RN to BSN vs. RN to MSN - Which Degree is Better?
Written By: Julie Monroe BSN, RN
So, you’re a registered nurse with an ADN degree and have decided to move forward with further education. But with the many options that are present these days for nursing programs, it can be really confusing to figure out which specific path you should take to reach your goals. In the past, most nursing programs were only offered on-campus with fewer flexible options for students who were trying to enter the profession later in life or were hindered by full-time jobs and life responsibilities. Fortunately, for today’s nursing students, the emergence of online and hybrid programs, as well as bridge programs, have made taking the next step in pursuing further higher education easier than ever. As you move on past an associate degree in nursing and look forward to your next degree, you now have the choice to obtain a BSN or move straight into an MSN program. You might be wondering about the similarities and differences in RN to BSN vs RN to MSN programs? In this article, we will discuss all the differences between these two options, including the advantages and disadvantages of each, and why you should consider choosing one type of program over the other.
What is an RN to BSN Degree Program?
RN to BSN degree programs bridge the gap between an associate degree in nursing and a bachelor’s degree in nursing. The resulting BSN degree will be the equivalent of about 120 credits, the same that would be required to receive a baccalaureate degree in any other undergraduate major. This program focuses on broadening the foundation and educational base for registered nurses, preparing them to utilize more fully the scope of their practice.
What is an RN to MSN Degree Program?
RN to MSN degree programs are part of a nursing pathway that allows nurses who are currently licensed registered nurses skip a bachelor’s degree and enter straight into an MSN track. This type of program will culminate in the nurse receiving a graduate degree. RN to MSN programs typically have focused MSN specialization tracks that provide a more specific career focus than just generalized nursing.
What are the key Similarities between RN to BSN and RN to MSN degree programs?
Both programs are alike in that candidates must hold an associate degree in nursing from an accredited school and have an unencumbered registered nursing license. Coursework required to receive a BSN is included in both programs, so those who are in an RN to MSN program will still receive the same basic educational training as a nursing student who is in an RN to BSN program. However, the undergraduate coursework in the MSN program may be more condensed and rigorous since students are earning master’s degree in an accelerated format.
What are the key differences between RN to BSN and RN to MSN degree programs?
The primary difference in an RN to MSN versus RN to BSN is that it goes a step further than the RN to BSN and focuses on nursing ideals that go above and beyond just hand’s on patient care and generalized nursing. RN to MSN degrees target specialization in higher level, bigger picture areas of nursing, such as leadership, management, research, advanced clinical practice, and informatics. The program also gives the equivalent of two nursing degrees in slightly more time than it takes to achieve a BSN. This increased pace adds to the rigor and amount of focus needed to complete the program.
The Following is an In-Depth Comparison of RN to BSN vs. RN to MSN Degree Program.
1. RN to BSN vs. RN to MSN: Degree Objective
In an RN to BSN program, the degree obtained is a Bachelor of Science in nursing. While an RN degree alone is the equivalent of approximately two years of undergraduate education, the BSN degree totals the equivalent of about four years, or 120 credits, of undergraduate education. The same RN license received after completing an associate degree in nursing applies here, so no post-graduate examinations like the NCLEX-RN are required.
In an RN to MSN program, the final degree obtained will be a Master of Science in nursing. Occasionally a BSN will be awarded midway through the program, but not always. Since the RN to MSN pathway incorporates much of the same coursework as an RN to BSN in addition to master’s level coursework, it will take slightly longer to obtain this degree. The master’s degree will also have specialization associated with it.
The primary difference in these two degrees is that the RN to BSN program is a bachelor’s level program only; the RN to MSN program combines baccalaureate education with graduate training and results in a master’s degree and a specific concentration of nursing. Depending on the type of MSN acquired, licensure examinations may be required.
2. Degree Specialization Options
The RN to BSN program is focused on providing additional training in hands on patient-centered care. Education in an associate’s RN program is often technical; BSN training takes this further and incorporates leadership, ethics, and education in evidence-based practice to grow more well-rounded nurses who are adept at critical thinking and can function more broadly within their scope of practice.
