Types of Nursing Degrees and Levels 

Written by: Applied Nursing Research Editorial Team   •  May 19, 2024

Types of Nursing Degrees and Levels

The field of nursing offers a rewarding, dynamic, and promising career path that is central to the healthcare sector. With an array of specializations and work settings, a career in nursing can be as diverse and specialized as you make it. Acquiring the right degree is crucial for career growth, and there are a plethora of educational paths available, catering to various interests and career goals. This article aims to provide an exhaustive overview of the types of nursing degrees available, the benefits of pursuing a nursing degree, and much more. Whether you’re a high school graduate considering nursing as a career or a registered nurse looking for advancement, this guide will offer the insights you need.

Types of Nursing Degrees

Nursing Assistant (CNA)

A Certified Nursing Assistant program is often the first step for those entering the nursing field. These programs can last from 4 to 12 weeks and offer basic training in patient care. Once the program is completed, you’ll need to pass a state competency exam to become certified.

Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) or Licensed Vocational Nurse (LVN)

LPN and LVN programs offer more comprehensive training than CNA programs and usually last about one year. Upon completion, you must pass the NCLEX-PN exam to get licensed. LPNs and LVNs work under the supervision of registered nurses (RNs) and doctors, providing basic medical care.

Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN)

An Associate’s Degree in Nursing is a 2-year program that serves as a stepping stone to becoming a registered nurse. The curriculum typically includes both classroom education and clinical practice. After completing the ADN program, you’re required to pass the NCLEX-RN exam to become an RN.

Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing (BSN)

  • A Bachelor of Science in Nursing is a 4-year degree and offers a more comprehensive education in nursing theory, research, and practice. Some programs offer “RN-to-BSN” tracks, enabling registered nurses to complete their BSN in less time.

Master’s Degree in Nursing (MSN)

A Master of Science in Nursing usually takes about 2 years after the BSN and provides specialized training. Nurse Practitioner, Clinical Nurse Specialist, and Nurse Anesthetist are some of the specializations that require an MSN.

Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)

DNP programs are practice-focused and usually last 3-4 years. They prepare nurses for the highest levels of clinical practice, including managerial roles.

PhD in Nursing

A PhD in Nursing is a research-focused degree that takes around 4-6 years to complete. It prepares nurses for academic and research positions.

Why Earn a Degree in Nursing?

Personal Satisfaction: Nursing is a vocation that offers immense personal satisfaction. The impact you can make on patients’ lives is immeasurable and fulfilling.

Career Growth and Mobility: With various degree options, you can keep climbing the career ladder, from a basic nursing assistant to specialized roles like a Nurse Practitioner or even administrative roles in healthcare.

Diverse Work Settings: Nurses work in varied settings—from hospitals and clinics to educational institutions and public health organizations—offering numerous opportunities to find your niche.

Increasing Demand in the Healthcare Sector: As the population ages and healthcare needs grow, there is an ever-increasing demand for qualified nurses. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the nursing field is expected to grow much faster than the average for all occupations over the next decade.

In summary, a nursing degree not only opens doors to a rewarding career but also offers flexibility, job security, and opportunities for advancement. Whether you opt for a basic entry-level program or pursue higher degrees, nursing is a field where education directly correlates with both earning potential and job opportunities.

Benefits of a Nursing Degree

Job Security: One of the major advantages of a nursing degree is the job stability it provides. The healthcare sector is less vulnerable to economic downturns compared to other industries, and the demand for nursing professionals is constantly on the rise.

Competitive Salary: According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for registered nurses was $82,220 in 2022. This figure can vary based on experience, specialization, and geographic location but is generally considered competitive.

Opportunities for Specialization: A nursing degree offers a broad range of career paths and specializations, including pediatric nursing, mental health nursing, and surgical nursing, among others. Specializations often come with the opportunity for increased salary and job satisfaction.

Ability to Make a Difference: Nurses play a critical role in patient care, often spending more time with patients than any other healthcare professionals. This direct patient interaction allows nurses to have a profound impact on patients’ lives and well-being.

Reasons to Study Online

Flexibility: Online nursing programs offer unprecedented flexibility, allowing you to balance your studies with work and family commitments. Courses can often be completed at your own pace and from the comfort of your home.

