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LPN Certificates vs Nursing Associate Degrees

September 20, 2021 | Staff Writers

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If you’d like to become a nurse, you’ll need to pass the licensing exam and complete a program of study before you can practice. Those who want to become a registered nurse will need to complete, at a minimum, a Nursing Associate Degree (ADN), although most opt to complete a Bachelor’s (BSN) if they intend to practice full time.

There is another route into nursing, however, via the LPN certificate. The LPN takes just one year, whereas the ADN takes two years. Those who complete the LPN and pass the required exam can call themselves Licensed Practical Nurses. There are differences in terms of the scope of practice between LPNs and RNS, but practical nursing and the job of an RN do have a lot of overlap.

Many people who start their careers as a Licensed Practical Nurse later go on to earn an associate’s degree in nursing, and may even progress from there to a full bachelor’s degree or a postgraduate qualification. Someone with an associate degree who has passed the NCLEX-RN is classed as a certified nurse, but there are many incentives for them to continue their nursing education all the same.

The career prospects for someone who opts to study nursing are quite varied, and there’s scope for upward movement as well as moving sideways between different specialisms. This allows each person to carve out their own position and find an area of practice and working environment that they enjoy.

So, is it worth earning an LPN if you are planning on becoming an RN? Is working as an LPN long-term a good career choice? As with so many nursing-related questions, the answer depends on your long-term goals and which parts of the job appeal to you.

Differences between an LPN certificate and an associate degree in nursing

The LPN and the ADN are two different levels of academic courses that lead to a nursing qualification. Both LPN certificate-holders and ADN holders can call themselves nurses, assuming they have passed their respective licensure exams.

Where the courses differ is in the licenses that they lead to. LPN holders become licensed practical nurses, while the ADN leads to the Registered Nurse qualification. Those who are serious about a professional nursing career will need to at least pursue the ADN or another degree program.

Registered Nurses are able to work in a variety of settings and can pursue specializations in intensive care, cancer care, neonatal units, pediatrics, and many other parts of health care. Senior nurses with a specialism often have a high degree of autonomy and respect, as well as the freedom to make a lot of decisions about the care of their patients. They’re not qualified to the level of doctors or surgeons but they do have medical knowledge and expertise.

Registered nurses work alongside doctors and other medical professionals and are expected to use critical thinking skills and oversee patient care. LPNs and LVNs take on more of a medical assistant role, providing practical assistance.

LPNs do a lot of the practical work associated with patient care. There’s a lot of overlap here because RNs and LPNs are both trained in the delivery of a variety of care services and in many hospitals RNs do a lot of those day-to-day tasks.

Where LPNs are available, however, they take a lot of the strain off nurse practitioners and specialists by changing dressings, reading vitals, and doing other important, common tasks.

Where do the different types of nurses work?

LPNs are often seen working in long-term care settings, overseeing other types of care assistants. Some tasks, such as bathing, grooming and help with other activities of daily living can be performed by a nursing assistant.

Other tasks such as changing dressings or inserting a catheter may be performed by an LPN. If a patient requires more services than are within the scope of practice of an LPN they can be transferred to a hospital where more intensive medical care and supervision can be provided.

RNs, in contrast, are more likely to spend their time in the traditional medical world, either in clinics or on a ward, at least for the first few years. There is scope for an RN to specialize in a specific area, working with families, children, in neonatal care, intensive care, emergency rooms or even a rural doctor’s office.

Those who are looking for more variety may find options for outreach, either traveling to provide care to those in rural communities, doing public health awareness campaigns or simply consulting or offering services to hospitals that are short-staffed.

What is an associate’s degree in nursing?

The associate’s degree in nursing is a two-year-long course that prepares the student for the NCLEX-RN examination. Upon completing this course and passing the examination, the student can call themselves a Registered Nurse (RN) and is able to work in hospitals or other settings.

