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How to Become a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)

15 Min Read Published August 14, 2023
How to become a CNA: Nursing assistant guide by nurse.org

What is a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)?

A CNA, or Certified Nursing Assistant, is a healthcare professional who provides basic care to patients under the supervision of a Registered Nurse (RN) or a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN). CNAs are sometimes referred to as nurse aides, patient care technicians, or nursing assistants. They assist with daily patient care tasks like dressing, bathing, and checking patient vital signs.

These vital patient care providers are the backbone of the American healthcare system. And with a short certification process, becoming a CNA is often the most accessible way for new workers to join the nursing field. 

This article will explore what certified nursing assistants do, how much they earn, and how to become a CNA. Keep reading to prepare for your nursing assistant career today.

What Does a CNA Do?

CNAs can help a unit run smoothly, especially for nurses with multiple medically complex patients. Common CNA responsibilities include:

  1. Turning or repositioning patients
  2. Gathering supplies for the RN or MD
  3. Checking and charting vital signs
  4. Answering patient calls/bells
  5. Bathing, feeding, and dressing patients
  6. Measuring and recording patient food/liquid intake
  7. Preparing rooms for admissions 
  8. Assisting with medical procedures
  9. Dressing wounds
  10. Assisting patients with elimination

Direct responsibilities will vary based on the location of employment and the nurse's level of need. Different states have individual CNA requirements and duties. You can check your state guidelines for specific details about approved CNA duties and tasks in the state where you plan to practice.

Search CNA to RN Programs

CNAs: earn your RN degree in up to 1/2 the time and cost of traditional programs with Achieve Test Prep's "Nursing Test-Out Program". All applicants must be a CNA to apply.

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How to Become a CNA

Certified nursing assistants must complete a state-approved training program. CNA programs are generally found at local community colleges, high schools, vocational or technical schools, or local hospitals.

Most programs have similar CNA certification requirements that must be completed prior to application and acceptance. The American Red Cross runs a popular CNA training program throughout the country which runs for 4-8 weeks depending on class size and location. Prerequisites include:

  1. Attendance at an orientation information session
  2. TABE (reading and math assessment) OR verification of High School diploma or GED
  3. Red Cross criminal background check prior to registration
  4. Completion of Red Cross physical form and TB test

Where Do CNAs Work?

The most common CNA workplaces include:

  • Hospitals (state and local)
  • Skilled nursing facilities
  • Long-term residential facilities
  • Rehabilitation centers
  • Adult daycare centers

Certified nursing assistants rarely work in outpatient, office, or clinic settings. These facilities all require nursing assistants to act as a liaison between the nurse and the patient. 

CNA Qualities

As patient care liaisons, CNAs must enjoy interacting with people and have good bedside manners. But other skills or attributes that can help your nursing assistant career include:

  1. Flexibility
  2. Advanced communication skills
  3. Time management
  4. Compassion
  5. Reliability
  6. Physical Strength
  7. Empathy

CNA Salary

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary for nursing assistants in 2021 was $30,290 per year or $14.56 per hour. 

However, CNA salary expectations will vary depending on the setting and area. CNAs working at junior colleges earn the most, with an average mean salary of  $69,150. On the other hand, home healthcare services have the lowest median pay at $32,160. 

Where Do CNAs Make the Most Money?

According to the BLS, the following states have the highest pay scale for certified nursing assistants. 

Highest Paying States For CNAs

State Hourly Avg Annual Average
Alaska $21.35 $44,420
District of Columbia $21.07 $43,820
California $20.95 $43,570
New York $20.89 $43,450
Oregon $20.65 $42,960

Metropolitan areas tend to pay higher for nursing assistants. Some of the highest-paying cities include:

Highest Paying Cities for CNAs

Metro Area Hourly Annual
San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA $25.13 $52,280
San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA $24.81  $51,600
Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI $22.36     $46,520
Salem, OR $21.59     $44,900
New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA $21.50     $44,720

Nonmetropolitan areas that pay CNAs the most in the US include:

  1. Alaska nonmetropolitan area
  2. North Valley-Northern Mountains Region of California nonmetropolitan area
  3. Massachusetts nonmetropolitan area
  4. Eastern Sierra-Mother Lode Region of California nonmetropolitan area
  5. North Coast Region of California nonmetropolitan area

Search CNA to RN Programs

CNAs: earn your RN degree in up to 1/2 the time and cost of traditional programs with Achieve Test Prep's "Nursing Test-Out Program". All applicants must be a CNA to apply.