Lower Costs: Online programs often cost less than their traditional counterparts, primarily because you save on transportation, accommodation, and other on-campus expenses.

Self-paced Learning: The ability to progress through the coursework at your own speed can be invaluable for those who have other commitments or prefer a self-directed learning environment.

Access to Diverse Programs: Online education broadens your choices of nursing programs, especially if you live in an area with limited educational facilities. You can enroll in accredited programs from universities across the country or even internationally.

How Much Does a Nursing Degree Cost?

Cost Variation by Degree Level

CNA and LPN/LVN programs are generally the least expensive, often costing between $1,000 to $5,000. Associate’s degrees can range from $6,000 to $40,000, while Bachelor’s degrees can set you back anywhere from $40,000 to $100,000 or more, depending on the institution.

In-state vs Out-of-state Tuition

Public universities usually offer lower tuition rates for in-state residents. Out-of-state students can expect to pay significantly more.

Private vs Public Institutions

Private universities typically charge higher tuition fees compared to public institutions. However, they might offer smaller class sizes and specialized programs that could justify the higher cost.

Additional Costs

Beyond tuition, other costs include books, supplies, uniforms, certification exams, and sometimes, additional fees for clinical experiences.

Knowing the benefits and options for online study can help you make an informed decision about pursuing a nursing degree, but understanding the financial commitment is equally crucial. Be sure to factor in all costs and consider financial aid options as you plan your educational journey in the field of nursing.

Nursing Degrees Curriculum

The curriculum for a nursing degree varies depending on the level of the program and the institution offering it. However, there are core subjects and specialized courses that form the backbone of most nursing educational paths.

Core Courses

Anatomy and Physiology: These courses provide a detailed understanding of the human body’s structure and functions.

Microbiology: Understanding microbes and their relation to human health is essential for nursing practice.

Pharmacology: This subject deals with the medication, its administration, and its effect on patients.

Health Assessment: Learning to assess a patient’s physical and mental state is crucial in nursing.

Specialized Courses

Depending on the degree level and specialization, you may take courses in:

  • Pediatric Nursing

  • Mental Health Nursing

  • Critical Care Nursing

  • Community Health

Clinical Experience

Most nursing programs require clinical rotations, offering hands-on experience in various healthcare settings. The duration and specific requirements for these clinical experiences will vary by program.

What Are the Admission Requirements for Nursing Degree Programs?

Admission criteria can differ significantly between programs and schools, but there are some common requirements:

Academic Prerequisites

For entry-level programs, a high school diploma or GED is usually sufficient. For advanced degrees, you’ll typically need to have completed a certain number of prerequisites or hold a lower-level nursing degree.


Tests like the TEAS (Test of Essential Academic Skills) are commonly required for ADN or BSN programs. For graduate-level programs, you may need to pass the GRE or a specialized exam relevant to nursing.

Letters of Recommendation

Most programs ask for letters of recommendation to assess your readiness and suitability for the program. These letters can come from previous instructors, employers, or professional colleagues.

Personal Statement

A personal statement outlining your career goals and reasons for choosing nursing can also be a part of the admission process.

Accreditation for Nursing Degree Programs

Accreditation is a pivotal factor in choosing a nursing degree program. An accredited program has met certain educational quality standards, which can be particularly important for future employment and educational advancement.

Importance of Accreditation

Employers often prefer candidates who have graduated from accredited programs. Additionally, credits from an accredited program are more likely to be transferable to another institution.

Accrediting Bodies

The two main accrediting bodies in the U.S. are the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) and the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE).

How to Check for Accreditation

Accreditation information is usually available on the institution’s official website. You can also check the databases of accrediting bodies to confirm a program’s status.

With this understanding of the curriculum, admission requirements, and the critical role of accreditation, you’re better equipped to navigate the intricate landscape of nursing education. 

 Career Options for People With Nursing Degrees

The diverse array of nursing degrees leads to an equally diverse range of career options, allowing nurses to find a niche that suits their skills, interests, and lifestyle.

Entry-Level Roles

Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA): Often work in nursing homes, assisting with basic patient needs.

Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN): Provide basic care in settings like hospitals and long-term care facilities, under the supervision of RNs and doctors.

