Is an ADN-to-BSN Program Right for You?

If you have an Associate Degree in Nursing but want to move up in your field, earning a bachelor’s degree can set you up for success—and take less time and money than you might think.

three smiling people in scrubs standing in healthcare foyer
three smiling people in scrubs standing in healthcare foyer

With an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN), you have the skills to succeed as a registered nurse (RN) caring for patients at the bedside. If you want to build on your expertise, up your level of practice, and qualify for a broader range of nursing opportunities, completing an ADN-to-BSN bridge program can help you fulfill those goals.

Who Should Pursue an ADN-to-BSN Program?

Often targeted to meet the needs of working nurses, ADN-to-BSN bridge programs are for registered nurses who have an ADN and want to apply it toward a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN).

“The difference between an associate degree and a BSN program is the level of bigger-picture training that you get with a BSN and the level of evidence-based practice and theory,” says Sarah K. Wells, MSN, RN, CEN, CNL, an academic and professional development expert and founder of coaching company New Thing Nurse.

The BSN curriculum can not only deepen your knowledge of clinical nursing but also help you make a meaningful contribution to better patient care and outcomes.

“An important aspect of the BSN is the segment on leadership,” Wells says. “It addresses how nurses can lead, not necessarily from an administrative level as a director or manager, but the idea of leading from the bedside. How can I lead my patient’s care by giving better communication and better insight and education, with my team, and my patient, and my patient’s loved ones?”

How ADN-to-BSN Programs Work

An ADN-to-BSN bridge program allows you to apply past education and professional experience toward BSN requirements, based on program criteria. This can lower the time and cost of earning a bachelor’s degree.

A consultation with an admissions counselor can help you determine how to make the most of your prior education and experience. Credits from the following sources may fulfill prerequisites and minimize the number of credits you’ll need to earn a BSN:

  • Transfer of academic credits from an accredited ADN program
  • Credit for your RN license or for passing the NCLEX exam
  • Credit based on a prior learning assessment such as CLEP (College-Level Examination Program) and DSST (DANTES Subject Standardized Tests)
  • Nursing portfolio assessment
  • Credit for non-college-based courses from the National College Credit Recommendation Service (NCCRS) or the American Council on Education (ACE) National Guide

There are also BSN programs geared toward licensed practical nurses (LPNs) and students who have a bachelor’s degree outside of nursing and want to apply credits to a BSN.

Benefits of Earning a BSN

Today, many employers consider the BSN to be the minimum requirement for professional nursing and for progressing in nursing leadership.

The emphasis on the BSN took hold in 2010, when the Institute of Medicine (now called the Academy of Medicine) recommended that RNs have a bachelor’s degree, citing research that indicated BSN nursing correlates with better patient outcomes. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) supports this position.

“The majority of Magnet status hospitals—which is the highest designation that a hospital can get, as a reflection of their nursing and shared governance—only hire BSN-educated nurses,” says Tiffany E. Gibson, MSN, RN, NPD-BC, CPN, a nurse educator and owner of New Nurse Academy, a resource for nursing education and professional development. “That is due to the evidence that says that the BSN-prepared nurse shows better patient outcomes due to the classes that they take in evidence-based research and leadership.”

Here’s a look at some of the benefits of earning a BSN.

Responsibility/Supervision

Nurse with an ADN

  • Gives basic clinical care at the bedside
  • Charts patients’ status, administers medication, operates medical equipment, and educates patients about self-care

Nurse with a BSN

  • Uses evidence-based research to improve patient outcomes
  • Applies skills in leadership, management, communication, and problem-solving to lead change
  • Performs administrative tasks, care management, infection and quality control, nurse education, and nurse management

Professional Opportunities

Nurse with an ADN

  • May have limited employment opportunities in acute-care settings, especially in Magnet hospitals
  • Usually limited career advancement in administration, education, and specialty fields

