financial aid for nurses
Money and Taxes

Paying for Nursing School: A Comprehensive Guide to Financial Aid & Scholarships

Financial aid makes the dream of earning a nursing degree more accessible. Nursing scholarships and grants can lower the cost of tuition without having to repay the funds, and loans are available to cover the rest if necessary. This comprehensive guide answers common questions about paying for nursing school, including details on various financial aid options.

What Are the Different Nursing Degree Programs?

Nursing degree programs fall into three primary categories: non-degree, degree and advanced degree. The cost for nursing programs vary based on the degree you pursue, so it’s important to understand the difference. The different nursing degree programs include:

  • Diploma in practical nursing: Diploma programs usually require 12 months of full-time study and fulfill requirements for licensed practical nurse/licensed vocational nurse licensing.
  • Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or Associate of Science in Nursing (ASN): ADNs/ASNs generally require two years of full-time study and fulfill requirements for registered nurse (RN) licensing
  • Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree: BSNs typically require four years of full-time study and fulfill requirements for RN licensing.
  • Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree: MSNs are advanced degrees that usually require an RN license, a BSN and two to three years of full-time study, but there are also accelerated RN to MSN programs that don’t require a BSN. MSNs are ideal for nurses wanting to advance their education and potentially work as nurse practitioners, nurse managers, midwives, clinical nurse specialists or in other advanced practice RN roles.
  • Post-Master’s Certificate (PMC) in nursing: PMC programs require a master’s degree, an RN license and one to two years of full-time study and offer a way for RNs to specialize in another area or become APRNs. It may be required to gain certain specialty nursing credentials.
  • Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree: DNPs require a BSN or MSN, depending on the program, an RN license, clinical experience and three or more years of full-time study, unless you take an accelerated program. Some states require a DNP to practice as a nurse practitioner, but it can also prepare you to enter teaching and research careers.
  • Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing (Ph.D.) degree: A Ph.D. in nursing is another type of doctoral degree that prepares nurses for work in academic or research settings. It requires an MSN unless you take an accelerated BSN to Ph.D. program, an RN license and three to five years of full-time study.

How Much Does Nursing School Cost?

Nursing school costs depend on the school you attend and the type of program you take. For example, ADN programs should cost less than BSN programs. Public institutions, such as state universities and community colleges, usually have lower tuition rates than for-profit and nonprofit private colleges and universities.

For the 2020-21 academic year, the average cost of tuition for a two-year associate degree program was $3,900 at public institutions, $15,800 at private for-profit schools and $18,000 at private nonprofit colleges, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Average tuition rates for bachelor’s degree programs were $9,400 at public colleges and universities, $18,200 at private for-profit institutions and $37,600 at private nonprofit schools.

What Kind of Financial Aid Is Available for Nursing Students?

Grants, loans and scholarships are the primary forms of nursing school financial aid. Compare the differences between them to see which works best for your situation. Financial aid for nursing students includes:

  • Scholarships
  • Grants
  • Loans
  • Work-study jobs
  • Military financial aid

Grants for Nursing Schools

A grant is a financial aid award that you usually must qualify for based on demonstrated financial need. When applying for grants, you typically must submit tax returns, bank statements and records of investments to verify your income. If your parents or guardians still claim you as a dependent for tax purposes, they must also provide this information.

Grant programs have guidelines for continuing eligibility and may include requirements like fully completing your degree program and maintaining a minimum grade point average. You usually don’t have to repay grants if you meet all the guidelines.

Scholarships for Nursing Students

A scholarship is a financial award you don’t repay as long as you comply with eligibility guidelines. There are many different types of scholarships, including:

  • Academic: Academic scholarships are for students who maintained minimum grade point averages or scored high on standardized tests, such as the SATs or ACTs.
  • Needs-Based: Like grants, these nursing scholarships are for individuals who may otherwise be unable to afford college based on their income.
  • Identity-Based: These scholarships are for individuals who fall into a specific category, such as belonging to a particular ethnic or cultural group, identifying as LGBTQ+ or having a disability.
  • Creative: Essays, videos, artwork and other creative projects determine the recipients of these scholarships.
  • Athletic: Colleges and universities with athletics programs award scholarships to top-performing athletes who agree to play on their teams.
  • Activity-Based: These scholarships are available for students who participate in certain clubs or extracurricular activities, complete service projects or volunteer.
  • Employer-Sponsored: Employers may award scholarships to employees who work part-time or full-time while attending college. McDonald’s and Chipotle are examples of large companies that provide this employee benefit.

