Differences Between LPN, ADN, and BSN Programs Explained

Explore the differences between LPNs, ADN-RNs, and BSN-RNs. Education

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Deciding to become a nurse is exciting, but it comes with many decisions about school and your overall professional goals that can be confusing. Unfortunately, general searches online about nursing careers might not give you the clarity you need because the term nurse is often used to lump several nursing professionals together, such as licensed practical nurses (LPNs), registered nurses (RNs) with Associate Degrees in Nursing (ADN), and those with a Bachelor of Sciences in Nursing (BSN).

To clarify which nursing program is best for you, you'll need to understand the differences between LPN, ADN-RNs, and BSN-RNs.

Each of these professional nursing programs teaches you how to deliver nursing care. However, the way each nursing professional approaches care, the skills they perform, and their overall career pathways can look quite different. Each nursing role has a different scope of practice, and state licensure differs for LPNs compared to RNs.

What Is an LPN?

It's essential to note that Texas and California call LPNs licensed vocational nurses (LVNs) instead, but these two types of nurses are the same. We use LPN throughout this article, but all of the information is all-encompassing for nursing professionals with practical nursing licenses.

LPNs provide primary patient care to people in both in-patient and out-patient care environments. They always work under the direction of an RN or physician and follow care plans created by these healthcare professionals.

A few common tasks performed by LPNs include:

  • Checking vital signs 
  • Performing head-to-toe assessments
  • Administering medications
  • Providing wound care
  • Assisting with patient care tasks like bathing, dressing, and feeding
  • Reporting any changes in a patient's condition to the registered nurse or physician

To become an LPN, you must attend an LPN program and take and pass the NCLEX-PN to obtain a license from your state's board of nursing. Traditional LPN programs last between one and two years and provide you with a certificate in the nursing profession.

Many nursing schools offer accelerated LPN programs that can be completed in less than one year. These programs must be done full-time, so you'll need to dedicate lots of time to studying and preparing for classes, labs, and clinical practicum rotations. Some programs offer part-time options, but they can be challenging to find.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the career outlook for LPNs is average, with a 6% growth rate expected through 2031. However, they are being used in more clinical settings today than a few years ago due to the overall shortage of nurses. LPNs make an average annual salary of $48,070 or just over $23 per hour. Salaries vary based on location, nursing specialty, and tenure.

Related: 10 Best Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) Programs in 2023

LPN Prerequisites and Requirements

Each state and nursing school will have different educational requirements you must meet before applying to become a nursing student. However, there are some standard requirements you'll likely need to meet to be eligible for nursing school and your LPN license. The most common prerequisites include the following:

  • Proof of a high school diploma or GED
  • Minimum high school or previous college GPA requirements, which can vary by school 
  • Proof of passing a CPR for the healthcare professional course
  • Proficient score on the nursing school admissions exam, such as the TEAS or HESI
  • Clear background check, including fingerprints and a drug screen
  • Completion of general education requirements, such as math, English, or reading

What Is an ADN?

ADN-prepared RNs attend nursing programs at community colleges or vocational schools lasting 18 months to two years. They earn an associate's degree in nursing after completing coursework that includes didactic, lab, and clinical experiences.

ADN programs provide the education you need to sit for the NCLEX-RN and obtain an entry-level nursing job and solid income. ADN-prepared nurses are in demand and can expect to make an average annual salary of just over $77,00, according to BLS.

While this degree program doesn't provide coursework in leadership, critical thinking, or research like BSN programs, it prepares you to be a competent hands-on practitioner in various healthcare settings.

Everyday ADN nursing practice care tasks include:

  • Performing vital signs and head-to-toe nursing assessments
  • Obtaining thorough health histories by speaking with patients and their caregivers
  • Administering medications and performing treatments and basic diagnostic testing, and analyzing results
  • Operating medical equipment
  • Educating patients on acute and chronic self-care and healthy lifestyle choices
  • Collaborating with healthcare providers and others on the multi-disciplinary team
  • Creating and implementing holistic nursing care plans
  • Leading a team of RNs, LPNs, CNAs, and other support staff

Related: 10 Best Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) Programs in 2023

ADN Prerequisites and Requirements

ADN programs can be in-person or hybrid. Programs with a hybrid format allow you to complete part of the course online and then attend lab and clinical experiences in person. In contrast, entirely in-person programs require you to attend all lectures, labs, and clinicals at the college or healthcare facility. 

