BSN DegreeA prolonged and unresolved issue in nursing has been the debate over the level of nursing education that should be attained to enter the profession.

Prior to World War II, the bulk of nurses were educated in hospital-based diploma programs. Since that time, both associate degree and bachelor's degree programs have grown and dominated the educational scene.

The reality is, however, that almost half of the employed nurses are educated at the associate degree level. Less than 20% of nursing student enrollment remains in diploma programs.

Over the last several decades, several nursing organizations have lead the push for the Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree as the minimum required entry level in a nursing career, resulting in the proliferation of BSN degree completion programs, both in ground-based and online formats. There are currently over 600 BSN completion programs available in the US, and 360 offer at least some of the coursework through online courses.

Let's explore the reasons that you may want to consider before enrolling in a BSN degree completion program. You may want to consider what the program is likely to entail and look at what you can expect to pay for your education. Going back to school while you are working, perhaps raising a family, and likely juggling a busy life, is a tall order. So some good questions to ask yourself are, "What is in it for me?" and "Why should I make this commitment?" I will review some information that may be useful in your decision making.

Broader Range of Career Options in Nursing

At the present time, most ADN and diploma graduates provide direct patient care. The opportunity to work in nursing leadership roles, to attain specialty practice credentials, and to have broader clinical and management jobs with more responsibility, generally rest with BSN degree nurses.

It is also true that more employers are moving to hire BSN graduates. For example, the Veteran's Administration, many community and public health agencies, and some state governments are moving to BSN practice requirements. Numerous professional nursing organizations are also promoting BSN entry to practice for nurses. While it is doubtful that associate degree and diploma nurses will be unable to practice anytime soon, the preference for BSN degrees is apparent in the workplace.

Overall Career Earning Potential Will Be Higher

Do BSN nurses make more money? That question is subject to salaries and nurse availability in local markets. In larger urban areas, it is likely that BSN graduates will start a bit higher on the salary scale. While the initial salary difference may be minor, the overall career earning potential for BSN nurses will be higher, as they can move more readily into clinical leadership and nursing management positions.

Gain More Knowledge, Higher Level of Professional Recognition, and Broader Career Options

For many nurses, attaining a BSN is an ultimate nursing career goal that is intrinsically meaningful, and it represents a lifetime goal. BSN completion students frequently report that they have long sought the degree, however, they were limited due to time, money and conflicting life priorities. Once they reach career maturity, they seek to gain more knowledge, a higher level of professional recognition, and broader career options.        

What should you expect as part of your curriculum in a BSN completion program? While each program is unique, there are some common elements that you should consider when planning.

Expect courses in nursing leadership and management, community health or population focused nursing, and nursing research/evidence based practice. These are the courses that are generally absent or limited in associate and diploma programs.

In addition, you will be expected to complete general education courses in humanities, social science, English composition, math or statistics and sociology and/or psychology and perhaps a course in ethics or health law. The purpose of a Bachelor's degree is to provide students with a well-rounded liberal arts and science education coupled with upper division nursing courses. Many programs will allow you to transfer using college level transfer credits that you may have taken in your diploma or associate degree or beyond.

What can you expect to pay to earn a BSN degree? The range tuition cost varies across the country; however, you should expect to pay between $12,000 and $26,000 to complete the degree. Books and fees are likely to be additional costs of up to $300 per term.

As you explore the programs in your area, here are a few items to ask about.

  • Is the program accredited by a nursing organization?
  • What is the amount of transfer credit that I will be awarded for my prior program?
  • What courses are required? What are my choices for elective courses?
  • How long will it take me to complete the program as a full time and/or part time student? What are the tuition costs per credit hour?
  • Are there additional fees or costs?
  • What type of financial assistance is available to help me pay for my program? Remember to check with your current employer to see if any tuition assistance is available.

When you consider your options, look for baccalaureate completion programs that provide learning through activities that can be applied to current employment or future career planning. Courses should encourage assignments that can be tailored to the student's career goals, assist the student in self-development, and provide opportunities to learn new concepts. Program curriculum should build on prior learning and not be repetitive to the pre-licensure associate degree or diploma curriculum."

Patricia Harris, MS, RN

Associate Director, RN-BSN Program

Clinical Associate Professor