Nurse with a BSN

  • Typically meets employer-specific criteria for moving up the clinical ladder
  • Meets requirements for a broader range of jobs outside the clinical setting that require a bachelor’s degree
  • Meets prerequisites for Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) programs

Certification/Special Opportunities

Nurse with an ADN

  • Eligible for some specialty certifications when a BSN isn’t required
  • Usually limited by employer policies that require a BSN to work in some specialty units

Nurse with a BSN

  • Eligible for many certifications
  • Meets employer policies that require a BSN to work in specialty units
  • Meets criteria to work as a military nurse

Salary

Nurse with an ADN

  • Often not eligible for employment in Magnet status hospitals, which may offer more pay
  • Higher demand for BSNs may put nurses with an ADN at a disadvantage when competing for better-paying positions

Nurse with a BSN

  • May qualify for higher salary upon earning BSN, depending on employer guidelines
  • Eligible for more higher-paying positions with more responsibility

Prerequisites

If you’re a nurse with an ADN and an active RN license, you’ll likely qualify for ADN-to-BSN programs. If you’re lacking a specific prerequisite, you may be able to take it with your ADN-to-BSN classes.

Here’s a sample of potential ADN-to-BSN prerequisites:

  • Anatomy and physiology I & II
  • Microbiology
  • Chemistry
  • Nutrition
  • Statistics
  • Developmental psychology
  • Psychology
  • Sociology
  • College writing I & II
  • General electives

If it’s been more than seven years since you completed your ADN, some programs may require you to retake specific science courses. However, many ADN-to-BSN programs accept ADN courses no matter how long ago you completed your degree, so it’s important to investigate all criteria when you choose your program.

Admission Requirements

Typically, ADN-to-BSN programs are not as competitive as traditional four-year BSN programs, so don’t count yourself out based on past academic performance.

Admissions officers recognize that your professional nursing experience has given you skills and abilities that may not be measured by traditional academic indicators, so a holistic review of your education, experience, and professionalism is often considered.

While admission requirements vary by program, they can include:

  • Minimum cumulative GPA of 2.5 on a 4.0 scale
  • Proof of an ADN
  • Evidence of a current RN license
  • An undergraduate application
  • Official transcript from all post-secondary schools previously attended
  • Personal statement
  • Two recommendations
  • Resume outlining education, work/volunteer experience, extra-curricular activities, leadership roles, honors, and awards
  • Essay typically related to your leadership qualities, professional goals, and commitment to nursing

Time to Complete an ADN-to-BSN Program

Most nursing bridge programs cater to part-time students because many nurses continue working full time while they pursue their bachelor’s. In some cases, employers will pay a portion of tuition as an incentive for nurses to earn a BSN.

For a part-time student who fulfills all prerequisites, most ADN-to-BSN programs can be completed in about 18 months. This typically requires taking one to two courses every semester. Students who take time off from work to complete an ADN-to-BSN program may be able to complete the degree in about 12 months.

Make a Commitment to Success

Understanding the time required to earn your BSN and your ability to meet that commitment can be key to your success.

“An investment in your education is always worth consideration, but the timing of those things is key,” Wells says. “If you can’t take advantage of the program, you’re not going to get a full benefit of your investment if you’re too busy, too distracted, or have other things going on.”

School Accreditation

To ensure you’re receiving a quality education, check for school and program accreditation, awarded when a school meets quality standards that define professional nursing education.

There are three important reasons to attend an accredited program:

  • A degree from an accredited program will pave the way for you to apply for state licensing and professional certifications.
  • You can transfer credits from an accredited program to other accredited programs.
  • You must attend an accredited program to qualify for federal financial aid and most scholarships.

BSN program accreditation is awarded by three organizations. Check the databases of these groups to determine BSN program accreditation:

  • Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN)
  • Commission for Nursing Education Accreditation (CNEA)

Upper-Level Nursing Classes

As an RN with an associate degree, you’ve mastered the knowledge and skills required to work in a clinical setting. A BSN curriculum goes deeper and explores the theories at the foundation of nursing.

