Returning to School

While older adults may seek additional schooling for personal enrichment, most students return to school to aid their careers. Some professionals pursue advancement in their current field, while others want employment in a new one. According to the Journal for Nurses in Professional Development, nurses go back to school for the same reasons. Main motivators for registered nurses (RNs) pursuing their bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) include obtaining a promotion for an education or leadership role and getting a nursing position. The latter motivator reflects urgent employer requirements. Though the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 15% job growth through 2026, RNs find it increasingly difficult to obtain work without their bachelor’s. Mounting healthcare challenges, shifting government regulations, and rapid technological innovations mean that nurses require advanced training to keep up with job demands.

Statistics by The National League of Nursing reveal growing college enrollment among adults. According to the organization’s 2014 report, 64% of students enrolled in RN-to-BSN programs are over age 30. Master of science in nursing (MSN) programs also overwhelmingly consist of older students, with 60% over age 30. In addition to financial benefits, going back to nursing school empowers professionals who want to work under less supervision, pursue advanced certification, and cultivate career longevity. However, nontraditional students face challenges, including inflexible work schedules. This guide provides information to help students overcome these obstacles. With proper research and planning, students can find the nursing program that best suits their professional, personal, and financial needs.

Benefits of Returning to Nursing School

Though RNs who hold an associate degree in nursing (ADN) are qualified to work in most healthcare facilities, employers prefer professionals with a BSN. Employers may even require, as part of a nurse’s contract, that employees obtain a BSN within five years. In this case, the employer often provides financial assistance, like scholarships and tuition reimbursement. Employer requirements contribute to the growth of LPN-to-BSN and RN-to-BSN programs in the U.S. According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, there are 674 baccalaureate programs in the country. These programs often facilitate reentry training and distance education opportunities to assist nontraditional students.

Graduate nursing programs also grow in numbers to reflect increasingly complex requirements for career advancement. As part of the curriculum, graduate students develop research and leadership skills that enable them to pursue roles as coordinators, managers, and postsecondary educators. To accommodate growing demands among RNs, universities adapt their BSN-to-MSN programs for enhanced accessibility. Instead of three or four years, MSN candidates can now earn their degree in less than two, provided they possess adequate work experience and transfer credits. Returning to nursing school also enables students to specialize in high need and high paying areas like critical care, gerontology, informatics, and healthcare policy.

Average Salaries for Nurses by Educational Attainment

$40,959 $56,406 $63,080 $92,089

Online Learning for Adults Returning to Nursing School

For nontraditional students, returning to nursing school requires extensive planning that involves cost management and proper scheduling to accommodate crowded work and family schedules. Fortunately, colleges and universities offer convenient online nursing programs that allow students to pursue their degree part time or full time while maintaining other obligations. Distance learners enjoy financial incentives through discounted tuition or rates that disregard residency. Because of these benefits, more and more students opt for remote learning options. According to the Online Learning Consortium 2017 report, nearly 30% of U.S. students take at least one remote course. The same findings reveal that approximately 68% of online students attend public institutions.

In addition to affordable tuition, online nursing programs offer asynchronous classes that allow students to access course materials and engage with peers and instructors whenever they want. Additionally, learning management systems, like Blackboard and Canvas, operate integrative platforms, so students can log on from desktops, laptops, and mobile devices. Distance learners save money by living at home and, because they rarely need to visit campus, also cut down on commuting time and cost. A nurse’s training inevitably entails hands-on training through internships and clinical hours. Schools enable online students to fulfill these requirements with local organizations, including current employers.

Transferring Credits as a Returning Student

Nontraditional students with postsecondary experience can save time and money by transferring credits. Colleges and universities may even allow students to complete up to half their degree plan with transfer work. This translates to 60 credits for the average bachelor’s degree and 18 credits for a master’s program. To start the process, students must request official academic transcripts from their former school. This request goes through the registrar’s office and usually entails a processing fee.

While college credits do not technically expire, transfer candidates should still pay attention to dates. Schools may invalidate a student’s work if it does not meet professional and academic standards. General education credits transfer the easiest because the skills learned in those courses are fundamental, and therefore not easily affected by age. However, health education and training evolves rapidly with new technology and best practice developments, so nursing credits a student earned 10 or 20 years ago may not stand up to university evaluation. Higher education accreditation represents another factor. If the student’s previous school does not maintain national or regional accreditation, the credits earned there are most likely invalid. Ultimately, individual institutions make the decision. Students should speak with an admissions counselor about specific policies, including transfer credit limits.

