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Different Levels of Nursing: RN vs. CNA

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Nursing is one of the most impactful fields in healthcare, offering professionals the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others. The variety of educational and career options in this fast-growing field allows you to follow the path that interests you most. Two popular choices are becoming a registered nurse (RN) or a certified nursing assistant (CNA).


There are several differences between an RN and a CNA program, though both can lead to jobs in the nursing field and offer the opportunity to work in environments such as hospitals, retirement homes, nursing facilities, and doctors’ offices. The following outlines some of the main similarities and differences in work environments, median salaries, and educational paths.

RN Overview

Becoming an RN requires a two-year or four-year degree from an accredited university, such as Maryville University’s RN to BSN online. The curriculum is science-based and often includes courses in anatomy, physiology, microbiology, psychology, chemistry, and nutrition. Four-year programs offer additional courses in social sciences, communication, and leadership. BSN students learn key skills, including organization, communication, and empathy. Upon completion of a degree, an aspiring RN must pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) to earn licensure. This exam assesses one’s professional acumen and allows employment in a specific state.

What Do RN Graduates Do?

Once they earn a degree and license, RN graduates apply their skills in the field. They can work in a wide array of healthcare institutions, such as hospitals, community clinics, and emergency clinics. Their work includes coordinating care for patients, teaching patients about health issues, and supporting and advocating for patients and their families. They use their organization and communication skills to work with a team of medical professionals.


There are a variety of career options for RNs to choose from:

  • Neonatology nurse. Neonatology nurses work with newborns, addressing their overall health and problems such as prematurity or birth defects.
  • Rehabilitation nurse. Rehabilitation nurses assist those with an injury or chronic illness to achieve and maintain maximum health and mobility.
  • Public health nurse. Public health nurses promote and educate large portions of the population on health initiatives such as smoking cessation and heart disease prevention. They also may offer screenings for diseases such as skin cancer.
  • Cardiovascular nurse. Cardiovascular nurses specialize in all aspects of heart fitness, disease, and care.

CNA Overview

A CNA provides basic healthcare by working directly with patients as they carry out daily activities. When comparing an RN and a CNA, the scope of work varies. RNs have more autonomy to do their jobs compared with CNAs, who are assistants to RNs and other medical providers. CNAs have a more limited scope and work under supervision, but they alleviate the workload of others, allowing for better overall patient care.


To become a CNA, candidates must earn a high school degree or equivalent and enroll in a CNA program. CNA programs are widely offered at community colleges and vocational schools. The school must be approved by the state’s nursing board for CNAs to then enter the nursing field. The curriculum typically includes nursing coursework followed by clinical work in a healthcare facility. Aspiring CNAs often complete on-the-job training following graduation.

What Do CNA Graduates Do?

CNA graduates typically become nurse assistants or nursing aides and provide care for patients in hospitals and long-term care facilities. They help patients with daily activities, such as eating, bathing, and moving around. CNAs are the most direct caretakers for patients in facilities such as retirement homes and often see their patients multiple times each day.

  • Nursing assistant in a retirement home. These nursing assistants work with the elderly to get daily tasks done, from personal hygiene to picking up the mail.
  • Nursing assistant in a local hospital. These nursing assistants take vital signs, help RNs with mobility exercises, transfer patients with limited mobility to beds or wheelchairs, and keep RNs and doctors informed of any changes in a patient’s health.
  • In-home nursing assistant. These nursing assistants provide help with mobility, dressing, bathing, and maintaining a healthy home environment.

Similarities Between an RN and a CNA

Both RNs and CNAs can pursue rewarding careers in the nursing field in a variety of settings. They work as part of a medical team and directly with patients. Both are in high demand, and their roles are growing faster than average.

Differences Between an RN and a CNA

What’s the difference between an RN and a CNA? While they may seem similar, RNs and CNAs can work in different environments, have different educational paths, and earn different salaries.

Educational Path and Licensing

RN programs typically take two or four years to complete, while CNA programs often take less than one year. RN programs offer specializations in a particular type of nursing, such as neonatology or rehabilitation nursing. CNA programs tend to be more general, do not require any college education, and focus more on direct clinical experience than on coursework.


While both careers require a license, RNs pursue regular continuing education opportunities to keep their licenses active.

Work Environment for an RN vs. CNA

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 61% of RNs work in hospitals, while 18% work in ambulatory care facilities. The remaining RNs work in residential facilities, education, or government.


CNA graduates may work in more diverse settings. According to the BLS, 40% of nursing assistants and orderlies, which include CNAs, work in nursing facilities, 26% in hospitals, and 11% in retirement communities. Other CNAs find careers in home healthcare services or with the government.

Salary and Job Growth

Since RN programs are longer and more involved, RNs tend to earn higher salaries than CNAs. The BLS reports the median annual salary for RNs in 2018 was $71,730, while the median annual salary for CNAs was $28,530. In both cases, salaries vary based on experience, geographic location, and industry. For example, government-employed nursing assistants earned a higher median salary of $33,800.


The BLS expects both fields to expand as the need for more healthcare practitioners continues to grow. The agency indicates an 11% growth in the employment of nursing assistants between 2016 and 2026 and a 15% growth in the employment of RNs — both higher than the average for all occupations (7%).

Learn More

If you’re ready to make a difference through nursing, you have a variety of options, such as becoming a CNA or RN. An RN program might offer the perfect fit if you want a solid foundation of coursework in the science field before beginning your career. Maryville’s RN to BSN online program gives RNs the chance to meet diverse patient needs and prepare for career advancement opportunities. Learn more and step into your future in nursing.


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