Standard admission requirements for ADN programs include the following:

  • Proof of a high school diploma or GED
  • Minimum GPA requirements, which vary by school
  • Proof of passing a CPR for the healthcare professional course
  • Proficient score on the nursing school admissions exam, such as the TEAS or HESI
  • Minimum ACT score, as determined by the College of Nursing
  • Proof of completion of general education requirements, such as math, English, or reading, chemistry, humanities, world languages
  • Proof of a clear background check, including fingerprints and a drug screen
  • School application with all supplemental information that might include:
    • Resume
    • Personal essay describing why you want to obtain your ADN
    • Recommendation letters from colleagues or managers

What Is a BSN?

BSN programs usually take about four years to complete. However, some nursing schools offer accelerated programs that can be completed in less time. You might also be able to find online BSN programs that allow you to complete didactic courses online and then attend lab and clinical experiences in person.

BSN-RNs are often preferred by some healthcare facilities because the nursing courses in these programs are robust with leadership, theory, critical thinking skills, and other skills linked to better patient outcomes in studies.

BSN-RNs often make more compared to ADN-RNs. However, BLS doesn't separate the two types of nurses, so the average annual salary provided is the same.

RNs with BSNs have many professional opportunities and good career mobility. Most leadership and administrative nursing roles require a BSN. After completing a BSN program, these nurses can quickly upskill to become advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) by taking a BSN-to-MSN bridge program or other advanced nursing programs.

BSN students complete didactic coursework, on-campus lab experiences, and in-facility clinical practicum hours. 

BSN coursework includes the following:

  • Anatomy and physiology
  • Pharmacology
  • Leadership courses
  • Nursing informatics
  • Public health nursing
  • Psychology nursing
  • Research and statistics
  • Lab experiences to practice skills and build confidence in a safe environment
  • Clinical experiences shadowing working RNs and practicing classroom skills on patients

Related: 10 Best Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) Programs in 2023

BSN Prerequisites and Requirements

Eligibility requirements for BSN programs are similar to that of ADN programs. Each nursing school will have different admission criteria and requirements, especially for specific circumstances, such as transfer students. Common BSN prerequisites include:

  • Proof of a high school diploma or GED
  • Minimum ACT or SAT scores as set by the college
  • Passing score on a nursing school admission exam, such as the HESI or TEAS
  • GPA minimum requirements as set by the school
  • Application including a resume, recommendation letters, and a personal statement about why you want to become a BSN-RN
  • Prerequisite courses in chemistry, Microbiology, physiology, anatomy, or other courses

Frequently Asked Questions

How many credit hours is each type of nursing program?

Credit hours can vary from one nursing school to another. Some schools of nursing will require far more than the minimum number of credit hours. However, the below numbers are the minimum number of credit hours required for each program type that you can use as a general guideline: 

  • LPN programs - 40 credit hours
  • ADN programs - 60 credit hours
  • BSN programs - 120 credit hours

Should I look for a college of nursing that is accredited?

It's best to find an accredited college because this means the program and school meet specific standards monitored by an accrediting body. Common accrediting bodies include the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) and the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE). Accredited colleges and universities can also accept financial aid monies from the government, making it easier for you to pay for your education.

How hard is it to continue your education if you begin with an LPN program and then want to return to get your RN?

The great thing about nursing programs is that they are stackable, which makes continuing your education easy. You can look for LPN-to-RN or LPN-BSN bridge programs to seamlessly uplevel from an LPN to RN. If you start with an ADN, you can look for RN-to-BSN bridge programs to advance your education and career.

How do I know if my previous college courses will transfer to a nursing program?

It's common for colleges to offer transfer credits to students who have completed previous college-level classes. Check with the admissions office at the nursing school during the enrollment process to find out how many transfer credits they'll award for past courses.

Workforce Development Columnist

Melissa Mills has 26 years experience as a BSN and specializes in Workforce Development, Education, Advancement.

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