Some people complete the ADN, earn their licensure and are happy to practice with that level of education. However, in some states nurses (such as New York), nurses are required to pass their BSN within ten years of earning their license, because studies show that nurses who have a BSN typically produce better long-term patient outcomes than those with just an ADN.

Even in states that do not mandate a BSN for those who wish to practice nursing long term, it is common for individual hospitals to favor nurses who hold a BSN over those with just an associate’s degree. Anyone who wishes to become a nurse practitioner at a later date will need to complete a BSN degree and move on to postgraduate study.

What is an LPN certificate?

The LPN is a certification that takes just one year to complete and that prepares students to take the NCLEX-PN examination. This examination is for the Licensed Practical Nurse title. Those who hold the position of LPN are able to call themselves nurses and work alongside RNs, doctors, and allied health professionals but their scope of practice is different from that of an RN.

LPNs are trained to do more practical work, administering injections, fitting catheters, and providing day-to-day care for medically-stable patients. They are not trained to diagnose or prescribe, but they are qualified to take care of patients and deliver a lot of practical nursing care.

What is the cost difference of an LPN certificate compared to an associate’s degree in nursing?

The cost difference between an LPN certificate and an associate’s degree can be one of the most significant deciding factors for a young person who is considering starting on the nursing career path.

The average cost of an LPN program is between $10,000 and $15,000. Associates degrees cost around double that because the program takes twice as long to complete. Fees can vary significantly, however, depending on the institution chosen and whether the student is local or from another state.

For example, Missouri State University charges $36,258 for a four-year nursing undergraduate program for an in-state student but $71,714 for an out-of-state student.

The cost of studying itself is not the only thing to consider. Students should also think about the time commitment, loss of potential earnings while they’re studying part-time, and any out-of-pocket expenses for travel, accommodation, or required course materials while they’re at nursing school.

The benefits of getting an LPN certificate

Some people opt to earn an LPN certificate because they want to work in the nursing profession and are more interested in the practical side than triage, diagnostics, administration or leadership. Practical nurses have the opportunity to do a lot of hands-on important work and many nurses are happy with doing that side of the job.

Some people do wish to climb the nursing career ladder and move into other more specialist roles and still choose to earn an LPN certificate first. This is a good option if you’re worried about covering the cost of tuition and wish to do some work in the field while studying part-time, or if you want to test the waters working in healthcare for a while before you commit to a full undergraduate degree.

What qualifications do you need to become an LPN?

To enroll in an LPN course you will need to meet the institution’s entry requirements. In most cases, this means having a high school diploma or a GED at a minimum. You will spend one year studying and completing some coursework as well as gaining practical experience at a hospital. Many nursing colleges have hospitals attached to them, allowing you to gain experience under the supervision of nurse educators.

The course will cover a variety of topics, including:

What can LPNs specialize in?

LPNs have the opportunity to pursue a variety of different career paths and work in many settings, not just hospitals. For example, they can work in:

The scope of practice of an LPN will always be more limited than that of an RN, so many LPNs do opt to upskill after some time in the profession, however, the variety of settings in which they can work means the job is always interesting.

How long does it take to get an LPN certificate?

The LPN can be completed in one year of full-time study, however many nursing colleges offer a two-year part-time program as well. After completing this program and taking the certification, the student is classed as a licensed practice nurse (or licensed vocational nurse in some states) and can either begin practicing in a clinical setting or extend their studies to pursue an RN program.

Because the costs of qualifying to be an LPN are relatively low, and the course is shorter than the one required to become an RN, the potential earnings tend to be lower. According to the bureau of labor statistics, LPNs and LVNs have a median salary of $47,480.

If you’re worried about paying for your LPN certificate, it’s worth investigating the loans, bursaries and scholarships that are open to those wishing to work in health care. Organizations such as Medicine Sans Frontiers often run programs to help people pursue an education in nursing.

Working part-time while studying a one-year LPN may also be an option, especially if you already have a reasonable grounding in the sciences. In addition, there are student loan forgiveness programs for nurses that can significantly reduce the amount that a person ends up paying for their studies. These programs expect that you’ll work in nursing for many years after graduation, but if you’re planning on nursing as a long-term career, they can be invaluable.