RN to MSN programs are similar to other master’s programs in that they result in specialization within a specific field, in this case, nursing. Nursing has gathered momentum over the last several decades as a profession, and with nurses being valued even more, additional specializations are being offered. Here are some of the most common specialties offered in RN to MSN programs:
• Family Nurse Practitioner
• Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner
• Pediatric Nurse Practitioner
• Nursing Education
• Acute or Primary Care Gerontology Nurse Practitioner
• Health Systems Management
• Quality and Risk Management
• Health Administration
• Clinical Nurse Leadership
• Nurse Midwifery
When evaluating the RN to MSN vs RN to BSN pathway, the main focus should be on the degree of specialization you are looking for right now. RN to BSN programs basically provide additional training to supplement nurses who hold registered nurse licenses. These programs are focused on direct and generalized patient care. RN to MSN programs are targeted at nursing students who want to specialize at the graduate level and take on roles that are rooted in leadership. Many of these programs allow graduates to sit for advanced practice licenses as well.
3. Program Accreditation
Accreditation is important no matter what nursing program you choose. Graduates are more likely to be hired and be able to advance in their careers if they graduate from a school that is accredited by a reputable organization. There are two primary organizations that accredit RN to BSN programs. These are The Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) and The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE).
RN to MSN programs are accredited by The Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) as well as The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE). Master’s programs resulting in nurse midwifery graduate degrees can also be accredited by The Accreditation Commission for Midwifery Education (ACME). Finally, The Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Management Education (CAHME) offers accreditation for master’s level nursing programs in healthcare management, healthcare policy, health services management, or health administration.
The Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) offers accreditation for programs at all levels of nursing, ranging from practical nursing to master’s programs. The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) offers accreditation for bachelor’s and master’s level nursing programs only. Two additional accreditation agencies, mentioned above, are included for master’s level programs because of the specialization that comes with certain graduate level tracks.
4. Faculty Credentials
According to the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN)
, faculty teaching in RN to BSN nursing programs must have be master’s or doctorate level prepared. They must also have specific training in education and curriculum development, as well as understanding theories about teaching and learning. Other staff involved in the education process in these programs must also possess graduate degrees in nursing-related fields.
When comparing both RN to BSN and RN to MSN tracks side by side, the faculty credentialing requirements should be very similar in quality programs. The instructors must have a minimum of a master’s degree in nursing and preferably have a doctoral degree. The quality of education you receive in these programs will be largely dependent on the level of education of the faculty and staff, so it is important to evaluate the training and job experience of professors as you decide which school to attend.
Reputable nursing programs for both RN to BSN and RN to MSN will have faculty holding master’s levels degrees in nursing. For quality MSN programs, a significant portion of the faculty should hold doctoral degrees. Typically for universities with RN to MSN programs, faculty holding only a master’s degree will have the title of “instructor”, while “professor” is reserved for those with Ph.D. or DNP degrees.
5. Distance Learning/Online Option
Distance learning and online options work well for RN to BSN programs because of the smaller number of clinical hours needed to complete. These allow registered nurses to continue to work full time while still completing their bachelor’s degree. Some of these programs can be completed entirely online, while others may require some face to face time to complete specific clinical requirements, usually for community health-related courses.
RN to MSN programs will require more clinical hours to fulfill the graduate level specialization requirements. While much of the didactic coursework for these programs can be completed online or through distance learning, in-person clinical rotations will need to be set up. Unlike the RN to BSN programs, a significant number of advanced practice clinical hours will be required for most MSN specialization tracks.
More and more distance learning and online nursing options are becoming available all the time. The main difference between RN to BSN and RN to MSN online programs is that the MSN specializations will have a larger clinical component and in-person requirement. However, the online and distance learning formats offer much more flexibility for busy nursing students who may not have the option of attending on-campus programs.
6. Part-time Option
Some RN to BSN programs offer part-time options, making it even easier for busy students to complete their bachelor’s degrees. Part-time options usually extend these programs by about six months to a year, totaling 18 months to 3 years to complete the degree.
A full-time RN to MSN program will typically take about two and a half to three years to complete. Part-time options will increase this time requirement by approximately a year. This length will also be influenced by clinical hours required by the nursing school and the specific MSN specialization.
