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Associate Degree Nurses in California Go Directly to Their Master’s

After more than a decade in the profession, Beth Harlan, RN, CRRN, decided to go back to school last year to further her nursing education. But rather than go for her BSN, the lead nurse in the acute rehab unit at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital opted to enroll in one of the popular ADN-to-MSN programs. The accelerated curricula, also known as RN-to-MSN programs, allow associate degree or diploma-prepared nurses to pursue graduate studies without first receiving a bachelor’s degree, usually in less than three years.

“I want to keep nursing, and I’m not sure how much longer I can be on the floor,” says Harlan, a graduate student at the University of San Francisco’s North Bay Regional Campus in Santa Rosa. “I wanted to get my master’s [degree] so I could use my brain more than my body.”

She liked the proximity of the USF program, as well as the accelerated pace. “I’m aging,” she says. “I don’t have a lot of time. So I want what time I use to be very focused, very driven.”

More Programs

Beth Harlan, RN, acute rehabilitation nurse at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, with classmate Kerry Colunga, RN, ED nurse at Kaiser San Rafael.

The ADN-to-MSN option is becoming more popular. More than 150 programs are in operation throughout the country, with 28 more in the planning stages, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN). The number of programs has more than doubled since 1994, when there were 70.

One of the new programs, slated to accept its first cohort of students in the fall, will be at Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, Calif. Jan Boller, RN, PhD, an associate professor at the university and director of its ADN-to-MSN program, says the school has a real commitment to providing nurses with associate degrees a streamlined entrée into graduate education. “They are a really rich resource because 70% of the nurses in California are educated at the associate-degree level,” says Boller, whose earliest degree was a diploma in nursing.

She notes that several other faculty members began with associate degrees. “So we are really committed to making that transition from the workplace into academia with a program that’s really geared toward clinical practice,” Boller says. “It’s practical, as well as based in theory and research and evidence-based practice.”

Nurses are often seeking the graduate degree to open up their career options, she says. “I think the real urgency is to get more educated at a higher level in order to fill the leadership positions,” she adds. “More and more, the hospitals are calling for a baccalaureate or higher degree. And to teach and be in leadership positions, quite often you need a master’s degree or higher.”

The Western University program will primarily be Web-based, with nurses completing coursework online, then meeting on campus just two weekends each semester. Some of the classes in the USF program are online, but most are on campus, with students meeting one evening per week.

No Leapfrogging

Jan Boller, RN

In both programs, the first courses include content common to a BSN program, such as writing and statistics. “It’s a common misperception that the RN-to-MSN programs leapfrog over the baccalaureate [content]. That’s not the case,” notes Fay Raines, RN, PhD, president of the AACN and dean of the College of Nursing at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. “What we’re finding is that most of them don’t stop along the way and award the baccalaureate degree, but all of those programs enable the student to meet the fundamental criteria for the baccalaureate [nursing] program.”

Because nurses have already made their career choice, sometimes taking the educational step from the ADN to the BSN “can be quite onerous if there are baccalaureate standards put into place that are not linked to the profession,” says Judith Karshmer, RN, PhD, dean of the USF School of Nursing. “For instance, many universities will require X number of units in humanities or a physical education requirement or language requirement to earn a bachelor’s degree. To require that they all, in order to get an advanced degree, must go back and complete the requirements for a baccalaureate is regressive.”

She says USF’s commitment to the graduate program shows that “even a Jesuit university that’s steeped in the liberal arts understands that those who have already chosen a profession need access in a straightforward way to pursue advanced degrees.”

The bottom line is better patient care, she says. “The data are pretty clear that the better-educated nurse is linked to better patient outcomes. Today’s knowledge can have a positive impact on tomorrow’s patients.”

Gaining that knowledge through her graduate studies can be quite intense at times, Harlan admits, but it’s worth it. “I think you owe it to your patients to try and be as knowledgeable as you can,” she says. “And you owe it to your profession. [But] it is intense. I’m not going to lie to people. I always tell people it’s the best thing I ever did for myself. And it’s the craziest thing I’ve ever done.”

The AACN fact sheet on RN-to-MSN programs can be viewed at

By | 2020-04-15T14:58:36-04:00 March 23rd, 2009|Categories: Uncategorized|0 Comments

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