Transferrable Credits

The transfer process becomes much simpler if students conduct it between two public schools within the same state. Most community colleges facilitate direct transfer pathways to local public universities. Similarly, public universities often operate within a state school network that enables students to easily move between member institutions. General standards and systems aside, a school decides whether or not credits transfer. Nontraditional students should conduct research on their university’s policies, particularly those involving course equivalency, transfer level, and credit system.

Course Equivalency: Course equivalency reflects how a class from one school relates to a class from another school. This can result in direct equivalence if course A comprises the same topics and learning outcomes as course B. Introductory science classes generally work this way, so nursing students who took foundations of biology at a community college can expect it to transfer as biology 100 toward their bachelor’s degree. Transfer courses can also result in limited equivalency. For example, a university may only allow a photography or U.S. government course to transfer as general elective credit.

Course Level: Connected to equivalency standards, 100-level and 200-level courses transfer easily due to the introductory nature of material and learning outcomes. School-specific deviations generally do not affect these core classes. On the other hand, 300-level and 400-level courses comprise advanced topics connected to an individual school’s departmental focus and faculty specializations. This means that credits earned for an associate degree rarely transfer into 300-level or 400-level coursework in a bachelor’s program. Similarly, nursing students face stringent guidelines when transferring graduate credits.

Quarter vs. Semester Transfers: Schools that organize their academic calendar into 16-week fall and spring sessions operate with a semester credit system, while colleges and universities that divide their year into four equal terms run a quarter credit system. For a typical bachelor’s program, this difference results in 120 total semester credits, as opposed to 180 quarter credits. Nontraditional students who attended a college that runs on a quarter system and want to transfer to a university that uses semesters can consult this conversion guide.

College Credit for Work Experience

In addition to formal education, colleges and universities award transfer credits for workplace training, professional licensure and certification, volunteer work, civic engagement, and military service and training. Returning students can even earn credits for independent research and study. However, prior learning does not simply mean experience. Through assessment methods detailed in the next section, students must show they cultivated knowledge and skills that can transfer into college-level nursing classes. The number of credits students receive through assessment varies by institution. A school’s lack of transparent prior learning assessment (PLA) methods warrants investigation into that institution’s pedagogical philosophies and overall accreditation.

Methods of Assessing Prior Learning

The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning defines four PLA categories: standardized exams, challenge exams, individual assessments, and evaluation of non-college education and training. Each method examines different prior learning sources for college-level knowledge and applicable skills. For nurses, individual assessment and evaluation of non-college education and training stand as the two most popular modes of earning credits.

Standardized Exams: This PLA method awards credits for performance on standardized tests. For high school students, these include advanced placement and international baccalaureate exams. Nontraditional students benefit from two specific standardized tests: the College Level Exam Program (CLEP) and the DSST examination program. Facilitated through College Board, CLEP comprises 33 tests in nursing-related subjects like biology, chemistry, and calculus. DSST exams include lifespan developmental psychology and health and human development. To earn as many credits as possible, nursing students should take advantage of both programs.

Challenge Exams: This PLA method enables students to earn credit by taking final examinations created for nursing courses at their school. Because of their origin, challenge exams are also known as institutional, departmental, or college faculty developed exams. Before a final examination becomes a challenge exam, it undergoes rigorous university evaluation and revision. As a result, challenge exams stand as one of the best ways to evaluate a returning student’s knowledge and skills as defined by relevant departments and the institution as a whole.

Individual Assessments: With individual assessment, returning students prepare a portfolio of experiences that reflect college-level education. Sources include work experience, volunteerism, community activism, and non-credit learning. Experienced faculty judge the portfolio and award credits as they see fit. The university can also enlist the aid of an external organization to assess the portfolio. The process may require students to sit for an interview or complete a performance-based evaluation. For nurses, this could mean skill application in a clinical setting.

Evaluation of Non-college Education and Training: Schools use this PLA method to assess official workplace, volunteer, and military training that may or may not result in certification or licensure. The National College Credit Recommendation Service and the American Council on Education (ACE) usually conduct these evaluations. ACE partners with the U.S. Department of Defense to assess military training and occupational experience. Some employers work directly with local postsecondary institutions to evaluate their organization’s training. For nurses, this includes university affiliated hospitals and health organizations.

