You can become a registered nurse by earning a bachelor of science in nursing degree, a BSN, or you can train in a diploma or associate degree program. Any of these paths qualifies you for entry-level work, but bachelor's graduates have better job prospects. In fact, a four-year degree is required for many administrative and non-hospital jobs, and bachelor's degree graduates also typically earn more.
The average starting salary with a bachelor's degree in nursing was $52,800 annually in 2013, up from $50,600 in 2012, according to a salary survey from the National Association of Colleges and Employers. In 2013, 25 percent of bachelor's degree grads in nursing received $44,500 per year or less, and 25 percent received $59,600 annually or more. Half earned more and half earned less than $50,900, the median salary.
Degree or Diploma Comparison
A registered nurse with a bachelor's degree typically earns more than other RNs. A 2010 study from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported average annual wages of $66,316 for RNs with bachelor's degrees, based on 2008 data on full-time nurses. However, diploma graduates averaged $65,349 per year, and associate degree graduates averaged $60,890. Bachelor's graduates had higher pay at every career level, from staff nurses through management. For example, a middle or senior management nurse with a bachelor's degree averaged $79,878 annually, compared to $74,090 with a diploma and $69,871 with an associate degree.
The 2012 salary survey by Advance Healthcare Network reports the earnings of BSN graduates in every region of the country. In the 11-state western region, including California and Oregon, BSN grads averaged $75,973 per year. In the northeast, including New York and seven other states, a bachelor of science in nursing brought in $72,665 annually on average, while in the mid-Atlantic and lower Great Lakes, pay averaged $69,253 per year. Bachelor of science in nursing grads earned an average of $61,956 annually in the south, and they received average annual wages of $59,232 in the Midwest.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics combines all registered nurses in its annual wage surveys, including diploma graduates, associate and bachelor's degree grads and nurses with master's degrees. The average annual pay for all RNs in the 2012 BLS report was $67,930. Ten percent earned $45,040 per year or less, and 10 percent received $94,720 annually or higher. The largest employer was general medical and surgical hospitals, which had more than 1.5 million nurses at an average of $69,490 per year.
For RNs at all educational levels, the top-paying industry with more than 100 nurses in 2012 was the federal government. The federal executive branch employed 67,650 RNs in 2012 at average annual pay of $79,270, reports the BLS. California was the top-paying state, with wages averaging $94,120, followed by Hawaii, with average wages of $84,750 per year. In Massachusetts, RN pay averaged $83,370 annually, and in Alaska, it averaged $80,970. The 10 highest-paying metro areas in the U.S. were in California, led by the greater San Jose region, where annual RN salaries averaged $122,990.
Registered nurses will experience a 26 percent increase in jobs between 2010 and 2020, predicts the BLS, faster than the 14 percent average of all jobs. Advances in technology and the aging population will combine to create excellent prospects for RNs. Hospitals may even need to offer perks such as signing bonuses to attract staff, according to the BLS.