The benefits of getting an associate’s degree in nursing

An LPN is classed as a nurse and is able to work in a clinical setting, but the scope of their work is more limited than that of an RN. Those who are looking to advance their careers in nursing, specializing in ICU, emergency nursing, pediatrics, or informatics, will need to become an RN.

The associate’s degree is the quickest route to becoming an RN and is also a stepping stone to the Bachelor’s degree that is required for long-term practice in some states, such as New York.

What is the salary of someone with an associate’s degree in nursing?

The median pay of a Registered Nurse is $73,300, although this assumes the nurse has completed a bachelor’s degree. Nurses who go on to earn a master’s degree and specialize in a particular part of the field can expect to earn up to $115,800.

What are the career prospects of an associate’s degree in nursing?

An associate’s degree in nursing is a good stepping stone for anyone who is hoping to pursue a long-term career in the nursing profession. In some states, it is possible to practice long-term as a nurse on a ward, in a doctor’s office or in a care home without further study after earning the RN license.

However, many hospitals prefer to hire nurses who have a Bachelor’s degree or higher-level qualification for general nursing jobs, and any more specialized jobs will be gated behind additional qualifications too.

This is because nurses with a BSN or higher typically produce better patient outcomes and have lower fatality rates. Whether the nurse is providing day-to-day patient care or working in a highly specific area, the extra training and critical thinking skills that are provided as a part of the full bachelor’s degree make a difference.

What course can you go for after completion of an associate’s degree in nursing?

After completing an associate’s degree, the most common choice is to complete the NCLEX-RN and then work in a healthcare setting for a while to gain some clinical experience. After doing this, many nurses either return to full-time education for two years to earn a BSN, or study for the BSN part-time while continuing their work in nursing.

In some cases, a nurse may enroll on a BSN to MSN course, spending a total of four years in full-time study, or the part-time equivalent, to earn a qualification such as Informatics Nurse or Certified Emergency Nurse.

Aspiring nurses should be aware that clinical experience and time spent delivering patient care is just as important as the academic element taught in the associate’s degree or on a bachelor’s program. There is a lot of value to spending some time working in a healthcare setting, whether that’s just for a year or two, or something that is done while studying part-time.

Career development options for registered nurses

In addition to working in specific wards or departments, registered nurses who have chosen to continue their education beyond the associate’s degree level have a variety of other options, including:

Public health nursing

Public health nurses work out in the community, raising awareness and performing outreach work to those who need it the most. They may campaign to encourage people to get vaccines, lose weight, stop smoking, or otherwise adopt habits that are good for their health.

More senior public health nurses may work on health issues at a policy level, examining why certain demographics are more or less likely to experience certain health issues, and looking for ways to improve the health of the population as a whole.

Informatics nurses

Informatics nurses work with computer systems, and there are many career options within this field. For example, an informatics nurse may train other nurses in how to use computer systems. Alternatively, they might use IT to parse patient records, generate reports and find ways to streamline patient care.

Some informatics nurses learn computer programming and use their skills to design and develop new systems for nurses to use. This job is sometimes popular with people who transitioned to health care from another field later in life.

Nurse leader

Nurse leaders/nurse administrators are experienced nurses who have a lot of experience in a clinical setting but have now moved to a less patient-facing role. These nurses manage teams of RNs and LPNs, and take care of things like shift patterns, overseeing patient care, admitting and discharging patients, and ensuring that the nurses in the department are properly trained.

Nurse leaders may help new nurses plan their careers and choose training options, help them learn the processes of the department, and take care of any day-to-day issues that might arise. This position requires both clinical experience and good project management and leadership skills.

Nurse educator

Some nurse educators work in hospitals or clinics, and others work in nursing colleges or academic institutions. These nurses usually have extensive clinical experience before they move back into an academic setting.