For both RN to BSN and RN to MSN programs, part-time options will usually extend the course of learning by six months to a year.
7. RN to BSN vs. RN to MSN: Higher Education Options after Graduation
Higher education options following a BSN degree are similar to those with other undergraduate majors. If you hold a bachelor’s degree in nursing, you can move forward into a master’s program where you can specialize in a nursing area of your interest. These include leadership, management, nurse practitioner programs, and others. More specializations are appearing all the time, including a newer field of nursing called forensic nursing.
RN to MSN programs result in a graduate-level degree. However, nurses still have more educational options ahead of them to choose from if desired. Many schools offer post-graduate certificates to further specialize without having to obtain a second master’s degree. Or, if you received a master’s degree that is not part of a licensure track, you can take extra courses to enable you to sit for nurse practitioner boards. Doctoral-level degrees are another option, in areas like ethics, research, and clinical practice. These days there is an extra push for more nurses to obtain their doctorate in nursing practice (DNP) or Ph.D. in Nursing.
Both of these degree programs, RN to BSN or RN to MSN, open numerous options for further higher education. The BSN degree is foundational for nurses to really be able to specialize at the graduate level. The primary difference between these two tracks is that there will be fewer options for MSN specialization in an RN to MSN program If a nursing student has a unique or obscure specialization that they want to obtain, it might make more sense for them to obtain their bachelor’s degree first and then pursue the master’s degree later in a program that offers that specialization.
8. Program Length
A major difference between RN to BSN and RN to MSN programs is the overall time commitment required for completion. RN to BSN programs are usually the equivalent to the last two years of an undergraduate degree but can be completed in less time depending on the pace of the specific program. RN to MSN programs are usually two and a half to three years, simply because more content is covered than in an RN to BSN program, including the specialization track graduate courses. Some RN to MSN courses also require a brief hiatus during the program after all of the undergraduate coursework is completed. This allows time for the student to work for a year or two as a bachelor’s trained nurse before continuing on with the master’s portion of the program.
|RN to BSN|| RN to MSN|
| 1 to 2 years || 30 to 36 months |
9. Program Cost
The cost of RN to BSN or RN to MSN programs can vary widely depending on multiple factors.
• Online or on-campus options
• In-state versus out of state tuition options
• Public or private university
• Quality and ranking of the university
• Geographic location
Ultimately, the RN to MSN program will be more expensive because it requires more overall coursework and clinical hours than the RN to BSN programs. However, these programs are basically offering the equivalent of two degrees within one accelerated program, so the price tag may well be worth it to you.
|RN to BSN|| RN to MSN|
| $25,000 - $80,000 || $22,070 - $231,600 |
10. RN to BSN vs. RN to MSN: Curriculum Focus
The focus of RN to BSN programs is to broaden out the education of registered nurses and give them additional skills and knowledge to be able to practice within the full limits of their license. Most RN to BSN nursing curriculums will include up to 50 credits of general education classes that are necessary to achieve any bachelor’s level degree. Next, an additional core of nursing courses will be added, including subjects like health assessment, community and public health nursing, informatics, leadership, ethics, and others. Some RN to BSN programs will require in-person clinical hours, while others can be completed entirely online.
RN to MSN programs will contain the bulk of the classes contained in RN to BSN programs, with additional master’s level nursing courses added. Core master’s nursing classes will include advanced pharmacology, advanced pathophysiology, advanced practice health assessment, and others. Following these, nursing classes related to the MSN specialization will be included. Most MSN degrees, especially those with a clinical focus, will require varying degrees of clinical hours.
RN to BSN and RN to MSN programs both start with the same basic curriculum, focusing on general education classes and a core nursing curriculum. MSN programs take this foundation further by adding core MSN classes and MSN specialization classes, which usually include additional clinical hours.
11. RN to BSN vs. RN to MSN: Admission Requirements
Students wanting to pursue a bachelor’s degree in an RN to BSN program must have graduated from an accredited associate’s nursing program and hold an unencumbered registered nursing license. Most bachelor’s programs also require a GPA of at least 2.75, although this will vary by each individual school. Some of these programs will also require additional prerequisite coursework. For more competitive RN to BSN programs, you may be required to write an admissions essay stating why you want to pursue a bachelor’s degree in nursing.
