Pathways

There are several paths to a BSN, depending on a student’s previous education and experience:

  • Traditional four-year college degree
  • LPN-to-BSN
  • RN-to-BSN
  • Accelerated or direct entry

Students who are high school graduates with no previous college education or healthcare experience have to go the traditional four-year college route to earn a BSN.

Accelerated/Alternative Paths

However, students with previous nursing education and experience can take a faster route with a “bridge” program. These programs allow you to avoid repeating coursework you’ve already taken and may not require as many hours of clinical training, saving you time and money.

Students with previous nursing education and experience can take a faster route with a BSN “bridge” program.

Types of Bridge Programs


An RN-to-BSN bridge program is intended for an RN with an active license.

An LPN-to-BSN program allows students to simultaneously earn the credentials they need to qualify for an RN license and meet the criteria for a BSN.

Many bridge programs offer “credit by exam” to determine your knowledge in specific areas. Students typically receive a specific number of credits for each exam, reducing the number of overall credits to earn a BSN.

Second-degree or direct-entry nursing programs, often called accelerated programs, are for students who have a bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing field. These programs allow you to use the liberal arts and background courses from your degree to meet non-nursing course requirements and begin BSN coursework faster.


Curriculum and Clinical Requirements

three students study in college library


The curriculum for a traditional BSN program combines general education courses and nursing courses with clinical training. The degree requires about 120 credits, with slight variations by program.

The curriculum for a traditional BSN program combines general education courses and nursing courses with clinical training. The degree requires about 120 credits, with slight variations by program.

While an ADN or diploma program emphasizes entry-level nursing skills, the BSN curriculum goes beyond basic competencies and offers a more comprehensive educational experience. Anchored by a liberal arts core, the BSN covers topics such as ethical and legal issues to prepare nurses to take an active role in decision-making, patient care, and management.

 “The physical assessment, statistics, nursing theory, research, and leadership–those will all be components of a bachelor’s degree that you don’t necessarily see in an associate degree program,” Poindexter says. 

Specific general educational courses vary by program but typically include a range of liberal arts courses in the humanities, social sciences, and basic sciences that serve as prerequisites for nursing studies. Core curriculum can include:

  • Biology
  • Psychology
  • Chemistry
  • Sociology
  • English composition
  • Statistics
  • Ethics
  • Technology
  • Nutrition

Core nursing classes include coursework that prepares you to work as a professional nurse generalist, capable of providing care in a wide range of healthcare settings. In many programs, students begin nursing courses after they complete general education requirements. These studies include: 

  • Professional nursing
  • Health assessment
  • Family nursing
  • Leadership
  • Medical and surgical care
  • Nursing management
  • Public health
  • Psychosocial nursing

Students will get clinical experience in a variety of healthcare settings and with different patient groups, such as children, women, and older adults. Clinical requirements can total 700 to 800 hours, though they vary by program. Some BSN programs offer the minimum number of clinical hours to meet board of nursing licensing requirements in your state. Some require much more than that.

Students in bridge and accelerated/direct-entry programs can apply past education and experience toward these curriculum requirements, based on program criteria and individual experience.


Online Options

You may prefer a BSN online program if you work full time, have family responsibilities, or live in an area where classroom programs aren’t convenient. With an online program, you typically complete most of your theory-based education in a virtual environment while you fulfill clinical requirements in person at a local clinical site. 

Students who thrive online are organized and manage their time well.

Online students have the flexibility to learn at their convenience, but they still must meet milestones and assignment due dates. Students who thrive online are organized and manage their time well. If you have these skills and can prioritize the demands of baccalaureate-level coursework without the structure of a campus-based classroom, an online program might be right for you.

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How Long Does It Take to Complete a BSN Program?

A traditional program usually requires four years of full-time study. Part-time options are also available online and on campus, though they will extend your time in school. Some programs have limits on the time you’re allowed to complete your coursework and clinical training.

The time it takes to complete a bridge program will vary depending on your experience and previous education. A typical LPN-to-BSN program takes two to three years of full-time study. An RN-to-BSN or ADN-to-BSN program can take about 18 to 24 months.

