Nursing School Requirements by Degree Level

Aug 25, 2019

What are the levels of nursing education? To become a nurse, you can obtain a degree at the associate, bachelor's, or master's level. Find out more about nursing degree requirements, courses, and program lengths, along with information on career options.

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  • 0:37 Associate Degree
  • 1:26 Bachelor's Degree
  • 2:14 Master's Degree
  • 3:03 Licensing & Further Education
  • 3:57 Career Options
  • 4:42 Job Outlook & Salary

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Essential Information

Program Level(s) Associate degree, bachelor's degree, master's degree
Field of Study Nursing
Prerequisites Associate and bachelor's degree programs require a high school diploma, a good GPA and proof of a Hepatitis B vaccination; master's degree programs require a bachelor's degree, an active nursing license and letters of reference
Program Specializations Master's degree programs offer neonatal nursing, adult nursing, health education
Program Length 2 years for associate degree; 4 years for bachelor's degree; 2 years for master's degree
Licensure/Certification State licensure required
Job Outlook (2016-2026)* 15% growth (for RNs)
Median Annual Salary (2018)* $71,730 (for RNs)

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Are the Levels of Nursing?

Students may begin a registered nursing career by earning an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). Depending on previous education and nursing interests, nurses who wish to continue their education and become nurse practitioners or specialists may consider a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN). Master's programs offer a variety of concentrations, including gerontology, emergency care, and obstetrics. All levels include clinical practicums and labs in addition to lecture-based courses.

Nursing School Requirements

Associate Degree in Nursing Requirements

An ADN program typically takes two years to complete and is designed to prepare students for the demands of a career as a registered nurse (RN). Program requirements include completing approximately 60 credits, often including a capstone course. Prerequisites for nursing programs may vary, but for any ADN program, students must have a high school diploma or equivalent and proof of a Hepatitis B vaccination. Some schools may also consider high school grade point averages or prefer that students complete general education courses before being admitted into the nursing program. Once admitted, students are required to complete both classroom study and clinical work. In the classroom, students get a foundation in nursing skills and science courses. Clinical courses allow students to work in the field, learning practical skills in nursing. Topics covered include:

  • Pharmacology
  • Mental health nursing
  • Anatomy and Physiology
  • Adult health concepts
  • Microbiology
  • Patient assessment and management

Bachelor of Science in Nursing Degree Requirements

BSN programs prepare students for careers as registered nurses, and generally require four years of study, including lower division courses and upper division courses with practical, hands-on experience. Depending on the program, students must complete around 126 total credit hours, including general education classes and electives as well as nursing courses. Some schools may offer different options for completing a BSN program, including a traditional four-year program, an accelerated program, and an RN-to-BSN program for students who are already registered nurses. To enter a BSN program, students will probably need to meet minimum grade point average requirements. Some schools may also require students to complete lower-level or foundational coursework before being allowed to enroll in a BSN program, which includes clinical work in addition to the following classes:

  • Pathophysiology
  • Nursing care basics
  • Pharmacology
  • Illness management
  • Family and community nursing care
  • Medical ethics

Master of Science in Nursing Degree Requirements

MSN programs prepare experienced RNs to enter advanced practice nursing roles. Programs generally require a minimum of two years of study, and students focus on the area of advanced practice they wish to enter, such as adult nurse practitioner, neonatal nurse practitioner, or health educator. Students are required to complete classroom learning, hands-on clinical experience, as well as laboratory experience. Entry into a master's degree program usually requires an active nursing license, a bachelor's degree in nursing, and letters of reference. Some schools may require students to pass a drug screening and criminal background check. Curriculum can vary greatly depending on students' area of focus, though general topics covered in a program may include:

  • Pharmacology
  • Nursing informatics
  • Nursing research
  • Complex healthcare concepts
  • Patient care management

Licensing and Continuing Education

All states require nurses to be licensed, which involves meeting state-specific requirements and passing the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN). Advanced practice nurses must meet additional licensing or certification requirements set by each state.

RNs may also wish to seek voluntary certification through a professional organization, such as the American Nurses Association. Professional certification can help an RN prove his or her competency in a specialty area.

Nurses who've completed ADN programs and wish to pursue advanced nursing positions may continue their education through a bachelor's degree. Nurses may also wish to complete master's or doctoral degrees in nursing in order to qualify for advanced practice nursing positions, work in research, or to start a career in nursing education.

Popular Career Options

After completing a BSN program and obtaining a nursing license, nurses may work in a variety of settings and specialty areas. Nursing care is needed in hospitals, healthcare centers, clinics, nursing homes, and hospice organizations. In addition, nurses may work in several specialty fields, including these:

  • Home health
  • Obstetrics and gynecology
  • Public health
  • Mental health
  • Emergency care

Graduates of a master's degree program in nursing are prepared to enter advanced practice nursing specialty areas. Graduates may qualify for positions such as these:

Employment Outlook and Salary Info

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), registered nurses represented one of the largest occupations in healthcare in 2018, with around 2.9 million jobs. About 30% of those jobs were found in hospitals. The BLS projected a job growth of 15% from 2016-2026.

The mean annual wage as of May 2018 for registered nurses was $75,510. The 10th-90th percentile range wages were $50,800-$106,530. The median annual wage was $71,730, reported the BLS.

To become a nurse you can complete an associate, bachelor's, or master's degree program. The level of education depends on your desired position.

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