Loans for Nursing Degree Programs

A loan is a lump sum a financial institution gives you to cover the cost of tuition, room and board, books and other expenses. After graduation, you make payments to repay the total amount you borrowed plus interest.

What Are Some Nursing School Grants Available?

Nursing students qualify for some of the same grants as other students and may have access to grants specifically for students pursuing a healthcare profession. Some sources of grants for nursing schools include:

  • Federal Pell Grant: Administered by the U.S. Department of Education, these grants are available for undergraduate students who haven’t previously earned a degree and demonstrate financial need. The grant size varies based on academic program costs, whether you attend school full–time or part-time and your ability to pay for your education. During the 2022-23 academic year, the maximum amount available through the Pell Grant program was $6,895.
  • Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG): Some colleges and universities participate in the U.S. Department of Education’s FSEOG program to offer additional grants for undergraduate students with the greatest financial need. The grant awards $100 to $4,000 per year as of 2022.
  • State Grants: Some states offer grant programs for all undergraduate students with demonstrated financial need. Others provide grants specifically for nursing students. An example is the Maryland Workforce Shortage Student Assistance Grant, available to Maryland residents enrolled full-time or part-time in an accredited nursing school program. Your state’s department of education is a good source for determining the grants available in your area.

How to Find Nursing Scholarships

The U.S. Department of Labor offers a scholarship finder tool on its CareerOneStop website. You can search by keyword and filter results by state, school, level of study, affiliation requirements and more. You can sort results by deadline, award name or award amount. The search tool also allows you to locate grant and loan programs.

Is Nursing School Worth the Debt?

Many people find nursing school worth the cost because they find nursing to be a highly rewarding career choice. By delivering care, nurses have an opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of people facing health challenges. RN salaries vary across the country but are generally well above minimum wage, averaging $37.24 per hour in August 2022. Many employers also offer additional compensation in the form of employee benefits, such as health insurance and 401(k) retirement plans.

In addition to the field’s professional and financial benefits, nursing offers job security. Most areas of the U.S. continually face nursing shortages, so you’ll likely find numerous open positions to apply for, no matter where you search. Nurses also often have opportunities for advancement into supervisory roles or specialty fields as they gain experience, increasing their salary potential.

Private vs. Federal Student Loans

The two main types of student loans are federal and private. Both offer pros and cons based on your personal financial situation.

Federal Student Loans

Student loans funded by the federal government have fixed interest rates and multiple repayment plan options. These loans defer payments until after graduation if you remain enrolled at least half-time. Two kinds of loans are available for undergraduate nursing school:

  • Direct subsidized loans: The federal government pays the interest accrued on these loans while you attend school. You must demonstrate financial need to qualify for them.
  • Direct unsubsidized loans: Interest accrues on these loans while you’re still in school, but you don’t have to demonstrate financial need to qualify.

Federal student loans may be the best option if you want to take advantage of extensive post-graduation deferment programs, income-driven repayment plans and the possibility of partial or total loan forgiveness.

Private Student Loans

Some schools and financial institutions like banks and credit unions provide private student loans. The lender sets the loan’s interest rate and repayment terms. Depending on the terms, you may need to make payments before you graduate.

Unlike public student loans, private loans often have stricter lending guidelines. The lender determines whether to give you a loan based on your credit score, credit history and income. If you qualify for a low interest rate and can repay your loans quickly, private loans might be a good route for you.

How Long Does It Take for a Nurse to Pay Off Student Loans?

