Choosing a two-year or four-year RN program: does it matter?

August 19, 2014

Article by Global Pre-Meds
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You have a couple of options when it comes to RN education, including a two-year or four-year degree. You may wonder what the main differences in the degree programs are and which degree would be the right fit for you. The first step in deciding what type of nursing degree to pursue is learning more about your choices.

Our hospital shadowing programs for pre-nursing students can also be a great way to help decide on the right career path for you – find out more here.

Associate degree programs (ASN)

Associate degree programs in nursing generally take between 21 and 24 months to complete. Some schools may have prerequisites that need to be completed prior to admission into their nursing programs. Requirements will vary by school, but classes such as math, anatomy, nutrition and microbiology may sometimes be required before you start.

Two-year associate degree programs are offered at private vocational schools and community colleges. In addition to nursing classes, degree requirement classes, such as humanities, communication and social science classes, may need to be taken. Nursing classes and clinical rotations are also part of an associate degree program.

Nurses who earn their ASN and pass their licensing exam often work in many of the same settings as those with a four-year degree. Nurses with an associate degree work in varied types of nursing and departments including the intensive care unit, mental health, pediatrics and the emergency department.

There are some advantages to choosing this route to become a registered nurse. The most obvious advantage in a two-year RN program is that you will complete your education quicker than if you attended a bachelor’s degree program. Earning your RN license in two years gets you into the workforce faster and allows you to start earning money. Fewer years of schooling also equate to spending less on tuition, which may also be seen as an advantage.

The downside of getting an associate degree instead of a bachelor’s in nursing is it may limit you further down the line. After you gain experience in bedside patient care, you may eventually want to move in another direction in your nursing career. Some areas of nursing require a BSN degree, which means you may have to go back to school later in life. Going back to school later in your career may be challenging if you also have other responsibilities, such as children.

Also, if you put off going for your bachelor’s degree and go the shorter route, you may never go back to school.  Life happens, and before you know it, you may be in different place in your life when juggling a job and school would not work.

Bachelor’s Degree Programs (BSN)

Most bachelor’s degree programs in nursing take four years to complete and are offered at colleges and universities. Four-year nursing programs also require clinical rotations and nursing classes, but they also incorporate a liberal arts education along with nursing education. In addition, theory-based courses in disease management, leadership, and research may be included in the curriculum.

Although it may not be for everyone, there are some advantages to earning a four-year nursing degree. In addition to getting a broader education, you may increase your earning potential. Salaries for nurses with a BSN are sometimes higher than for those with a two-year degree. You may also have more opportunities with a bachelor’s in nursing degree.

Areas of nursing including public health, nursing forensics, and case management usually require a minimum of a four-year nursing degree. In addition, if you hope to get into teaching, management or research you will need at least a bachelor’s degree. Earning your bachelor’s in nursing also means you are already prepared for advanced degree programs, such as nurse practitioner or nurse anesthesia programs.

It is also important to keep in mind that nursing and medicine are continually evolving. Requirements may change for nurses in the future, even for entry-level jobs. Even today, some large medical centers prefer to hire nurses with four-year degrees.

How do you decide?

If you are trying to figure out which degree program is best, there is not a right or wrong answer. You can have a fulfilling and successful career as a nurse with either an associate degree or a bachelor’s degree, but it may be helpful to consider a few factors when making your decision.

Consider how much money you are willing to spend on school. A bachelor’s degree usually takes two years longer than an associate degree, which means two more years of tuition. It also means you don’t start earning a salary as a nurse for two additional years. Also, associate degree programs are often offered at community colleges, which may have lower tuition costs than a university program.

The amount of time you prefer to be in school also plays a part in your decision. Some people want to get into the workforce as soon as possible while others love college life and don’t mind a few more years.

Your short and long-term career goals are also a consideration. If you want to become a nurse practitioner or get into management, you may be better off going for a four-year degree right from the start. For those who are primarily interested in doing patient care in a hospital, a two-year degree may be just fine.

It is a good idea to determine how much competition there is to get accepted to both two and four-year nursing programs. Depending on what schools you are considering, some programs may have long waiting lists while others are easier to get into.

The bottom-line is that both two and four-year programs allow you to be eligible to take the registered nursing licensing exam. In many bedside nursing jobs, there is no difference in duties between a nurse with an associate degree and a nurse with a bachelor’s degree.

Keep in mind that if you do get an associate degree in nursing, many schools offer RN to BSN nursing programs that have flexible schedules to meet the needs of working students. In addition, some hospitals and healthcare facilities may offer tuition reimbursement to nurses who go back to school to earn their bachelor’s degrees.