Registered nurses and licensed practical nurses perform some of the same tasks. Either might administer oral medications, for example, or change a dressing. RNs, however, have a much wider scope of practice and greater responsibility. With additional training, an RN can become an advanced practice nurse and perform physician functions. The difference lies not only in responsibilities but in the academic degree.
LPNs Get the Basics
LPNs receive training to provide basic care and must work under the direction of an RN or physician. Most LPN programs are one year in length. They may be called degree, diploma or certificate programs, depending on the institution. LPN programs may have prerequisites, such as human biology, or incorporate all required elements into the LPN training program. Typical courses include fundamentals of practical nursing, maternal-child nursing, general psychology, pharmacology, human growth and development, and general courses such as English. Once the student graduates, she becomes eligible to take the NCLEX-PN exam, a national licensing exam, and apply for her LPN license.
Traditional Nursing Education
At one time, all nurses received their education in diploma programs. The focus in traditional diploma programs, where a hospital-based school of nursing grants a diploma, is primarily on hospital work, according to a September 2009 article at AllNurses.com. Diploma nursing programs still tend to emphasize a hands-on apprentice model of nursing education, although some schools have partnered with colleges and universities to provide college credits for some courses or even an associate degree in nursing. These programs are typically two or three years long. Diploma programs only constitute about 10 percent of nursing programs in the U.S., according to AllNurses.com. Most are in the Midwest or East.
The Preferred Degree
An associate degree in nursing, called an ADN, is the preferred degree for 57 percent of RNs educated in the U.S., according to the National Organization for Associate Degree Nursing. Most nurses educated in these programs continue to work in the state where they went to school and in rural settings. ADN programs educate 75 percent of rural nurses. Programs take two years, although they often have prerequisites that may take one or two additional semesters. Coursework includes natural, behavioral and social sciences as well as topics similar to those taught in LPN programs. Associate degree nurses may graduate, become licensed and work for a few years, then go back to school either full time or part time to obtain a bachelor’s degree in nursing.
Top of the Ladder
A bachelor’s degree is the longest and most complex of the three basic nursing degrees -- it usually takes four years. These programs include the technical skills and science topics of other nursing programs as well as courses on nursing theory, critical thinking, leadership and other high-level functions expected of a nurse with a bachelor’s degree. A bachelor’s program also includes more training in physical and social sciences as well as clinical experience in settings outside the hospital, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Administrative positions, research, consulting and teaching positions usually require a bachelor’s degree, according to the BLS, which notes that BSN graduates are likely to have more employment opportunities.