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Returning to School

August 13, 2020 | Staff Writers

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The nursing profession boasts many opportunities to move up the career ladder. While entry-level nursing positions typically do not require a bachelor’s degree, nurses seeking advanced career options often return to school to continue their learning.


Many nursing professionals start their higher-level degrees as nontraditional students after years of working full-time. Nearly 87% of students enrolled in RN-to-BSN programs are 26 years old or older, according to a survey from the National League for Nursing.

Individuals often enter the nursing profession by earning their certification or licensure in a year or less, starting as a certified nurse assistant (CNA) or licensed practical or vocational nurse (LPN/LVN). Many registered nurses opt to earn an associate degree in nursing (ADN), allowing them to reach licensure in two years instead of four.

Ultimately, though, earning a higher degree can lead to better pay and more employment prospects. In fact, several hospitals and healthcare facilities specifically look for nurses with a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN).

In addition, advanced practice nurses like nurse practitioners (NPs) need a graduate degree for licensure. Those who go down this path can either earn a master of science in nursing (MSN) or a doctor of nursing practice (DNP).

For nurses considering returning to school, this guide offers information and advice on career prospects and financial assistance.

Benefits of Returning to Nursing School

By returning to school, nurses can access more jobs and attain specialized knowledge in the areas they find most interesting. The increased number of accelerated and bridge programs allow students to earn their degree more quickly.

An increasing number of employers seek job candidates with higher levels of education. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), for example, recommends that registered nurses obtain a bachelor’s degree to prepare for the complex tasks they will encounter in the field. Obtaining an MSN allows nursing professionals to pursue careers in focus areas, such as neonatal or psychiatric care.

Returning students have plenty of choice when it comes to program options. The U.S. now boasts nearly 1,000 BSN programs and about 2,000 graduate programs, according to the AACN.

Job and Salary Outlook for Nurses by Degree

By returning to school, nurses can access higher salaries and more stable job prospects. Licenced practical and vocational nurses, who do not need to complete a full degree to obtain licensure, earn annual salaries of about $47,480 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The BLS projects roles in this profession to grow by 11% between 2018 and 2028.

In comparison, RNs made a median salary of $73,300 in 2019, and advanced practice nurses made $115,800 that same year, according to the BLS. The BLS projects the number of advanced practice nurses to increase by 26% between 2018 and 2028 — much faster than roles for RNs, which the BLS projects to grow by 12% in the same time period.

Online Learning for Adults Returning to Nursing School

Nursing professionals might dismiss a return to nursing school because the curriculum may seem too time-consuming or demanding, particularly for individuals who plan on working while studying. Prospective nursing students should consider online learning, which can help with overcoming these challenges.

Online programs often follow an asynchronous format, which means students can watch lectures and contribute to class discussion boards on their own time. Sometimes classes include synchronous components, such as an evening lecture, that can help facilitate connections with peers and professors. Even with synchronous requirements, universities design online programs specifically for individuals who need flexible learning schedules to accommodate jobs and other responsibilities.

Built to be accessible, distance learning programs often boast financial benefits. Online degrees may cost less than their on-campus counterparts, and students typically save money and time on commuting costs.

Keep in mind that online nursing programs typically require students to complete clinicals and internships on location at a healthcare facility. Students can often find local opportunities to fulfill these requirements.

Transferring Credits as a Returning Student

If you previously completed some college education, you may be able to transfer credits to your new program, making your degree more accessible in length and cost. Transferring credits means students do not need to complete as many credits for the degree, so they can take on a lighter course load or graduate more quickly.

Most colleges and universities allow students to transfer up to 60 credits for a bachelor’s degree. This is common for learners who already possess an associate degree or some college education. Returning students with an ADN might be able to finish a bachelor’s degree in half the time. Many institutions also let graduate students transfer up to 18 credits.

To determine which past courses might count as transfer credits, incoming students can check the student handbook and speak to an advisor. Students can often transfer their credits from general education and foundational health courses more easily than more advanced courses. Remember that you can usually only transfer your prior credits if you graduated from an accredited program.

Ultimately, each school offers a different system for transfer credits. Check with your prospective school’s advisor to learn about the program’s specific requirements.