RN to MSN programs are similar to RN to BSN programs in that you will need an associate degree in nursing and an unencumbered registered nurse license. A minimum GPA of 2.75 or 3.0 will be required. Many of these programs will also expect at least two letters of reference to ensure that you are capable of doing graduate-level work. Depending on the university you are interested in, you may be required to complete a year or two of nursing experience before being admitted.
When comparing RN to BSN vs. RN MSN degree program, entrance requirements will appear similar. The primary difference will be that the MSN programs need to know that you will be capable of graduate-level work. Their specific ways of determining this capability will differ somewhat by program and school.
12. Top Schools in the Nation
Rankings for nursing programs vary depending on what type of format they are. Some schools are ranked higher based on their on-campus residency programs, while others are ranked higher based on their online offerings. Included below are the top online programs.
Following are the top RN to BSN Programs in the nation:
1. University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI
2. University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA
3. Ohio State University, Columbus, OH
4. Michigan State University, Lansing, MI
5. University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT
Following are the top RN to MSN Programs in the nation:
1. University of St. Francis, Joliet, IL
2. Nebraska Methodist College of Nursing and Allied Health, Omaha, NE
3. Gardner-Webb University, Boiling Springs, NC
4. Spring Arbor University, Spring Arbor, MI
5. Chatham University, Pittsburgh, PA
RN to BSN and RN to MSN programs can be ranked in different ways, usually according to quality of education and affordability. When you’re evaluating schools and trying to decide which program might be right for you, it is important to understand how the schools are ranked. Certain factors may be more important than others in helping you make a decision about where to apply.
13. RN to BSN vs. RN to MSN: Career Opportunities after Graduation
RN to BSN programs provide a basic bachelor’s level nursing education. It is broader in scope than simply an associate’s in nursing because additional training in leadership, ethics, and the basics of research are included. However, it is intended to be a foundational level training for nurses who are on the front lines, offering direct and bedside patient care. That being said, there are still a wide array of career opportunities for BSN-trained nurses, ranging from acute care hospital nursing to case management to home health and more.
Since the RN to MSN degree results in a master’s level degree, it can offer a wider range of job possibilities following graduation. The number of job opportunities available, though, also depends on what type of specialization you choose. Most of the RN to MSN programs are in the fields that are growing the fastest for nurses, such as leadership, nurse practitioner roles, and nursing education.
As the nursing profession continues to grow, there are many career opportunities for both bachelor’s trained and master’s trained nurses. Most of the career options for bachelor’s trained nurses are focused on direct patient care. Master’s trained nurses have opportunities for patient-facing clinical roles as well as job options in research, leadership, healthcare management, and more.
14. RN to MSN vs. RN to BSN: Scope of Practice
RN to BSN programs give nurses the education and training they need to work in a variety of settings as a bachelor’s trained registered nurse. While the scope of practice for a BSN-trained registered nurse is the same as for an associate’s trained registered nurse, more hospitals and organizations are pushing to hire nurses with a bachelor’s degree.
RN to MSN programs enable registered nurses to broaden their scope of practice and work as advanced practice nurses. The scope of practice will differ for MSN trained nurses depending on their specialization and also the state in which they live. However, nurses holding master’s degrees will generally have a broader scope of practice than registered nurses, especially if they are in licensed roles like nurse practitioner, nurse anesthetist, or nurse midwife.
In general, an RN to MSN program will result in a broader scope of practice than for nurses who only complete a BSN degree because of the advanced education and specialization involved. Furthermore, many nurses holding MSN degrees obtain advanced practice licenses.
15. RN to BSN vs. RN to MSN: Employment Outlook
In 2008, the Institute of Medicine published a report recommending that 80% of the nursing workforce be BSN-trained by the year 2020. As a result of this recommendation and global changes made in nursing hiring, the employment outlook for BSN nurses has never been better. Furthermore, with advances in healthcare technology and the increased healthcare acuity of patients, nurses with more education and advanced critical thinking skills are in high demand.
