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Registered Nurse (RN): Educational Requirements for Registered Nurses

Learn about the education and preparation needed to become a registered nurse. Get a quick view of the requirements as well as details about degree programs, job duties and licensure to find out if this is the career for you.

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The good news is that there's more than one path you can take to become a licensed, registered nurse. The undergraduate options range from 2-4 years, but it can be worthwhile since the RN field is estimated to grow much faster than the national average for the foreseeable future.

Essential Information

Registered nurses (RNs) are healthcare professionals who care for patients and educate them about their health conditions. Becoming an RN requires the completion of a postsecondary program, usually an associate or bachelor's degree, although a few hospitals have teaching programs that offer diplomas. Aspiring nurses learn about topics such as anatomy and human development and gain extensive supervised clinical experience. Nurses also must be licensed in their states, which requires passing an exam.

Required Education Diploma, associate or bachelor's degree in nursing
Licensing Must hold a state nursing license
Projected Job Growth (2014-2024)* 16%
Median Salary (2015)* $67,490

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

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Educational Requirements for Registered Nurses

Nursing students may choose from a variety of education options to become a registered nurse. Some teaching hospitals offer 3-year diploma programs in nursing; however, these programs are rare. Most RNs earn associate degrees or bachelor's degrees in nursing.

Associate Degree in Nursing

Many registered nurses enter the profession by earning an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN). ADN programs are available at community and vocational colleges and typically last 2-3 years. They combine classroom instruction with hands-on training in hospitals, clinics or other healthcare settings. Common courses include:

  • Adult and family health
  • Psychiatric nursing
  • Pharmacology
  • Human development
  • Anatomy and physiology

Bachelor of Science in Nursing

Aspiring registered nurses may choose to gain more comprehensive training by earning a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), RNs who hold diplomas or associate degrees tend to pursue bachelor's degrees later in their careers. These degree programs are particularly beneficial to students who wish to pursue clinical or administrative positions.

Offered at colleges and universities, BSN programs typically take four years to complete; however, students who are already licensed as RNs may be able to complete accelerated programs. BSN programs focus on more advanced nursing methodology and clinical training, compared to lower-level degree programs. They also equip students with the administrative and critical thinking skills necessary for advanced positions in the field. Courses may include:

  • Community health
  • Leadership in nursing
  • Healthcare management
  • Nursing research
  • Health assessment
  • Professional issues in nursing

Licensure Requirements for Registered Nurses

To practice in the profession, registered nurses must become licensed. While licensure requirements vary according to state, they typically include passage of a state-approved training program and the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN). Administered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, the NCLEX-RN covers topics like psychosocial and physiological integrity, health promotion and infection control. Depending on the state, RNs may be required to meet additional licensure requirements.

Salary and Career Information

The BLS estimated a 16% job growth for RNs in the years 2014-2024. Registered nurses earned $67,490 as a median annual wage in May 2015, according to the BLS.

With an associate's degree, bachelor's degree or diploma from an accredited school, you can sit for the NCLEX-RN. Passing a licensing exam is a requirement to practice nursing in all U.S. states, territories and the District of Columbia. Local jurisdictions may also have their own individual requirements.

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