How Much Education Is Really Needed?

Posted on July 20, 2018 by Greg Chmura

The amount of education someone needs for specific career is not necessarily simple to determine. As an example of this, in this blog we attempt to answer the question: “How much education do you need to be a registered nurse?”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the "typical entry-level education" for registered nursing is a bachelor's degree.[1]

It isn't as simple as just that, though. The BLS also publishes information about the actual educational attainment of workers by occupation.[2] According to these data, while about half of registered nurses have a bachelor's degree as their highest level of education, a third of nurses have highest attainment of an associate's degree.

Created with Highcharts 8.2.2 Educational Attainment: Registered Nurses 0.3% 1.0% 5.0% 33.0% 49.6% 9.2% 1.8% Less than high school diploma High school diploma or equivalent Some college, no degree Associate's degree Bachelor's degree Master's degree Doctoral or professional degree 0% 10% 20% 30% 40% 50% Source: BLS, 2015-16; attainment for workers 25 years and older


How is this possible? Isn't a bachelor's the minimum needed to be a nurse?

No—BLS is careful to characterize a bachelor's degree in this case as the “typical entry-level education.” Furthermore, what is typical today may not have been typical yesterday. So some workers who are nurse today may have entered the occupation when the requirements were

Now the picture is not quite as clear. What education level do you need today to get a job as a registered nurse? How about we ask the employers who are actively hiring registered nurses?

We can do this very easily with RTI[4] data, which captures and parses out information from hundreds of thousands of job ads every day.

Registered Nurses: Percent Needing a Bachelor's or Higher
Online Job Ads, Six Months Ending July 15, 2018


According to these data, when a U.S. employer describes education requirements in the job post, 32% of the time at least an associate's degree was required for a job as a registered nurse. The other 68% of the time a bachelor's degree or higher was needed.[5]

Furthermore, these data show variation in these requirements by state. For example, California employers, on average, are more demanding with their registered nursing requirement—76% require a bachelor's or higher. In Florida, on the other hand, an associate's is more likely to be sufficient, described as acceptable in 43% of the registered nursing ads there.[6]

The answer to our initial question, therefore, is that the education needed to work as a registered nurse varies case by case. Some occupations certainly have norms that may hold true more often than not. But variation in the labor market is quite typical.


[1] According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook.


[3] There is also the question of those extreme data in the first graphic—is it possible, for example, that some registered nurses haven't even graduated from high school? In this data set, some extreme points may actually be accurate. On the other hand, this is information from survey data, and the nature of survey data is to be not 100% clean. According to this same data set, for example, a half percent of surgeons have no more education than a high school diploma. Such outlier data can be viewed as likely errata.

[4] Real Time Intelligence, a data set within JobsEQ.

[5] These data exclude internships where a finished degree isn’t required.

[6] A number of factors could play into regional differences, such as law, workforce availability, and industry mix (for an example of the latter: hospital employers and home health care employers may have different requirements; states with different mixes of these industries will thus be affected by that).

This blog reflects Chmura staff assessments and opinions with the information available at the time the blog was written.