Registered nursing jobs are in demand, with over 2.7 million positions as of the year 2010, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Future RNs must complete a post-secondary education program, either through a hospital-based program, community or technical college associate degree or a four-year bachelor's. Understanding the differences between an associate and bachelor's degree can help you to shape your career path and better prepare for your future advancement.
Totaling Up the Time
One of the primary differences between an associate and bachelor's degree is the length of time that each program takes to complete. If you're looking for a quick way to an RN, an associate degree typically only takes two years. On the other side, a bachelor's program is a four-year undergraduate degree that takes at least double the time to finish. Although an associate degree is only a four-semester, two-year program, some schools may require prerequisites that add time to your overall time. For example, the Wallace Community College's Associate of Science in nursing program requires all students to complete or have taken the proper prerequisites to begin basic biology, introduction to English and intermediate college algebra courses before admission.
Before going into the professional medical environment, all RNs need hands-on practice. Working with different populations of patients -- such as geriatrics, healthy adults, children, mental health patients or childbearing women -- under the supervision of a mentor RN or clinical professor is a must before graduating from any nursing school. Both associate and bachelor's degree programs require clinical or practical placements. Due to the shorter nature of an associate degree program, clinical courses often begin during the first year of the curriculum. For example, the Oklahoma City Community College's associate program begins its first-level clinical nursing process course during the first semester of the first year. A four-year bachelor's program typically uses the first year to cover basics such as science and general education, waiting until the second to begin practical experiences.
General education, science and classroom-based nursing classes are all part of every RN curriculum. Although most associate-level programs do include some general education classes, a bachelor's degree requires more of these non-nursing courses. For example, Oklahoma City Community College's curriculum includes one English and one history course, while the University of Pittsburgh's four-year degree requires English, three credits of arts programming, sociology, anthropology, speech and an elective. Both degrees include science basics such as chemistry, biology, microbiology and anatomy and physiology. When it comes to nursing lectures, a bachelor's program provides the time to include additional classes that you may not see in an associate program, such as statistics for nursing practice, clinical nutrition, nursing research and nursing informatics.
Road to an RN
Whether you choose an associate degree or a bachelor's program can impact your nursing career. While both can qualify you for an RN license, only a bachelors-level program allows you to move on to graduate school and an eventual advanced practice specialty. If you're considering a specialized leadership role in nursing such as nurse educator or are looking to become an advanced-practice RN such as a nurse practitioner or a nurse midwife, you'll need a bachelor's degree for program admission. For example, the University of Texas Arlington's Master of Science in nursing specialties all require applicants to have a Bachelor of Science in nursing.
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