How PLA Credits Transfer

Colleges and universities operate with differing PLA policies. Some schools award credits, while others simply waive course requirements. If a student does receive PLA credits, they can usually apply them to general education or open elective requirements. If the credits align with learning outcomes specified in the nursing degree plan, the school might allow students to apply the credits to major prerequisite or introductory coursework. These include classes like nutrition, microbiology, biostatistics, and human growth and development. When looking at PLA policies, students should focus on credit maximum and cross institutional transferability. Just because one school grants nine credits for a professional certificate does not mean that another does the same.

Paying for School as a Returning Student

Returning to school requires significant financial planning. In addition to affordable tuition and transferable credits, nontraditional students benefit from ample funding opportunities. These include loans and scholarships specifically for nurses.

Filling Out the FAFSA as a Nontraditional Student

Founded as part of the 1965 Higher Education Act, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is an office within the U.S. Department of Education (ED). The FAFSA provides comprehensive higher education information for students, families, and educators. It also facilitates college loans, grants, and work-study positions. No age restrictions exist for FAFSA awards. According to the 2015-2016 FAFSA Data by Demographic Characteristics, nearly 45% of applicants were 25 years old or older. Students need only to meet Basic Eligibility Criteria, which include U.S. citizenship, or eligible non citizenship, and demonstrable financial need. Candidates also need to prove acceptance or current enrollment in an approved college program. Individuals with criminal convictions may also access FAFSA awards, albeit with limitations.

Returning students go through the same FAFSA process as high school seniors, which consists of submitting the necessary documents and completing the online form. To make application easier, students should sign up for a Federal Student Aid ID that acts as their electronic signature and enables them to access all FSA systems. The FAFSA opens in October for next year’s aid cycle. This means that those who want to enroll in school for the 2019-2020 academic year can start their application as early as October 1, 2018. June 30, 2020 is the deadline, but students should submit their applications as soon as possible. Individual states may operate within their own timeframe. Students should also check with prospective colleges and universities for school specific deadlines. All students renew their FAFSA every year.

What Information Do I Need to Provide for the FAFSA?

Social Security Number: To determine U.S. citizenship or eligible non-citizenship, FAFSA candidates must provide a Social Security Number (SSN) or Alien Registration Number (RSN). Because undocumented students are usually ineligible for either numbers, they cannot submit a FAFSA. However, they may get access to state and institutional aid. Private scholarships represent another option, including awards from organizations like Immigrants Rising.

Driver’s License Number: Applicants can provide driver’s license or state identification information to help the FAFSA confirm their identity. This step is optional and does not affect a student’s chances of receiving aid, or the amount of funding. Furthermore, it does not mean that the ED or participating schools plan to investigate a student’s driving record.

Federal Tax Information: Because students apply for 2019-2020 financial aid the year before, they must use 2017 federal tax information. If a student believes that the tax year in use does not accurately represent their income, they should contact prospective colleges and universities. Schools can make adjustments to a student’s financial information and the funding they receive.

Records of Untaxed Income: In addition to federal tax information, the FAFSA asks for untaxed income from the same year. These sources include unreported earnings, interest income, child support received, and veterans noneducation benefits. Nontraditional students must also report untaxed income and benefits not specifically asked for through a miscellaneous sum amount. For additional information, consult the FAFSA

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Information on Assets: Students must report major sources of assets, including the total amounts in their checking and savings accounts. The FAFSA also asks for investments such as real estate, stock, and bonds. Unlike taxed and untaxed income, students report assets in amounts current to the date they start the application. Students should consult the 12 Common FAFSA® Mistakes guide to ensure they input information correctly.

How to Determine Your Financial Need

The FAFSA determines financial need by subtracting expected family contributions (EFC) from cost of attendance (COA). EFC represents an index number that the FAFSA calculates based on information a student provides, including taxed and untaxed income, benefits, and assets. The formula also considers family size and how many members attend college. COA includes tuition, lodging, books, other school supplies, and an allowance for dependent and child care. Universities usually calculate COA for a full academic year, but students might receive another timeframe if their program works differently, such as an 18-month certificate program.