Registered Nurses (RNs)

Hospital Nurse: Work in various departments within a hospital, such as ER, pediatrics, or surgery.

Public Health Nurse: Work in community settings, focusing on preventative care and education.

Advanced Practice Roles

Nurse Practitioner (NP): Diagnose and treat illnesses, often in a specialized field like family care, women’s health, or acute care.

Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS): Experts in a specialized field, often taking on roles in management, consultation, and education.

Nurse Anesthetist: Provide anesthesia and related care before and after surgical, therapeutic, diagnostic, and obstetrical procedures.

Specialized Roles

Forensic Nurse: Combine nursing skills with law enforcement.

Travel Nurse: Take on temporary roles in various locations, often for higher pay and the opportunity to travel.

Academic Nurse Educator: Teach in nursing schools and colleges, sharing their expertise with the next generation of nurses.

Nursing Salary and Job Outlook

Salary Ranges

CNAs can expect a median salary of around $36,000 per year.

LPNs/LVNs generally earn a median salary of approximately $55,000 per year.

RNs have a median annual salary of around $82,280, with top earners making over $111,000.

Advanced practice roles like NPs and Nurse Anesthetists can earn six-figure salaries, often exceeding $120,000 and sometimes going much higher based on specialization and experience.

Job Outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment for registered nurses is expected to grow 6% from 2022 to 2032, faster than the average for all occupations. For NPs, the growth rate is even higher, at 38% for the same period.

Scholarships and Financial Aid Information for Nursing Degrees

Funding your nursing education can be a significant concern, but there are various financial aid options to explore:


Many organizations offer scholarships specifically for nursing students, based on academic merit, financial need, or both.

Federal and State Grants

Programs like the Federal Pell Grant can provide financial aid that doesn’t have to be repaid.

Work-Study Programs

Some schools and healthcare facilities offer work-study programs that allow you to gain experience while offsetting tuition costs.

By understanding the extensive career options and financial aspects of a nursing career, you can make informed decisions about your educational and professional pathway. 

Nursing Degrees FAQ

How Much Can You Earn With a Nursing Degree?

Earnings can vary greatly depending on the level of your nursing degree and your chosen specialty. While Certified Nursing Assistants might earn a median salary around $29,000 per year, Nurse Practitioners and Nurse Anesthetists often command six-figure salaries. Regional differences also impact pay rates significantly.

How Long Does it Take to Earn a Nursing Degree?

The duration of your nursing education depends on the degree level and program format. For instance, CNA programs can be completed in as few as four to twelve weeks, whereas a traditional BSN program typically takes four years. Advanced degrees like MSNs or DNP programs may require an additional two to four years of study post-Bachelor’s.

Is Getting a Nursing Degree Worth it?

The answer to this question often depends on personal and professional goals. However, nursing generally offers excellent job stability, competitive salaries, and the opportunity to make a meaningful difference in people’s lives. The return on investment is generally favorable, especially for those who pursue higher-level degrees and specializations.

Can I Earn a Nursing Degree Entirely Online?

While many nursing programs offer online coursework, it’s essential to note that clinical experience is a critical component of nursing education that generally can’t be completed online. Some programs offer “hybrid” options, where theory courses are online but clinical hours are completed in-person.

What Careers Can an Individual With a Nursing Degree Get?

Nursing degrees open doors to a variety of healthcare settings—hospitals, nursing homes, clinics, schools, and even corporate offices. From entry-level positions as a CNA or LPN to advanced roles as Nurse Practitioners, Clinical Nurse Specialists, or Nurse Educators, the career opportunities are numerous.


Embarking on a nursing career is not just a decision to enter a profession; it’s a commitment to make a meaningful impact on people’s health and well-being. The pathway to becoming a nurse is marked by various stages—each offering its unique set of challenges and rewards. From deciding the level of degree to pursue, to navigating the admissions process, to finally selecting a specialized field, each step is crucial. But regardless of the path you choose, the nursing profession offers a fulfilling experience and the opportunity for lifelong learning. Whether you’re just starting out or are looking to advance your career, the nursing field welcomes you with endless possibilities and the promise of job security, competitive pay, and the intangible reward of making a real difference.

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