Accelerated/direct-entry programs typically last between 11 and 18 months. Part-time accelerated/direct-entry programs that offer evening and weekend classes can take about 22 months.

Some online programs offer the option of year-round education and allow you to progress through classes at your own pace to reduce the time it takes to earn your degree.


What to Look for in a School

When comparing BSN programs, look for signs that tell you whether you’re likely to get your money’s worth from your education. Most schools publicize key student statistics on their websites.

These numbers typically include:

Don’t be casual about choosing a school. Take time to find out if a school is a good fit.

“Make sure that you talk to the schools,” Poindexter says. “Does the program fit your lifestyle? How is it delivered? If it’s online and you don’t like to work online and that’s not the way that you prefer to study, then you need to look at a different program that offers more face-to-face time in a traditional classroom.”


Accreditation

Accreditation involves a review to show that your BSN education meets quality standards for a professional nursing education. Accreditation is awarded at both the institution and program levels.

The U.S. Department of Education recognizes six accrediting agencies for postsecondary institutions. You can verify an institution’s accreditation on a database maintained by the agency. Attending an accredited school is necessary to qualify for federal financial aid and to ensure that your credits are accepted by other accredited institutions to meet prerequisites for advanced degrees.

A degree from an accredited program meets requirements for state licensing applications and professional certifications. Two key professional nursing organizations award accreditation for BSN programs. You can check for your school’s program accreditation in databases maintained by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) and the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN).


Admission Requirements

Admission requirements vary by school and degree format. A traditional BSN doesn’t require prior nursing education or experience. Bridge programs typically require applicants to have the appropriate active nursing license. Some also have experience and prerequisite requirements.

It’s wise to consider applying to more than one BSN program. A shortage of trained nurse educators has made admissions very competitive at many nursing schools.

Typical admission requirements include:

  • Proof of an active RN license for bridge programs
  • High school transcripts demonstrating a cumulative 3.0 GPA on a 4.0 scale
  • Postsecondary school transcripts demonstrating a 3.0 GPA for bridge programs
  • Math and science prerequisites
  • Professional and/or academic recommendations
  • Personal statement of purpose
  • In-person interview
  • Standardized scores for tests such as SAT or ACT for first-time college students
  • Passing score on HESI Admission Assessment (A2) Exam
  • Evidence of legal authorization to work for any employer in the United States

Job Placement and Career Counseling

female administrator giving presentation to team of nurses

BSN programs vary in the type of job placement and career counseling resources they provide. Find out what’s available when you’re comparing schools. Career counseling can help you create an educational plan to achieve your professional goals.

Career counseling services also can help you prepare for the positions you want and provide networking opportunities. Ask about the percentage of program graduates who have jobs within six months of graduation to find out what you can expect after you complete your degree.

Career counseling services can help you prepare for the positions you want and provide networking opportunities.


Tuition and Other Costs

The cost of a BSN degree varies based on considerations such as the type of school and length of program. Since they take less time to complete, bridge programs typically cost less than a traditional four-year degree at the same school.

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 for a bachelor’s degree at a public institution is about $20,000, while earning a bachelor’s degree at a non-profit private school costs about $41,000. Most schools publish tuition fees on their websites for comparison.

When comparing costs, it’s important to understand that programs can price tuition differently. You can typically find the most affordable tuition at public state-affiliated institutions, though you’ll usually pay more if you’re an out-of-state student.

Don’t forget to consider fees for background checks, fingerprinting, equipment, supplies, and more to fulfill clinical requirements.

Many BSN bridge programs are designed to accommodate the schedules of working nurses so you can continue earning money while you earn your degree.

You may also find pricing variations between campus and online BSN programs. Some programs charge differently for on-campus and online coursework, and many online programs charge by credit hour rather than by semester. In addition, many state schools charge in-state residents a lower tuition than students with non-resident status, while others use the same tuition for all online students.

Many BSN bridge programs are designed to accommodate the schedules of working nurses so you can continue earning money while you earn your degree. And if you do continue to work, you may be eligible for employer tuition reimbursement if your employer offers this benefit.


Financial Aid and Scholarships

If you need help financing your degree, you can apply for financial aid. The first step is to determine your eligibility for need-based assistance by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Schools and financial institutions use this information for awarding financial aid and student loans.