Nurse educators teach new nurses how to use diagnostic tools and deliver treatments. Those who work in an academic setting may also spend a lot of their time on research and development or on studying new processes, treatments, and best practices.

While nurse educators may not spend a lot of time in a clinical setting working directly with patients, they are at the forefront of the nursing profession in some ways. They can spend more time studying the profession and developing treatment protocols for the nurses who are on the frontlines to use. They also teach the next generation of nurses.

How to determine whether an LPN or a nursing associates degree is for you

If you’re considering studying a degree in nursing, you may find the list of certifications and career options bewildering. In many ways, starting with the LPN or becoming a vocational nurse is a good way to dip your toe in the water of the nursing profession and decide if it’s right for you.

Why should you pursue a career in nursing?

A career in nursing is a good choice for anyone who is interested in helping people and providing practical health care, especially for those who like variety and flexibility in their jobs. There are many other professions associated with health care, but they are often quite specialized, whereas nurses are exposed to a wider variety of patients, scenarios, and working options.

The mobility in the nursing profession means a career nurse should never feel bored. If they find the bustle of the ICU or emergency room too much, they can move to a doctor’s office. If they prefer working with children, they can study pediatrics. If they’d like to be in a less patient-facing role, then leadership or informatics options are available to them.

There are nursing roles that allow travel, part-time hours, flexible working and even working with individual patients in their own homes. Nurses are in demand in non-profit hospitals and in the for-profit parts of the private sector. This gives them job security, flexibility and mobility in a way that many other professions lack.

It’s relatively easy to get on the nursing career ladder, and if you decide you enjoy the profession it’s possible to study and work at the same time, although earning new qualifications will be slower that way.

How do you find out which nursing credentials are necessary for your dream job?

If you have a long-term goal in mind, such as working in a specific department or setting, it’s worth planning your studies around that. There aren’t many jobs open to individuals who only have an LPN certificate, so you’ll most likely want to enroll on an ASN or BSN qualification after passing the NCLEX-PN.

From there, you can consider a variety of specialisms such as neonatal, pediatrics, ICU, informatics, management or even nursing education.

You can find information about the courses you need from most nursing colleges or universities, as well as your state’s licensing board. Rasmussen University, for example, offers a variety of nursing-related courses and also has a wealth of information available about career prospects and pathways.

Remember that you’re not locked into any one particular pathway or specialization. Many nurses change focus several times throughout their career based on their interests and life circumstances. A young nurse may love the busy nature of the emergency room, for example, but wish to move into consulting for informatics later in life.

Getting started with a nursing qualification

The steps for enrolling on an LPN certificate are fairly simple. The entry requirements are typically low, requiring a GED or high school diploma. The course consists of practical work and coursework combined with some classroom study, preparing the student for the day-to-day tasks associated with nursing.

After the LPN is completed, the would-be nurse is required to sit a licensing exam.

Enrolling in an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree should also be fairly simple, although some universities have slightly higher requirements for their degree programs and the programs themselves are usually more rigorous academically due to the greater responsibilities RNs have in a health care setting.

Once someone has an associate’s degree, they’ll have to take the NCLEX-RN to earn their RN license. Both RNs and LPNs are required to go through continuing education to maintain their licenses.

The licensing boards may require background checks, fingerprinting, or other steps before they issue a license to practice in their state. These requirements can vary from board to board.

It’s important to choose a school that is accredited with the board in the state where you intend to practice. While that’s unlikely to be an issue for people who are studying at a brick and mortar university or nursing college close to home, it is something people should take into account if they’re thinking of studying for an online nursing degree.

Accreditation requirements vary between states, and while many online nursing degrees are widely accepted, it’s a good idea to confirm how portable the qualification will be before spending a lot of money on the training. Note that many universities require their students to take the licensing exam in the university’s state, whether or not the student intends to practice there. This means you may be faced with two sets of licensing fees if you intend to practice in a different state from the one where you completed your training.

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