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Moving on UP: Transitioning from CNA to LPN, LPN to RN 

If you are thinking about advancing your nursing career from a CNA to an LPN, or an LPN to an RN and beyond, kudos to you.

While going to school and studying for nurse exams is no easy feat, CNAs make an average of about $10 - $14 an hour, while LPNs on average start in the early $20 range and RNs fall in the early $30 range, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

So needless to say, it pays to get credentials.

Here’s a general breakdown on the difference between each level, what it takes to get to the next level of certification and your options for getting there.


CNAs vs. LPNs: (Certified Nursing Aides vs. Licensed Practical Nurses)

Duties may vary from place to place, but a CNA’s responsibility generally consists of assisting patients with bathing and dressing, checking vital signs, answering call lights and assisting nurses.

CNAs and LPNs share many of the same duties, but LPNs are licensed and pass state board approved exams in order to provide basic health care.

CNAs only receive certification from a training program which can take two to four months to complete.

They work under the supervision of others, helping both patients and nurse complete tasks.

Requirements for certification vary from state to state, and they’re often obtained from a variety of places including high schools, colleges and vocational schools.

LPNs have a wider scope of practice and provide more medical attention care, working in close contact with patients. They work under a supervisor or registered nurse, administering medication, collecting data, communicating information and much more.


Options to Become an LPN/LVN (Licensed Practical Nurse/ Licensed Vocation Nurse): One to Two Years


In order to become an LPN, you must pursue either an LPN diploma or an associate’s degree. Both options come with the same earning potential, but their pros and cons to each track.

Diplomas take the shortest period of time to complete and are the least expensive route, lasting around 12 months. You get less credit hours, but you are able to enter the workforce more quickly, as long as you pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Practical Nurses (NCLEX-PN).

Getting an LPN  associates degree takes 18 to 24 months. It’s more expensive than a diploma and requires more credit hours, but if you plan to eventually become an RN, you will be able to advance through an RN diploma program more quickly, with credits that can be applied to a bachelor’s degree.

The job outlook for LPNs is expected to grow 25 percent between now and 2022.

*Tip: CNAs, look for an accredited school that accepts your previous CNA courses for credit.


LPNs vs RNs (Licensed Practical Nurses vs. Registered Nurses)

LPNs and RNs complete a lot of the same duties, however, being an RN comes with much more responsibility, more opportunities and on average, they earn at least $20,000 more.

RNs are able to make calls affecting the “bigger picture”.

They’re trained to make decisions on riskier medical situations. RNs generally have the authority to perform diagnostic tests, make assessments, treat critical patients and administer potentially dangerous medications.

These kinds of decisions are typically outside the scope of practice for LPNs. LPNs must answer to physicians and RNs, working under their supervision, so they aren’t as independent.

The career opportunities for RNs are also much more vast, especially if a nurse obtains a bachelors of science (BSN) degree.

You can explore positions in the typical places hospitals, doctors offices, schools and homes, or you can veer off the traditional path, exploring options that involve less patient contact, like forensic nursing, becoming a nurse educator, nurse administrator or even a nurse legal consultant.

For more on non-clinical careers, check out the Nurse Journal’s article:15 Great Non-Hospital Nursing Jobs For Nurses

Options for Becoming a Registered Nurse: Two to Three Years (ASN), Four to Five Years (BSN)

You can become an RN by receiving a formal associates of science in nursing degree (ASN) or a bachelor’s of science in nursing degree (BSN).

You can work toward your degree in a number of places, including nursing schools and community colleges, which are far more  affordable than universities.

While becoming an RN is more costly than becoming an LPN, many hospitals and other nurse employers offer some form of tuition assistance. Some hospitals have hospital-based RN programs, and in many instances the costs for the diploma are covered.

Just keep in mind these kind of programs are generally being phased out of hospitals and into a college/university setting.

If you decide to get your ASN, most programs last for two to three years, and the good news is, you can use those credits toward a BSN degree in the future. Like other bachelor programs, BSN degrees take at least four years (less if you’re using ASN credit hours toward the degree) and are attained at a four-year college or university.

Some hospitals also offer financial assistance and resources for nurses transitioning from ASN to BSN.


Finding Education Programs:

The cost for nursing programs can range anywhere between $3,000 to $15,000, depending on where you get your education.


Things to Look For

As you are searching for the institution you want to attend, make sure the school is accredited. Many BSN/MSN programs require that your previous credits came from an accredited school. Make sure that your program is accredited in your state, as well as the national boards, the National League of Nursing Accreditation Commission (NLNAC) and the American Association of Colleges of Nursing Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education AACN-CCNE.

One of the most intimidating parts about advancing your nurse education is the testing.

Aspiring LPNs must take the National Council Licensure Examination for Practical Nursing (NCLEX-PN) while aspiring RNs must take the NCLEX-RN. As you’re choosing your school, make sure that the institution has a high NCLEX Pass Rate. You can judge the quality of a program by how many students from the student body took the NCLEX, how many of those students passed the exam and how many failed.  

There may be slight variations for the NCLEX from state to state, so confirm the licensure requirements with your state board. Find your state board information here:


Here are a number of free resources that will help you study for the NCLEX:

Free Nclex Prep

Nclex practice questions

Nnclex PN practice test questions


For RNs:

Nclex RN test study guide

For LPNs:

Nclex PN test


One option for both aspiring LPNs and RNs  is to track down a “bridge” program.

As the name implies, these programs “bridge” the knowledge gap between training received as a certified nursing aides/assistants and training requirements for Registered Nurses (RNs) or Licensed Practical Nurses (LPN). LPNs may be referred to as Licensed Vocational Nurses (LVNs), depending on the state where you decide to work.

You can find bridge nurse program at a vocational school, community college, university, or online.

If you’re a CNA who has made up his or her mind to become an RN, some schools offer programs that transition CNAs to RNs, with a CNA to LPN, LPN  to RN bridge.

There are also options that go directly from CNA to RN, skipping the LPN step. Same for LPNs who want to become RNs. There are both LPN to RN programs, LPN to BSN programs and RN to BSN programs.

Some of these options are not available online, and many programs require that you complete clinical hours.


Further Advanced Degrees

If you are looking to climb up the ranks and be considered for positions like a nurse practitioner or a clinical nurse specialist, you should consider pursuing a Master of Science in Nursing.

Nurses who hold an MSN degree earn an average of $39 per hour. This degree allows nurses to go further into specialized areas of nursing and participate in advanced practice nursing.

With a doctorate of nursing, you can and earn an average of $45 an hour, and get access to exciting positions as a nursing faculty member, director of research, director of clinical services,  teaching opportunities and slew of hospital leadership roles.

Regardless of what kind of diploma or degree you’re trying to pursue, you are looking at a serious time commitment that requires a lot of mental energy, so you have to determine whether you have the strength and resources to pursue it as you manage other life obligations (job, family life, etc. )

However, the payoff is signifi

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cant in both pay and career advancement. The further you get in your education, the more you get to contribute to a continually growing field that will always be in demand.


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