RN Graduation Trends by State: The Increasing Share of Bachelor’s Degrees for Nurses

Published on Aug 29, 2014

Updated on Nov 3, 2022

Written by Emsi Burning Glass

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For years, the most common path to becoming a registered nurse was to obtain an associate’s degree. The Bureau of Labor Statistics still lists an associate’s as the typical entry level education for RNs, and community colleges are still a key training ground for nurses—especially for adults who are looking to change careers midstream and want to do so affordably.

But data from multiple sources presents a clear picture: The bachelor’s degree has overtaken a two-year diploma as the most common academic credential for registered nurses.

In 2003, more than half of all registered nursing graduates in the United States received an associate’s degree, compared to just 38% that collected a bachelor’s degree (represented by the dark red bars in the chart). Year by year since, four-year degrees have become a more popular option. By 2011, the breakdown was almost identical: 45.2% of all RN degrees were two-year, 45.0% were four-year, and the rest were master’s and other type of degrees.

And in 2013, the latest year of available data from the National Center for Education Statistics (available in EMSI’s Analyst tool), 49.5% of the 206,195 completions in the primary RN program (registered nursing/registered nurse) were awarded at the bachelor’s level. That’s a significantly higher share than the 41.5% for associate’s degrees.

These trends jibe with national educational attainment data reported by the BLS, which showed that as of 2010-2011, more 25-and-older RNs in the workforce held a bachelor’s degree (46%) than an associate’s degree (38.1%).

It bears mentioning that the number of RN degrees has exploded over the last decade with increased demand for nurses. There were 133% more RN completions in 2013 (206,195) than in 2003 (88,482). During that time, associate’s degree completions nearly doubled with 87% growth—and bachelor’s degree completions skyrocketed 204%. Meanwhile, master’s and other RN degree completions went up 107%, but the share of these degrees was smaller in 2013 than 2003, despite the growing need for nurse practitioners and other nurses with advanced degrees.

State Trends

Most states have followed the national trend of bachelor’s degree becoming increasingly prevalent for registered nurses. From 2003 to 2013, Utah had the largest growth in the share of four-year RN degrees—from 37% to 68%. California saw the second-biggest rise among all states, going from 15% of RN completions in ’03 at the bachelor’s level to 45% in ’13. (Meanwhile, the share of RN associate’s degrees in California plummeted from 66% to 42% over the same time; 8%, or 1,074, were at the master’s level in ’13.)

Other large states were just behind Utah and California—Arizona (No. 3 in increase in share), New Jersey (No. 5), Illinois (No. 6), and New York (No. 7).

Ten states, meanwhile, actually produced a lower share of bachelor’s degrees in 2013 than in 2003. In four states (Delaware, North Dakota, New Mexico, and New Hampshire), there was a significantly higher percentage of bachelor’s degrees a decade ago.

Arizona had the highest proportion of four-year RN degrees in 2013, at 73%, followed by North Dakota (71%) and Utah (68%). The lowest proportions belonged to New Mexico (25%) and New Hampshire (31%).

State2003 Share of Bachelor's RN Completions2010 Share of Bachelor's RN Completions2013 Share of Bachelor's RN Completions2003-2013 Increase in Share (Percentage Points)Utah37%37%68%32%California15%32%45%30%Arizona43%61%73%29%South Dakota34%53%61%27%New Jersey21%32%42%21%Illinois47%46%65%17%New York28%38%45%17%Oregon44%56%60%17%South Carolina26%32%43%16%Ohio35%41%49%14%Wyoming25%26%38%13%Kentucky27%33%40%13%North Carolina36%45%48%13%Indiana46%51%58%13%Texas42%43%54%12%Connecticut42%51%54%12%Massachusetts38%46%49%11%Colorado43%47%54%11%Missouri50%66%61%11%Nevada43%51%53%10%Tennessee46%53%55%10%Kansas36%37%46%10%Pennsylvania44%46%53%9%Maine51%59%60%8%Iowa37%38%45%8%New Hampshire24%28%31%7%Florida29%38%36%7%Michigan41%42%48%7%Virginia37%40%42%5%Oklahoma41%47%46%4%Nebraska60%61%64%4%Minnesota33%33%37%3%Alabama38%38%41%3%Arkansas36%37%38%3%Idaho52%48%55%3%Maryland42%41%44%2%Rhode Island49%59%51%2%West Virginia46%54%47%1%Mississippi39%32%40%1%Hawaii62%67%62%0%Wisconsin48%49%48%0%Montana57%57%55%-2%Georgia54%53%52%-2%District of Columbia61%75%57%-4%Washington39%36%35%-4%Louisiana60%58%55%-4%Vermont39%30%33%-6%Alaska61%55%49%-12%New Mexico40%35%25%-15%North Dakota91%75%71%-19%Delaware60%39%39%-21%Source: National Center for Education Statistics (via EMSI Analyst)

For more on EMSI’s education and employment data—available at the county, MSA, and ZIP code level—or to see RN completion trends for your region, email Josh Wright. Follow EMSI on Twitter (@DesktopEcon) or check us out on LinkedIn and Facebook.