The time it takes a nurse to pay off student loans varies based on the total amount borrowed, income, cost of living and other expenses. Following the standard repayment plan for federal student loans allows borrowers to pay off the debt fully in 10 years. Extended payment plans are available that spread the repayment window across 30 years. Pay As You Earn repayment plans cap your loan payments at 10% of your income, so the amount you pay each month increases when your wages do.

What Is a Student Loan Payment Deferral?

A student loan deferral is a pause in loan payments. During a deferral, you won’t be responsible for making monthly payments, but the lender may continue to add interest to your total balance owed. Lenders may grant deferrals if you’re:

  • Undergoing cancer treatment
  • Facing economic hardship
  • Attending graduate school or participating in a fellowship
  • Active-duty military or recently completed military service
  • Enrolled in a mental health, vocational or substance abuse vocational training program
  • Currently receiving unemployment benefits

Do Nurses Qualify for Student Loan Forgiveness?

Nurses who took out loans may qualify for student loan forgiveness programs designed for the nursing profession or the Student Loan Debt Relief Plan. Graduates might seek loan forgiveness through government or employer-sponsored loan repayment programs, such as:

Nurse Corps Loan Repayment Program (Nurse Corps LRP)

If you’re willing to work for two years in a Critical Shortage Facility or an eligible school of nursing after receiving your RN license, apply for the Nurse Corps LRP. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services pays up to 85% of outstanding student loan balances once you complete the work service requirement.

Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF)

The PSLF program is open to nurses and other individuals who work for a U.S. federal, state, local or tribal government agency or a nonprofit organization. To qualify, you must be employed full-time and have a public student loan in which you paid the first 120 payments. Upon approval, the PSLF program pays off your public loan’s outstanding balance.

Other Loan Forgiveness Programs 

Some states offer similar programs for nurses willing to work in areas experiencing nursing shortages. In addition, some employers provide loan repayment perks to attract highly qualified candidates to apply for their open nursing jobs.

Are Healthcare Employers Paying for Nursing School?

The Society for Human Resource Management reports that 47% of all U.S. employers offer some type of tuition assistance. Healthcare employers are among the organizations that help employees pay for college. Generally, large hospitals and health systems are most likely to offer tuition assistance. How much an employer will pay varies from a small percentage of tuition to the full amount.

How Does Tuition Reimbursement Work?

With tuition reimbursement programs for nurses, healthcare employers help pay for the cost of their education. Each company establishes its own eligibility rules for participation. You may need to work a minimum number of hours per week or be employed for a certain length of time before you qualify for these programs. You may also only qualify for full reimbursement if you receive high marks and there may be annual tuition reimbursement limits. Depending on the program, tuition reimbursement may cover all or a percentage of tuition and other expenses, such as books and fees.

How employers pay for tuition also varies. Unlike other types of financial aid, tuition reimbursement doesn’t pay for costs upfront. You must pay for your classes, then apply for reimbursement after you pass the course. If you qualify, the healthcare company may cut you a check or reimburse you through direct deposit. However, some companies now offer tuition assistance, which pays for tuition upfront as a no-cost option. Companies generally pay tuition directly to the schools for these programs.

Will the Military Pay for My Nursing Education?

If you’re interested in serving your country, every branch of the military has a college repayment or reimbursement program. These programs encourage enlistment in active duty or the reserves and include recruits wanting to attend nursing school. The military may pay for your nursing education through these programs:

GI Bill

The GI Bill covers the cost of undergraduate and graduate degree programs for qualifying veterans and their immediate family members. Through this program, the Veterans Administration pays for tuition and fees directly to the school and gives money to you for purchasing books. In addition, the military offers a housing allowance to help cover your room and board, rent or mortgage.

Active Duty Health Professions Loan Repayment Program (ADHPLRP)

Through the ADHPLRP, the U.S. Army pays up to $40,000 of your student loan debt each year you serve as an active-duty nurse for up to three years. You must serve in the military for at least two years to qualify, but if you serve the entire three years,  the military pays off up to $120,000 in student loans. However, the service requirement is seven years if you receive special pay as a nurse.

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