College Credit for Work Experience

Particularly applicable for nursing professionals, many schools recognize that students often enter academic programs with knowledge that they may not have learned in the classroom, but rather in practical situations. Because of this, some colleges and universities offer credit for work or life experience.

These credits might include skills learned through workplace training, volunteer experiences, civic engagement, or military service. Many programs consider whether incoming students already hold professional licensure or certification. Programs with this experience-for-credit system come with particular advantages for adults hoping to return to school after working.

Methods of Assessing Prior Learning

Prior learning assessment (PLA) is the process by which colleges and universities evaluate how to award life and experience credits.

Many nurses who return to school earn credits through their LPN/LVN or RN licensure, in addition to their work experience. Some nurses might also obtain credit through PLA for volunteer work within the healthcare industry or training programs, such as CNA or LPN/LVN educational programs. The amount of credit earned varies, depending on the school. But generally, RNs must possess at least two years of work experience to earn credit through PLA.

Degree-seekers need to put in effort to see the full benefits of the PLA system. Gaining credits from PLA isn’t as easy as filling out a form; students often need to submit a portfolio, pass an exam, or prove their experience some other way.

Generally, though, learners find PLA to be worth it. A 2020 study reported that students saw “PLA as flexible and affordable, and users had significantly higher graduation rates. The PLA option is highly associated with degree completion.” With PLA, students can typically graduate more quickly or enroll in a lighter course load, which can relieve some pressure and stress.

How PLA Credits Transfer

Students can apply for PLA credits in a few different ways. First, they can create and submit a portfolio that shows their mastery of a subject for the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL).

Students can also take an exam that evaluates their knowledge of a specific subject. Exams like CLEP and DSST can help students earn college credit. Finally, students can apply for credits through the American Council on Education (ACE), an organization that evaluates courses.

Each college and university offers different PLA policies. Some institutions just waive course requirements, although the large majority awards credits to students, according to an ACE report. Remember to check with the advisors at your prospective schools to learn about their prior learning policies.

Paying for School as a Returning Student

For many nurses, cost represents one of the main challenges of returning to school. RNs considering a graduate degree might feel put off by tuition prices, especially if they continue to pay off their student loans. However, just like undergraduate students, MSN and DNP degree-seekers can find funding through scholarships and grants, loans, assistantships, fellowships, and other financial aid options.

You can find several resources online to help you plan for — and pay for — the costs of graduate school. This helpful guide breaks down the potential costs of nursing schools, so you can better understand how to pay for your degree.

You can find rankings for affordable BSN and MSN programs, especially if you want to stick to a budget. Lastly, consult this detailed overview of various types of financial aid, including scholarships, grants, work-study options, and loans.

Scholarships for Adult and Mid-Career Nursing Students

Universities and nursing organizations offer scholarships to undergraduate and graduate students. Some scholarship funds specifically benefit applicants attending graduate school.

Scholarships might also specify that candidates specialize their education in a certain area, such as nursing education or administration. The list below offers five potential scholarships for adult and mid-career students.


  • AfterCollege/AACN $10,000 Scholarship Fund

    Who Can Apply: This scholarship fund grants four $2,500 scholarships to nursing students throughout the year. Although learners at either the undergraduate or graduate level can apply, the scholarship committee prioritizes candidates in graduate programs who wish to become nurse educators.

    Amount: $2,500


  • HRSA Nurse Corps Scholarship Program

    Who Can Apply: Nurses at all degree levels can apply to this program. Applicants must commit to two years of service after they graduate, working for facilities with critical nurse shortages.

    Amount: Tuition costs + stipend


  • Nursing Economic$ Foundation Scholarship

    Who Can Apply: This scholarship offers funds to registered nurses who return to school for a master’s or doctoral program focusing on nursing management or administration.

    Amount: $5,000


  • Promise of Nursing Faculty Fellowship

    Who Can Apply: This FNSNA scholarship supports registered nurses who hold a BSN. Applicants must enroll in a graduate program and plan on pursuing a career as a nurse educator.

    Amount: $1,000-$7,500


  • Tylenol Future Care Scholarship

    Who Can Apply: Graduate students in the healthcare field with at least one remaining year of schooling may apply for this scholarship. Applicants must write an essay and submit their college transcripts.

    Amount: $5,000-$10,000


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