Are you a CNA?
Sponsored

Top CNA Programs

We consulted nursing experts to curate the top 10 CNA programs in the nation. To determine which programs made this list, we used the following methods and panel:

Methodology

Our nurses ranked these programs based on numerous factors, including:

  • Reputation
  • Tuition
  • Acceptance rate, when available

Nurse Panel

3 Registered Nurses with years of experience and multiple degrees comprise our selection panel:

  • Tracy Everhart, MSN, RN, CNS
  • Tyler Faust, MSN, RN
  • Kathleen Gaines, MSN, BSN, RN, BA, CBC

Because individual nursing pathways take various forms, our panel ranked these CNA programs in no particular order. 

1. American Red Cross

Total Program Cost: $1,250

Online: Hybrid

Program Length: 4-8 weeks

The American Red Cross, well known for its education and certifications, also teaches students to become CNAs. The hybrid program lets students complete courses online while earning experience in person.

As a nationwide organization, the American Red Cross reaches numerous cities and states, so individuals across the country can enroll. Depending on how quickly the student completes courses, the program takes 4-8 weeks to complete. Also, program costs can vary from location to location. 

2. Cochise College

Program Tuition: Up to $2,000

Online: No

Program Length: 12 weeks

Based in Cochise County, Arizona, Cochise College offers multiple allied health programs, including a nursing assistant certificate. Cochise College's two-course CNA program teaches skills to become a nurse assistant as well as basic CPR and First Aid skills. Graduates also become CPR and First Aid certified. Arizona residents get an in-state discount, though Cochise also extends discounts to senior citizens and charges a per-credit rate. 

3. Hutchinson Community College

In-State Program Tuition: $927 Out-of-State Program Tuition: $1,066

Online: No

Program Length: 12 weeks

Created to educate nurses to work with elderly patients in long-term healthcare settings, Hutchinson Community College's CNA program requires just 4.5 credits to graduates, making it among the shortest and most affordable CNA programs available.

Accredited by the Higher Learning Commission, students must study on-site in Hutchinson, Kansas. While the Kansas Board of Nursing doesn't disclose outcomes for CNA programs, this short program quickly prepares nurses to gain a CNA certification. 

4. Pratt Community College

Program Tuition: $985

Online: Hybrid

Program Length: 12 weeks

Pratt Community College, another college located in Kansas, offers its CNA program in a hybrid format, allowing students to complete coursework and theory online. The program requires five credits, though students who choose to study online do not receive an in-state tuition discount. Regardless, Pratt CC's CNA program costs far less than other programs. Graduates can find positions in nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and various hospitals. 

5. Elizabethtown Community and Technical College

Program Tuition: $781

Online: No

Program Length: 12 weeks

Elizabethtown Community and Technical College offers the best CNA program in Kentucky and perhaps in the region. The low-cost CNA program requires the completion of just 96 hours of practice, 16 of which must be supervised clinical skills training. 

Students can also complete a Medicaid Nurse Aide Certificate to boost their job prospects and potential earnings. Graduates must attend 100% of courses to graduates. Elizabethtown offers courses on weekdays, Saturdays, and in the evening. 

6. Fox Valley Technical College

Program Tuition: $507.55

Online: No

Program Length: Up to 12 weeks

Located in Appleton, Wisconsin, Fox Valley Technical College's CNA program is among the cheapest routes for becoming a CNA, though the school's estimated costs do not include exam fees. The full-time program consists of daytime and evening courses, and FVTC also offers an accelerated format that takes less than 12 weeks to complete.

Students cannot take courses online but can complete courses at six different locations in Wisconsin. Graduates can also transfer their CNA credits into an associate's or bachelor's degree. 

7. Elgin Community College

In-State Program Tuition: $1,019 Out-of-State Program Tuition: $2,772

Online: No

Program Length: 12 weeks

Elgin Community College offers one of the most comprehensive nurse assistant programs. The training program requires the completion of seven credit hours (double what other programs require) to increase graduates' job prospects by increasing their potential scope of practice. By the end of the program, graduates can take the nurse assistant certification exam in Illinois, though the program might also meet requirements for other states. 

8. Century College

Annual Tuition: $800

Online: No

Program Length: 12 weeks

Century College, based in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, offers its four-credit nurse assistant certificate program in both part-time and full-time formats. Available year-round, the CNA program allows students to complete courses either for credit or not for credit.

Both options lead to program completion, though for-credit courses can be transferred into an associate's or bachelor's degree. Regardless of which option students choose, Century College is among the most affordable institutions in the region. 

9. City College of San Francisco

In-State Program Tuition: $181 Out-of-State Program Tuition: $1,004

Online: No

Program Length: 6-10 weeks

With several CNA options available, the City College of San Francisco is one of California's most versatile CNA programs. Nurse assistant students choose to specialize in acute care or convalescent care, which take 6 and 10 weeks to complete, respectively.

