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Free Nursing School: Pennsylvania’s Geisinger Health System Expands Loan Forgiveness for Nursing Students

Ann Feeney, CAE
Updated December 4, 2023
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    Geisinger Health System in Pennsylvania offers loan forgiveness programs equivalent to free nursing school for qualifying grads.
    Two nursing students smiling togetherCredit: Getty Images
    • Geisinger Health System is expanding the Geisinger Nursing Scholars Program to support more nursing career paths.
    • The program pays tuition costs for Geisinger employees with at least six months of tenure.
    • Graduates must commit to working for Geisinger for a specific period after they graduate.

    Geisinger Health System offers loan forgiveness of up to $40,000 for current employees who enter nursing or nursing support programs. This loan forgiveness program, known as the Geisinger Nursing Scholars Program, is open to Geisinger employees in any department or function, provided that they have worked for Geisinger for at least six months. They can enter programs to become registered nurses (RNs), licensed practical nurses (LPNs), surgical technologists, or certified medical assistants.

    Once they graduate, they are eligible for $7,000-$40,000 in loan forgiveness in exchange for a work commitment of 2-5 years after graduation. RNs are eligible for the highest award — $40,000 — which essentially makes nursing school free for qualifying students following a five-year commitment to work for Geisinger as an inpatient nurse.

    “For RN education, we offer $40,000 in support for a five-year work commitment as an inpatient RN, and for surgical technology education we offer $22,500 for a 2.5-year work commitment,” said Rebecca Stoudt, DNP, Ph.D., CRNA, the college’s associate dean of nursing student education, to NurseJournal. “A great part of the program is that the loan is repaid through the work commitment. As long as the work commitment is fulfilled, there is no money owed back to Geisinger; the loan is forgiven.”

    The goal is to enroll 175 participants each year. Depending on the program cost, this can be equivalent to free nursing school for some students.

    Free Nursing School at Geisinger: A Win-Win Proposition

    According to Stoudt, the program supports students in ways that go beyond financial aid.

    “Studying while working is a huge undertaking, and employees will need more than just financial support,” she told NurseJournal. “We want to support our employees’ well-being and provide any help they might need when preparing to go back to school.”

    The Nursing Scholars Program started in 2021, and so far, almost 230 Geisinger employees have participated. It is intended as a pathway into healthcare careers for high school students or anyone considering a nursing or nursing support career.

    “Several years ago, even prior to the pandemic, we recognized the significant gap in RNs in our region and we knew that gap was increasing,” said Janet Tomcavage, MSN, RN, executive vice president and chief nursing executive at Geisinger, to NurseJournal. “Pennsylvania is predicted to be the number-one state in the US by 2026 for shortage in nurses. We also knew that we had excellent employees who would be welcome additions to our nursing team if we could remove the financial barriers to going back to school. Thus, the nursing scholars program was born as a program support model to help our staff realize their professional goals.”

    Geisinger employees can take nursing prep courses, including courses in math, managing work-study-life balance, and how to study online. Geisinger also offers a physical and virtual career center where current or prospective Geisinger employees can discuss careers and professional development.

    The Geisinger School of Nursing began in 2005 as the Lewistown Hospital School of Nursing. In 2022, the school transitioned from issuing nursing diplomas to associate degree in nursing (ADNs). However, nursing students are not required to attend Geisinger’s school to receive free nursing school education. They can choose a nursing school that works best for their goals.

    Nationally, nursing school costs can range from $6,000 for an entry-level degree to over $100,000 for a graduate degree. A two-year ADN degree typically costs between $8,000-$22,000 at an in-state public school, or considerably more, $30,000-$50,000, at a private school. A four-year bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) can cost from $40,000-$80,000 at a public school or $60,000-$120,000 at a private school. So depending on the school that a Geisinger employee selects, they may receive the equivalent of free nursing school.

    Like most healthcare organizations in the U.S., Geisinger is experiencing a shortage of nurses and nursing support staff. By 2026, there could be a shortage of more than 20,000 nurses in Pennsylvania. As of November 2022, the vacancy rate for direct care RNs was 30% in Pennsylvania, compared to 20% in 2019. This program and others that offer free nursing school or partial coverage may be a significant part of the answer to this serious problem.