“With the BSN, you’re getting more of the theory and didactic behind disease processes and treatment and the nurse’s response to these things,” Gibson says. “You’re getting more leadership classes, informatics classes, and evidence-based research. Recently, there’s also been a focus on community health, community collaboration, and more emphasis on primary care and prevention.” 

Some examples of upper-level nursing topics and classes include:

  • Role of the baccalaureate-prepared nurse
  • Health assessment
  • RN information systems
  • Nursing research and evidence-based practice
  • Leadership and management
  • Collaborative healthcare
  • Community health nursing
  • Health policy
  • Capstone (final project)

Graduation Requirements

Programs have different graduation requirements, and the number of credits can vary. Since you already have an RN license, you’ve already met state licensure qualifications for clinical hours, but some BSN programs may require more.

“In researching an ADN-to-BSN bridge program, you want to find out if there is a clinical or capstone requirement and when in the program this requirement falls so you can set yourself up for success and have an idea of what the workload is going to be,” Gibson says.

A capstone generally is a final project that brings together the knowledge and skills you’ve learned in your coursework. It’s designed to give students leadership experience and typically involves working one-on-one with a nurse in a healthcare or community-based care setting.

Depending on your employer’s relationship with your school, it may be possible to complete your capstone where you work, though usually you’ll have to do it after your normal work hours.

It Takes a Team

Regardless of the specific requirements, the pace of an ADN-to-BSN program can be hectic for a working nurse. Gibson suggests getting your family on board with helping you achieve your goal and sharing when your schedule will be most challenging so you can get help.

“When you begin school, it’s important to let your family, your children, and your loved ones know that for the next 12 to 18 months, your focus is passing this course successfully,” Gibson says. “When you’re a working adult and you have a lot going on, your support system is your number one.”

Online Programs

You can find a wide range of online ADN-to-BSN programs. An online bridge program can provide flexibility in learning, studying, and assignments. This can make a significant difference if you’re also juggling a job and/or family responsibilities.

While you may be able to earn the majority of your credits remotely, an online ADN-to-BSN program may require you to complete specific work in person. It’s important to clarify the amount and type of in-person hours required to ensure that you can meet those obligations.

Is Online Learning Right for You?

An accredited online education is comparable to what you’ll receive in a traditional classroom setting, but it’s important to determine whether online learning is right for you. Consider how comfortable you are learning and communicating remotely and find out whether your school provides resources to support online learning.

“Some of the online programs have amazing mentorship programs in which you’re immediately paired with a student who is ahead of you or someone who has already graduated,” Wells says. “That’s huge to have someone available to you when you can’t figure out something. However, some programs expect you to be a little more autonomous and tech-savvy, so you want to find the one that’s the best fit for you.”

Online or classroom—which student are you? Take our quiz!

Scholarships and Financial Aid

You may be able to reduce the cost of earning a BSN with employer tuition reimbursement or grants if you earn your degree while you’re employed. Your employer may also have a relationship with specific schools that allows for a student discount.

“There is a trend for a lot of hospitals to provide financial support to associate degree nurses to get their BSN,” Wells says. “An employer won’t pay for the whole thing, but often there’s a discount or scholarship that you can get. Your employer is also interested in getting you a BSN because, when they’re applying for Magnet status, that’s intrinsic to their application.”

Federal Financial Aid

Even if you qualify for employer tuition reimbursement, the cost of paying your portion of an ADN-to-BSN program may be more than you can afford. If this is the case, you may be eligible for need-based financial aid from your school or the federal government.

To find out if you’re eligible, complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), a form that schools and student loan lenders use to determine your financial status.

You may also qualify for nursing scholarships or financial awards based on academic merit or other criteria unrelated to financial need from sources such as:

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

Certification

Earning a BSN doesn’t require you to specialize but earning a specialty certification is one way to broaden your nursing opportunities.

