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Question: What Are the Differences Between a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) Program and a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) Program?

Answer: A Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) program is an academic program that provides students with undergraduate training and instruction in nursing and that leads to the conferral of a bachelor’s degree. A Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) program is a graduate program that provides advanced training and instruction in a nursing specialization. While BSN programs prepare students to become general practice Registered Nurses (RNs), MSN programs train RNs for more specialized roles, such as nurse administrator, nurse educator, and Clinical Nurse Leader (CNL), and for Advance Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) specializations, including Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS), Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM), and Nurse Practitioner (NP).

BSN Programs

BSN stand for Bachelor of Science in Nursing, the most common type of nursing degree offered at the baccalaureate level. Like other types of bachelor’s programs, BSN programs require the completion of general education coursework in the arts, sciences, and humanities, as well a designated nursing curriculum, which may be referred to as a nursing major. While crediting and coursework requirement vary by school and by program, a common number of credits required to earn a BSN degree is roughly 120. Up to half or more of these credits may be in general education courses, or what the American Association of College of Nurses (AACN) refers to as “Liberal Education for Baccalaureate General Nursing Practice” in its Essentials of Baccalaureate Education For Professional Nursing Practice, a document that provides guidelines for BSN program curricula. As defined by the AACN, a liberal education includes courses in the physical sciences, life sciences, social sciences, mathematics, fine arts, performing arts, and humanities.

A BSN nursing major typically consists of didactic courses in health assessment, pathophysiology, pharmacology, population health, clinical research methods, and other areas of general nursing practice (e.g., women’s health, mental health, child health), as well as labs and a supervised clinical hours. Students in a BSN program generally spend about two of the four years it takes to complete a bachelor’s degree on general education and nursing prerequisite coursework, and an additional two years on core nursing major requirements and electives.

The AACN recommends that BSN programs cover seven general areas of nursing education and training. These include:

  • Basic Organizational and Systems Leadership for Quality Care and Patient Safety
  • Scholarship for Evidence-Based Practice
  • Information Management and Application of Patient Care Technology
  • Healthcare Policy, Finance, and Regulatory Environments
  • Interprofessional Communication and Collaboration for Improving Patient Health Outcomes
  • Clinical Prevention and Population Health
  • Professionalism and Professional Values
  • Baccalaureate Generalist Nursing Practice

The AACN also stresses that BSN programs should require, “clinical experiences with a substantive number of hours in a consistent clinical setting over a concentrated period of time.” The exact number of clinical hours required by BSN programs varies by program. However, clinical hours at the baccalaureate level are generally incorporated into a curriculum that can be completed in four-years or eight-semesters of full-time undergraduate study. Accreditation of BSN programs is administered by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) and the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN).

It is important to note that a bachelor’s degree is not required for RN licensure. Although RN licensure requirements vary by state, a two-year associate degree in nursing (ADN) or hospital-based nursing diploma program is generally sufficient to qualify for RN licensure. RNs who do not hold a bachelor’s degree can earn a BSN degree through designated RN-to-BSN programs. For more information on these programs, refer to our How Long Does it Take to Complete an RN-to-BSN Program? FAQ.

MSN Programs

An MSN or Master of Science in Nursing program is a graduate program designed to provide RNs with advanced practical training in a nursing specialization. There are MSN programs in an array of specializations. These include the Advance Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) specializations of Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM), Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS), and Nurse Practitioner (NP). There are also a number of non-APRN MSN specializations, such as Clinical Nurse Leader (CNL), nurse administrator/executive leadership, nurse educator, nursing informatics, and patient safety/healthcare quality management.

The primary focus of an MSN curriculum is practice-based training in nursing. Unlike BSN programs, MSN programs do not require general education coursework in areas outside of nursing. They do, however, require students to complete some general coursework in nursing practice and clinical internships and/or practicums within their specialization. The number of clinical hours required by MSN programs varies by program and by specialization. However, most MSN students engage in a minimum of 400 hours of supervised clinical experiences.

While MSN program curricula and clinical requirements vary by program and by specialization, the AACN maintains general MSN program guidelines. In The Essentials of Master’s Education in Nursing, the AACN lists nine key areas of curricular focus for MSN programs:

  • Background for Practice from Sciences and Humanities
  • Organizational and Systems Leadership
  • Quality Improvement and Safety
  • Translating and Integrating Scholarship into Practice
  • Informatics and Healthcare Technologies
  • Health Policy and Advocacy
  • Interprofessional Collaboration for Improving Patient and Population Health Outcomes
  • Clinical Prevention and Population Health for Improving Health
  • Master’s Level Nursing Practice

In addition, the AACN maintains guidelines for Competencies and Curricular Expectations for Clinical Nurse Leader Education and Practice, general NP Core Competencies guidelines, and curricular frameworks for several APRN specializations, including: Adult-Gerontology CNS Core Competencies; Adult-Gerontology Primary Care NP; Adult-Gerontology Acute Care NP.

Traditional MSN programs require applicants to hold a valid and unencumbered RN license and a bachelor’s degree. While some programs require students to hold a BSN degree, others are designed to accommodate RNs who have a non-nursing bachelor’s degree in addition to their ADN. There are also RN-to-MSN programs that will accept RNs who have not completed a bachelor’s program but who received their training in two-year ADN and hospital-based nursing diploma programs. For further details on MSN programs that accept applicants who do not hold a bachelor’s degree, refer to our What Are RN-to-BSN-to-MSN (Dual BSN-MSN) Programs? FAQ.

Accreditation for many types of MSN programs is administered by the CCNE and/or the ACEN. MSN programs with a nurse-midwifery specialization may be accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Midwifery Education (ACME). And MSN programs with a nursing administration curriculum may be accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Management Education (CAHME).

Note: There are also master’s entry MSN programs, which are sometimes called accelerated or direct entry MSN programs. These programs accept applicants who hold any type of bachelor’s degree and are designed to prepare students to enter the field of nursing. These programs include training for RN licensure before students proceed to master’s-level training in an advanced practice specialty. Master’s entry MSN program are typically not offered online and have strict admissions criteria.

BSN vs. MSN: A Side-by-Side Comparison

The table below delineates some of the key differences and some of the similarities between BSN and MSN programs.

Degree levelUndergraduateGraduate
Admissions requirementHigh school diploma or the equivalentRN licensure, with the exception of master’s-entry MSN programs
Average years to completionFourTwo
General education courseworkYesNo

More Nursing FAQs:

FAQ: Are There Online Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) Programs that Waive or Do Not Require the GRE?
FAQ: Are There Online MSN Programs That Do Not Require the GRE for Admission?
FAQ: Are There Online Nurse Practitioner (NP) Programs That Do Not Require the GRE or That Offer GRE Waivers?
FAQ: How Do You Become A Clinical Nurse Leader (CNL)?
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FAQ: How Long Does it Take to Complete an MSN-to-DNP Program?
FAQ: How Long Does it Take to Complete an RN-to-BSN Program?
FAQ: What Are RN-to-BSN-to-MSN (Dual BSN/MSN) Programs?
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