The discipline of nursing has continued to broaden over recent decades as nurses are increasingly valued for their skills and contributions to healthcare. With this has come increased specialization of nursing in different areas, which has opened up more career opportunities and has continued to improve the employment outlook for nurses with MSN degrees. Shortage of nursing educators, and physicians graduating from medical school have opened-up two specific areas where master’s trained nurses are able to step in and fill gaps.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
, the nursing field is expected to grow at a faster average pace than other professions over the next decade. This is partially due to a generation of older nurses reaching retirement age. Coupled with this increase in nursing jobs is the continued push for more nurses to obtain their BSN degrees. For anyone looking to enter the nursing field or for nurses already holding an associate degree, the time has never been better to complete your bachelor’s degree in nursing.
The rate of career opportunity growth for MSN trained nurses is expected to be even higher over the next several years. Statistics information for MSN degrees suggests that specifically for nurse anesthetists, nurse practitioners, and nurse midwives, the expected rate of growth will be about 26% by the year 2026.
16. RN to BSN vs. RN to MSN: Starting Salary
Starting hourly wages for bachelor’s trained nurses range from about $24 to $27 an hour. Wages for an MSN-trained nurse usually start around $32 an hour. This increase in hourly pay results in a significant yearly income increase for those holding graduate nursing degrees.
|RN to BSN|| RN to MSN|
| $56,480 || $68,420 |
17. Average Hourly Wage
The difference in average hourly wage between BSN and MSN nurses is not significantly different. However, these wages can differ significantly based on the type of nursing position, organization, and job location.
|RN to BSN|| RN to MSN|
| $40.38 || $45.19 |
18. RN to MSN vs. RN to BSN: Average Annual Salary
The average annual income of a BSN-trained nurse is about $10,000 less per year than an MSN-trained nurse. The range of RN to BSN salary versus RN to MSN salary for both groups can vary widely, though, based on geographic location, experience, and the type of master’s specialization.
|RN to BSN|| RN to MSN|
| $84,000 || $94,000 |
19. Salary by Level of Experience
Nurses holding master’s level degrees as entry-level nurses tend to make a higher income than bachelor’s trained entry-level nurses. However, over the course of a nursing career, stats indicate that this gap between pay becomes smaller, but differences in the RN to MSN vs RN to BSN pay scale still exist.
| Type||RN to BSN|| RN to MSN|
| Hourly|| Monthly|| Annual|| Hourly|| Monthly|| Annual|
| Starting (Entry-Level)||$27.15||$4,710||$56,480||$32.89||$5,700||$68,420|
| 1-4 Years of Experience|| $31.34||$5,430||$65,190||$37.50||$6,500||$77,990|
| 5-9 Years of Experience||$38.22||$6,620||$79,490 ||$44.38||$7,690||$92,300|
| 10-19 Years of Experience||$47.32||$8,200||$98,420||$51.33||$8,900||$106,770|
| 20 Years or More Experience||$57.99||$10,050||$120,610||$61.49||$10,660||$127,890|
The Bottom Line - Which Degree is Better and Why?
Now we’ve worked our way through some of the similarities and differences of a RN to BSN vs an RN to MSN program. After evaluating many of the most important factors, how do you know which option is better? Ultimately, the question is not whether an RN to BSN program is better than an RN to MSN program, but rather, which program is right for you? There are numerous factors that must be considered when deciding which program to pursue, including cost, time commitment, and your overall career goals. If you are certain of what area of nursing you want to specialize in, an RN to MSN pathway may be the fast track to get you there. But, maybe you’re uncertain about what kind of nurse you want to be, or you’re not interested in taking on the rigorous course load of a master’s program. Then, obtaining your bachelor’s degree and gaining additional experience as a BSN-trained registered nurse could be the right choice for you.
With either track you plan to pursue – RN to BSN or RN to MSN - do your homework and research the program details, credentialing, affordability, and educational outcomes of the schools you are interested in. Doing so will help ensure that you obtain the degree you want from a program that prepares you to succeed in the nursing career you want.
Julie Monroe BSN, RN
Julie Monroe is a registered nurse, freelance science writer, and graduate student who is completing an MSN in Forensic Nursing. She is passionate about nursing research, medical writing, and the pursuit of social justice for all of those who are marginalized within the healthcare system.