Registered Nurse Certificate and Diploma Programs

Discover the differences between registered nurse (RN) certificate and diploma programs. Get information on the types of courses included, common requirements for admission and ways to secure licensure.

Essential Information

There are 1-year certificate and 1- to 3-year diploma programs for students who wish to become registered nurses (RNs). These programs offer students differing avenues to achieve the same goal. Curricula typically highlight human anatomy and physiology, as well as core topics like nursing fundamentals and medical-surgical nursing. To gain practice working as an RN, students supplement their classroom training with clinical opportunities.

To be admitted to an RN certificate or diploma program, students might need to hold a license as a practical nurse. Once they've graduated, prospective RNs must earn state licensure, which requires passing the national examination for RNs.

Registered Nurse Certificate

Registered nurse certificate programs can be completed in as little as a year. These are shortened programs which provide nursing education for students who already understand core nursing competencies and have completed previous nursing education. Incoming students are already usually licensed practical nurses (LPNs). RN certificate programs are also referred to as LPN to RN programs in some instances. Courses in these programs may provide college credit but completing a certificate program will not result in an associate degree in nursing.

Educational Prerequisites

Certificate programs for registered nurses require that their applicants have completed previous practical or vocational nursing education. Students entering these programs have therefore completed the necessary requirements for working as licensed practical nurses in the field. Practical nursing training and education provides a basis for learning nursing practices in an accelerated format. Courses, such as psychology and health assessment, have already been completed by incoming students.

Course Topics

Certificate programs for registered nursing students feature classroom work mixed with clinical experiences. Common courses include:

  • Physiology
  • Anatomy
  • Microbiology
  • Medical-surgical nursing
  • Specialized needs nursing
  • Nursing practices and fundamentals
  • Nutrition

Licensing and Continuing Education Information

All students who have completed a registered nurse education program must pass the National Council Licensing Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) in order to be eligible to legally work in the field. The NCLEX-RN is offered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, a governing body that also requires RNs to complete continuing education every few years in order to maintain licensure. Additional licensing may be required within individual states.

RNs may choose to pursue further training through a number of advanced education programs in nursing, such as Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree programs or Master of Science in Nursing degree programs. Completing additional education can lead to greater income, greater specialization, more responsibilities and enhanced career opportunities.

Registered Nurse Diploma

Registered nurse diploma programs can be completed in 1-3 years. Diploma programs focus on providing students the skills to enter the nursing field as well as prepare them for successfully passing the NCLEX-RN. Diploma programs should be accredited through the National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission.

Educational Prerequisites

Accelerated diploma programs can require the completion of courses in anatomy or mathematics, or may require that applicants are licensed practical nurses. Lengthier programs may not require the completion of any prerequisite education beyond a high school diploma or the equivalent.

Course Topics

Registered nurse diploma programs combine clinical experiences with laboratory and classroom studies. Common courses include:

  • Psychology
  • Anatomy
  • Physiology
  • Nutrition
  • Medical-surgical nursing
  • Pharmacology

Career Outlook and Salary Information

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) stated that registered nurse employment was expected to grow at a rate of 22% from 2008-2018, which far outpaces the growth rate of the average career ( An increase in outpatient services and continually advancing technology will aid in the growth of RNs in the industry.

According to the BLS, RNs earned mean annual salaries of $67,220 in 2010. Registered nurses in the bottom ten percent of earnings made $44,190 or less per annum and RNs in the top ten percent made $95,130 or more annually.

Related to Registered Nurse Certification

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