Becoming a nurse is a goal of many individuals. However, some may not have the luxury to become a nurse right out of high school. Financial and familial constraints may not allow people to complete a demanding associate’s degree or bachelor’s degree nursing program. Also, some aren’t 100% sure they want to become a nurse, so they may choose to “get their feet wet” by first becoming a certified nursing assistant (CNA).

Certified nursing assistants are the front-line staff in patient care. They are responsible for many duties, including taking vital signs, assisting with patient mobility, assisting with feeding, documenting intake and output, hygiene, and sometimes basic wound care. CNAs learn a great deal about nursing, mainly because they work so closely with RNs and LVN/LPNs. Nursing programs are aware of this, and some offer bridging or a CNA to RN program so that nursing assistants can take that next step into registered nursing.

Related: How to Become Certified as a CNA in Your State

Benefits of CNA to RN Programs

CNA to RN programs allow nurse assistants to enroll in the RN program and not have to repeat unnecessary courses. An RN program can take between two and four years to complete. For CNAs entering the RN program, the time to completion is reduced, sometimes by about six months. In fact, many CNA courses are transferable to RN programs.

Additionally, nurse assistants gain critical bedside experience needed to become an RN. They already have the foundation in place. New nursing students who have never worked in patient care may feel a little intimidated in the beginning. Working as a CNA before nursing school can reduce these feelings, as students may have a better understanding of what to expect.

How CNA to RN Programs Work

CNA to RN programs work in a few different ways. First, RN programs may offer a "bridge." In other words, courses taken in a CNA program can be transferred and applied to the nursing program. CNA programs include courses such as:

  • Anatomy and Physiology
  • Personal care/patient hygiene
  • Environmental care (e., bedmaking)
  • Vital signs
  • Nutrition
  • Exercise/activity
  • Special needs care
  • Care of the patient with specific disorders (e.g., diabetes, neurological disorders, etc.)
  • Medical terminology
  • Communication

These concepts are introduced either as a prerequisite to nursing programs or in the first semester of nursing programs. Therefore, CNAs have an advantage when applying for nursing school.

Another method of pursuing an RN degree is to "test out" of required prerequisite courses. Many times, nurse assistants who have been at the bedside for several years or more have gained the essential knowledge needed, and therefore taking certain prerequisite courses is unnecessary. There are a few test prep programs available, such as the one by Achieve Test Prep.

Find out more about other RN "bridge" programs, including LPN to RN and Paramedic to RN.

Online CNA to RN Options

Returning to school is a momentous decision. Often, those looking to advance their education or degree are already working or raising families. Therefore, some level of flexibility is needed to make it work. Thankfully, in today's digital age some RN courses can be completed online. While the clinical portion of the nursing program needs to be on-site, nursing theory and prerequisites can be done via distance learning.

This is extremely beneficial for those in a CNA to RN program. Even those looking to "test out" of certain courses have an advantage, as test preps can be done online or via a "hybrid" option.

CNA to RN Program Cost

The cost of CNA to RN programs can vary greatly. Cost depends on the school, program, state, and even city. Costs may range from the low thousands to over $10,000 or more per year. Community colleges are less expensive than four-year universities. Private colleges/universities may cost even more. Additionally, tuition is one factor- supplies, books, transportation, and living expenses are all additional costs. However, most schools offer financial aid, and sometimes grants are available. Prospective students are encouraged to browse websites and campuses to find the options that best fit their needs.

CNA to RN Program Curriculum

The curriculum in a CNA to RN program (bridge or otherwise) varies between schools, and also varies based on what courses the student was able to transfer or test out of. Depending on the student and the school, students may skip the nursing fundamentals and focus on more advanced nursing skills such as:

  • Physical assessment
  • Nursing care plans
  • Pharmacology
  • Population-specific care
  • Research
  • Leadership

A key point when becoming an RN is to utilize the nursing process when caring for patients. This means assessing, formulating a nursing diagnosis, planning and implementing a treatment plan, and evaluating the results. This process does not come easily- it takes practice and can only be mastered via nursing school and practicing as an RN.

Career Outlook

Registered nurses are currently in demand. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects job growth of 15% until 2026, which is a much faster-than-average growth. An aging population and recent healthcare legislation have caused an increased demand for healthcare services. More patients require care as the baby-boomer population ages. Those with a bachelor's degree in nursing may have an advantage when looking for employment. Learn more about the various RN careers and becoming an RN.

The bulk of registered nurses work in the inpatient, or hospital, setting. The top four employment industries include:

  • Physician offices
  • Home Health Care Services
  • Nursing Facilities
  • Outpatient care centers