You may qualify for nursing scholarships or financial awards based on academic merit. Some potential sources include:

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

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Required Licenses and Available Certifications

If you don’t already have an RN license from a nursing diploma or associate degree, you can use a BSN to qualify to take the NCLEX-RN. Check your state’s board of nursing website to make sure your school is approved and meets all licensing requirements.

Once you earn your license, you can work toward getting the experience and education necessary for a specialty certification. Having this type of credential demonstrates that you have advanced knowledge and skills in a specific area of nursing.

There are about 40 professional nursing boards or centers that offer specialty certification exams. Here are some for students with BSNs:

Organization

Certification

American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC)–Registered Nurse Certifications

  • Nursing Case Management
  • Ambulatory Care
  • Pain Management
  • Medical-Surgical
  • Pediatric
  • Gerontological
  • Psychiatric Mental Health
  • Cardiac/Vascular
  • Informatics
  • Nursing Professional Development
  • Nurse Executive (NE-BC)
  • Nurse Executive Advanced (NEA-BC)

Medical Surgical Nursing Certification Board (MSNCB)

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

Orthopaedic Nurses Certification Board

  • Orthopaedic Nurse Certification (ONC®)

Radiologic Nursing Certification Board (RNCB)

  • Certified Radiology Nurse (CRN®)

Rehabilitation Nursing Certification Board (RNCB)

  • Certified Rehabilitation Registered Nurse (CRRN®)

Career Outlook and Options

A BSN can prepare you for a wide range of new and evolving nursing positions, while giving you the level of education that many employers expect their nurses to have.

With a bachelor’s degree, you’ll be positioned to step up and assume more decision-making roles amid the nation’s nursing shortage. The American Nurses Association (ANA) predicts that there will be more than 100,000 nursing jobs available per year by 2022. The increased demand will be compounded by the loss of more than 500,000 career RNs who are likely to retire by that year.

A BSN can prepare you for a wide range of new and evolving nursing positions, while giving you the level of education that many employers expect of their nurses.

With some experience, you can pursue roles in which you supervise other nurses as a charge nurse, manage budgets and staffing as a nurse manager, or coordinate patient care as a nurse case manager.

You may also qualify for nursing positions in non-clinical roles in physician offices, research laboratories, pharmaceutical companies, and government institutions. In many specialized nursing positions, such as legal nurse consultant or occupational health nurse, having a BSN is the norm. You’ll have plenty of options in a job market for RNs that will grow by 16% through 2028, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).


Salary Potential

Salaries for positions that require a BSN vary significantly based on geographic location, position, employer, your level of experience, and demand for qualified nurses.

While it may feel daunting to head back to school or choose the four-year BSN over an entry-level ADN or nursing diploma, earning a BSN can have enormous payoffs. According to the BLS, the average salary for RNs in general is $77,460.

Payscale breaks it down by education and says nurses with a BSN degree can earn salaries that average about 27% more than with an education that qualifies you to be an RN. Here are salaries from Payscale:

Occupation
Average Salary

Registered Nurse (RN)

$66,000


Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) Nurse (General)

$84,000


Nursing Manager

$89,990

With a BSN as a foundation, you can begin working toward a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), which will allow you to pursue roles in leadership and advanced clinical care that offer higher financial rewards. According to Payscale, MSN-educated nurses earn an average salary of $94,000.

Stay Informed

Whether you’re a first-time college student investigating a nursing career or an experienced nurse planning to return to school, staying informed about current trends in nursing can help you plan realistic educational and professional goals. Student nursing organizations, general professional nursing organizations, and specialty organizations in your areas of interest can provide tremendous resources for prospective BSN students.

While membership in any professional organization provides benefits for networking, mentorship, and continuing education, you don’t have to join each group to access their knowledge and professional insight. Many organizations have active social media accounts that allow you to keep track of the hottest topics with little effort.

Staying in touch with nursing organizations can deliver valuable benefits and help you keep up with the trends that are changing the profession, Poindexter says: “Stay in tune to what you have available to you locally or regionally or within your state, in addition to monitoring what’s going on at a national level.”

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