“With certifications, you can start expanding yourself as a ‘brand.’ You, as a nurse, are a brand,” Gibson says. “The more credentials and education you have, that validates that you are an expert and makes you, as a brand, more marketable. It allows you to demand more compensation, and it opens doors.”

Each specialty organization sets its own eligibility requirements, which typically include a minimum level of education and experience in the specialty. While all specialty certifications don’t necessarily require a BSN, some employers may require RNs to have a BSN to work in certain specialty units or positions.

Here are some common certifications that require a BSN and their credentialing organizations:

Certified Nephrology Nurse (CNN)

Offered by:
Nephrology Nursing Certification Commission (NNCC)

Duties Associated with the Specialty:

  • Support, educate, and care for patients with kidney problems and diseases
  • Assess and treat kidney conditions
  • Provide support for specialized kidney treatments such as dialysis and transplantation

Certified Wound, Ostomy, and Continence Nurse (CWOCN)

Offered by:
Wound, Ostomy, and Continence Nursing Certification Board (WOCNCB)

Duties Associated with the Specialty:

  • Provide specialized care to individuals with wound, ostomy, and/or continence needs
  • Provide acute and rehabilitative support to patients with disorders of the gastrointestinal, genitourinary, and integumentary systems, and tend to wounds, pressure injuries, and continence disorders
  • Serve as educator, researcher, consultant, or administrator in these areas

Informatics Nursing Certification (RN-BC)

Offered by:
American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC)

Duties Associated with the Specialty:

  • Support the integration of clinical health care and technology
  • Use data and technology to monitor and analyze systems, programs, and patient care initiatives
  • Research, develop, and implement new technology

Nationally Certified School Nurse (NCSN)

Offered by:
National Board for Certification of School Nurses (NBCSN)

Duties Associated with the Specialty:

  • Support student success in learning by providing health care through assessment, intervention, and follow-up in the school setting
  • Collaborate with school personnel, parents, students, and health providers on health and safety issues
  • Provide screening and referral for health conditions

Nursing Professional Development Certification (NPD-BC)

Offered by:
National Board for Certification of School Nurses (NBCSN)

Duties Associated with the Specialty:

  • Support nurses in developing and maintaining competencies, advancing professional nursing practice, and facilitating practice and career goals
  • Orient, precept, mentor, and guide nurses transitioning into new roles
  • Help nurses maintain lifelong learning objectives

Salary Potential

The salary you earn with a BSN will depend on how your employer values your education. Some employers provide nurses with a pay increase upon earning a BSN, or they might hire nurses with a bachelor’s degree at a higher rate than your ADN counterparts doing the same job.

Other factors that can affect pay include:

  • Where you live
  • Your position
  • Where you work
  • Your experience
  • Demand for nurses with a BSN
  • Whether you have a certification that’s in demand

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average salary for RNs is $77,460, although this figure encompasses RNs with all levels of education—ADN, BSN, and above.

Salaries for nursing positions that typically require a BSN include:

Nursing Role

Average Annual Salary

Charge nurse

$77,460

Nurse informatics specialist

$96,160

Nurse manager

$115,160

Career Outlook

As more hospitals focus on hiring nurses with BSNs, the degree may become necessary to remain competitive and current as a professional nurse.

The BSN is considered a steppingstone to positions that involve more responsibility and decision-making in a changing healthcare environment. It is also a sound foundation for more advanced nursing degrees in advanced practice, education, and administration.

“Nursing as a profession is very traditional in that it values education and credentials a lot,” Gibson says.  “So, the more academic education you have, the more valuable you may be viewed because nursing has a traditional hierarchy and thought process.”


anna giorgi

Written and reported by:

Anna Giorgi

Contributing Writer

With professional insight from:

tiffany gibson

Tiffany E. Gibson, MSN, RN, NPD-BC, CPN

Nurse Educator, Professional Development Practitioner, Diversity & Inclusion Specialist

sarah wells

Sarah K. Wells, MSN, RN, CEN, CNL

Academic and Professional Development Expert