BSN by 2020: Where Are We Now?

Most nurses are aware of the push for practicing RNs to have a BSN or higher by 2020. This goal may not be met, but RNs are making steady progress. Nurses who are ready to move forward may find that they are already well on their way to a BSN.

RN to BSN programs allow nurses to transfer credits from their ADN or diploma nursing program. There is no need to repeat the basics. With programs such as the online RN to BSN at the University of New Mexico (UNM), nurses can advance their education without putting their careers on pause.

Why Is a BSN Important?

Currently, there is no single entry-level requirement for RNs. State boards of nursing require that nursing grads pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) exam for RN licensure. But there is more than one way to get there, with wide-ranging differences in education.

  • Diploma Program: These programs are often provided by hospitals and take up to three years to complete. They do not lead to a degree.
  • Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN): These two-year programs are offered by technical and community colleges.
  • Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN): These four-year programs blend nursing studies with a liberal arts education. Employers increasingly require or prefer that RNs have a BSN.

In 2010, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) — now the National Academy of Medicine — called for 80% of RNs to earn their BSN by 2020. This recommendation was part of the IOM's landmark report The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health.

The nation's changing demographics is partly behind the push for RNs to achieve higher levels of education. As one example, the population of adults 65 and older is growing rapidly. In fact, the Population Reference Bureau reports that the current growth of this population is unprecedented in U.S. history. Meeting the complex needs of older adults presents significant challenges to the healthcare system.

Research suggests that BSN nurses are better prepared to meet these needs. BSN preparation for nurses correlates with lower patient mortality rates, fewer medication errors, and increased positive outcomes, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN).

Looking at medication errors alone, it is easy to see why the IOM is calling for a BSN-prepared workforce. An IOM report found that preventable medical errors cause more deaths than motor-vehicle accidents, breast cancer and AIDS. Medication errors are one of the most common preventable medical mistakes.

What Progress Has Been Made?

Nursing might not achieve an 80% BSN workforce by 2020. But RNs are continuing to step up to earn their BSN, putting the goal of achieving an 80% BSN workforce within reach.

The Campaign for Action works to implement goals of the IOM's Future of Nursing report. Following is a look at progress toward meeting those goals.

  • At the time of the IOM report, 49% of RNs were prepared at the bachelor level.
  • Starting in 2012, for the first time, more nurses have been graduating with a BSN (including RN to BSN grads) than an associate degree.
  • From 2010 to 2017, the number of RN to BSN graduates increased 180%. In 2010, 29.4% of all BSN graduates earned their degrees in RN to BSN programs. By 2013, this number jumped to 43%. As of 2018, 47.5% graduated from RN to BSN programs.

How Can Nursing Reach the 80% Goal?

Some states are considering laws that would make a bachelor's mandatory. New York State has already passed a "BSN in 10" law. RNs must obtain a BSN or higher within 10 years of initial licensure.

Online RN to BSN programs provide a "bridge" for ADN- and diploma-prepared RNs. These programs are designed to ease common concerns about returning to school.

  • The BSN is a four-year degree. RN to BSN programs build on a nurse's previous education to shorten the time it takes to earn a BSN. RNs with an associate degree can typically earn their BSN in two years or less.
  • Multiple start dates make it easier for RNs to enroll at a time that is most convenient for them.
  • The online format eliminates commute time, leaving more time for other things — work, the gym, family time, etc. Students can complete coursework at a time and place that works best for them.
  • Online programs tend to be more affordable than traditional campus-based programs. This can reduce or eliminate the need for loans.

Nursing loan forgiveness programs can also help more RNs earn their BSN. For example, RN to BSN students at UNM may qualify for the Nursing Student Loan-for-Service Program. Up to 100% of a student loan may be forgiven for service in an underserved area or agency.

A 2018 AACN survey on employer preferences found that over 88% of employers strongly prefer to hire RNs with a BSN. Over 45% require a bachelor's degree in nursing.

As evidence on the benefits of a BSN grows, it makes sense that employers would want to hire RNs with higher levels of education. For RNs who want to advance in their careers — or in some cases just keep their jobs — now is the time to earn a BSN. 

Learn more about UNM's online RN to BSN program.


National Academy of Sciences: The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health

Population Reference Bureau: Fact Sheet: Aging in the United States

American Association of Colleges of Nursing: Creating a More Highly Qualified Nursing Workforce

Institute of Medicine: To Err Is Human: Building a Safer Health System

Campaign for Action: Transforming Nursing Education - Goal and Impact

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Registered Nurses

New York State Legislation: Educational Preparation for Practice of Professional Nursing

American Association of Colleges of Nursing: Employment of New Nurse Graduates and Employer Preferences for Baccalaureate-Prepared Nurses

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