The convalescent care route also requires twice as many credits, meaning double the tuition cost. The City College of San Francisco is definitely more affordable for California residents who pay a fraction of what out-of-state students pay. 

10. Miles Community College

In-State Program Tuition: $716.00 Out-of-State Program Tuition: $924.00

Online: Hybrid

Program Length: 10 weeks

Miles City, Montana-based Miles Community College offers one of the region's best (and most affordable) CNA programs. Students complete 45 of the required credit hours online and 30 hours of clinical practice in person. The 75-hour program counts as four credits that students can transfer into another nursing program.

Note that while Miles CC's CNA program prepares nurses for Montana certification, the costs associated with the exam are not included in the total tuition. 

Online CNA Programs

While the Red Cross offers in-person classes, some vocational schools and community colleges offer online CNA programs. Many programs operate clinics at local hospitals.

There are pros and cons to the online programs. While individuals may be able to obtain their CNA certification quicker there is concern that individuals graduating from these programs are not gaining the same core knowledge and skills as their in-classroom counterparts.

>> Related: Top CNA Programs

How Do CNAs Transition to Other Nursing Positions?

Becoming a certified nursing assistant will not immediately prepare you for other nursing occupations.

However, the base of knowledge and experience earned as a CNA can help you gain entry into LPN or RN programs. But earning these nursing certifications will require completing separate continuing education programs.

Remember that your CNA experience and education won't likely translate to shortened LPN or RN training. But it could translate to less stress and confusion as you navigate nursing school courses. It can also help your career outlook because you'll already have a professional network when you graduate.

CNA Resources

Professional organizations such as the National Network of Career Nursing Assistants and the Nursing Association of Health Care Assistants are great resources for information about becoming a CNA. These resources offer:

  • Discussions on growing healthcare trends impacting CNAs
  • Healthcare conventions for nursing assistants
  • Access to education hours
  • Job boards and opportunities
  • Contact information for local chapters

These associations are more than just a great resource for new CNAs. They also provide vital information for those who are already established in their career. By joining these professional organizations, you can make vital connections with industry experts and managers, leading to future career growth opportunities.

CNA Career Outlook

Certified nursing assistants are currently in high demand, and the need is projected to continue through the next decade. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts CNA career growth to grow by 5% between 2021 and 2031. 

This number will only increase as the baby boomer generation ages, and there is an increased demand for additional long-term nursing care facilities. Nursing assistants will be needed to care for this population which is more likely to suffer from dementia and other neurologic changes.

If you're interested in becoming a CNA, you might also want to check out these other healthcare careers you can start working in quickly!

CNA vs Medical Assistant

While certified nursing assistants and medical assistants (MAs) have some similarities, they are not the same job. Both careers assist doctors, nurses, and other healthcare providers with treatments, procedures, and tests. However, MAs primarily conduct patient assessments and evaluations as they assist doctors with patient care and treatment.

On the other hand, certified nursing assistants focus on direct patient care. Nursing assistants also have specific job-related duties that are dictated by the state of employment.

>> Related: Medical Assistant vs CNA: What's the Difference?

CNA vs LPN

To become an LPN, you must pass a state-mandated exam and obtain a nursing license. On the other hand, CNAs only need to obtain a certification to practice.

Though both career paths don't require a college degree to practice, LPNs have higher education requirements than CNAs. For example, LPNs gain a deeper knowledge about healthcare and the human body during their year-long training programs. Such additional knowledge allows them to perform more complex procedures that CNAs cannot, like inserting a peripheral intravenous catheter.

CNA FAQs

  • What does certified CNA mean? 

    • CNA stands for Certified Nursing Assistant. 
  • What does a nursing assistant do?

    •  A CNA assists with nursing duties in patient care–this can include everything from help with grooming, bathing, feeding, and activities of daily life. 
  • How much do CNAs make an hour?

    • CNAs make an average of $14.56 per hour. 
  • How long is CNA training? 

    • You can become a CNA in as little as 4-12 weeks. 
  • What state pays CNAs the most?

    • Alaska, D.C., California, New York, and Oregon are the top 5 paying states in the U.S. 
  • What is the difference between a CNA and an LPN?

    • A CNA is a nursing assistant, while an LPN is a Licensed Practical Nurse. An LPN has more responsibilities and earns more than a CNA.
  • How much does it cost to become a CNA? 

    • You can complete nursing assistant training for under $1000. 
  • How can I get my CNA faster? 

    • Most CNA programs can be completed in a matter of weeks. 
  • What type of CNA gets paid the most?

    •  CNAs working at junior colleges earn the highest wages. 
CNA $20,000 - $30,000 Certificate Bedside
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