Through creating care plans and providing patient treatment and education, registered nurses are an essential part of the health care system. Students who wish to become RNs can pursue one of three educational paths to land an entry-level position, as each option covers at least the basic necessary training for nurses. Graduates earn the professional title of RN after completing an accredited program and fulfilling licensure requirements. Further degrees and experience can qualify RNs for advanced practice positions and jobs within management, education and consulting. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment growth of registered nurses is predicted to be faster than average from 2010 to 2020, at 26 percent.

Nursing Diploma Programs

Some nursing students can earn a diploma through a direct hospital training program. A diploma is not technically a degree, though it does qualify students to sit for the RN licensure exam. Diploma programs are typically three years in length; however, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing notes that there are increasingly fewer diploma programs available in the U.S. As of 2011, they comprised less than 10 percent of all available nursing education programs.

ADN Programs

Associate Degree in Nursing programs award an Associate of Science in Nursing, which is offered through community colleges and some four-year institutions. Though the degree can be shortened as ASN, the nursing profession refers to this level of education as ADN. ADN-educated nurses focus on nursing-specific science classes and complete clinical rounds in certain hospital departments, such as the maternity ward and pediatrics. The ADN takes between two and three years to complete.

BSN Programs

The AACN considers the four-year Bachelor's of Science in Nursing degree to be the minimum educational requirement for nurses to meet the standards of effective and professional practice. BSN programs provide training in necessary science classes in addition to a liberal arts curriculum and a focus on leadership, critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Most BSN programs provide a range of locations where students can complete their clinical rounds. A BSN is often required for management positions and further advancement in the field, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that RNs who hold at least a BSN may have stronger job opportunities than those without.

Comparison of Programs

Students who can make the financial and time commitment to a BSN program may find themselves best prepared for entry-level work and able to more easily advance within the nursing field. However, ADN and diploma programs provide students with a shorter and possibly less costly path to work experience. Many students earn an ADN or a diploma to begin working more quickly and then pursue a higher degree, sometimes taking advantage of tuition reimbursement benefits through an employer. RNs can enroll in RN-to-BSN programs, which consider previous education and experience and shorten the time required to earn a bachelor's degree.

RN Licensure Process

After completing an approved nursing education program, students in every state must become licensed to ensure they meet the standards for safe and professional practice. Nurses in all states must pass the National Council Licensure Examination. Certain states may have other requirements to both meet initial licensure and renew licensure after a certain number of years. As of June 2013, 24 states participate in the Nurse Licensure Compact, allowing nurses to practice across multiple member states.