Total FAFSA funds break down into need-based and non-need-based allowances. The former comes directly from financial need and cannot exceed it. If a student’s COA is $20,000 and their EFC is $15,000, then they can receive $5,000 in need-based awards. The FAFSA calculates non need-based funds by subtracting need-based awards from COA. If a student’s COA is $20,000 and their need-based awards totals $5,000, they are eligible for $15,000 in non-need-based funds. Need-based awards include Pell Grants and subsidized loans, while non-need-based funds come from PLUS and unsubsidized loans.

Types of Financial Aid for Returning Students


  • Scholarships: Scholarships reflect financial aid that does not need to be paid back. Students usually receive scholarships from businesses, nonprofit entities, and community organizations, including awards specifically for nurses.
  • Grants: Students receive grants from the federal or state government, such as the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant for those with exceptional financial need. Like scholarships, students do not need to pay back grants.
  • Federal Loans: Loans represent awards students need to pay back with interest. Students access federal loans through the FAFSA, including the Federal Perkins, direct subsidized, and direct unsubsidized loans.
  • Private Loans: This money usually comes from banks and credit unions. Students should borrow private loans carefully because of their high interest rates. And, unlike federal loans, private loans require students to make payments while they are still in school.


  • School Aid: Students receive these funds from their colleges and universities. School aid includes general merit-based awards, department-specific scholarships, and tuition remission for school employees and their dependents.
  • Federal Aid: This money comes from the federal government and is facilitated by the FAFSA. Awards include grants, loans, and work-study positions. Loan forgiveness programs represent another source of federal aid.
  • State Financial Aid: Students generally receive state grants and loans based on financial need. Commonly facilitated by the FAFSA, students should note that state deadlines are usually much earlier than federal or institutional ones.
  • Privately Funded Scholarships: Students should seek out these awards from businesses and organizations in their communities. Professional entities also provide private scholarships, including the National Student Nurses’ Association.

Financial Aid for Graduate Students

Ample financial aid exists for nontraditional students who want to earn their master’s or doctoral degree in nursing. Those pursuing a postbaccalaureate certificate may also apply for funding. Graduate candidates go through the same FAFSA process as undergraduates and are subject to the same eligibility requirements, start date, and deadlines. According to the FAFSA Data by Demographic Characteristics, nearly 2.2 million graduate and professional students received federal aid during the 2015-2016 cycle. Awards include the direct unsubsidized loan and the direct PLUS loan. Graduate students may also access the Pell Grant and the Federal Work-Study Program.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 36% growth in nurse practitioner positions through 2026. This makes nursing one of the most in demand jobs in the country. Because of this need, returning students encounter little trouble finding non-federal financial assistance. States provide funding through their grant agencies. Colleges and universities offer scholarships, research grants, and travel funds to graduate candidates. Students should also speak with their employer about financial support, including tuition reimbursement programs. Finally, nurses can take advantage of private scholarships and grants, such as the ones listed below.

Scholarships for Adult and Mid-Career Nursing Students

Promise of Nursing Faculty Fellowships

Who Can Apply: This award is open to master’s and doctoral students. Candidates must also work as a registered nurse. Additionally, they need to demonstrate academic excellence, financial need, and a commitment to the nurse educator role.

Amount: $1,500-$7,500

Tylenol Future Care Scholarship

Who Can Apply: Students at all levels can apply for this one-time award as long as they have completed at least one year of their nursing program. The scholarship committee judges candidates on their essay, academic performance, and commitment to volunteerism and community activism.

Amount: $5,000-$10,000

Nursing Economic$ Foundation Scholarships

Who Can Apply: This award is open to registered nurses currently pursuing a graduate or doctoral degree in nursing. These programs must contain a research component, and candidates need to demonstrate career interest in nursing administration, management, education, or leadership.

Amount: $5,000

NURSE Corps Scholarship Program

Who Can Apply: All nursing students may apply for this award, including those in diploma programs. Criteria include academic performance, essay responses, and recommendation letters. Recipients must agree to a two-year service period with a participating health organization after graduation.

Amount: Varies ($1,363 per month for the 2018-2019 academic year)

The Hurst AACN Scholarship

Who Can Apply: This award is open to all pre-license nursing students enrolled in an American Association of Colleges of Nursing-affiliated program. Candidates must display stellar academic achievements and dedication to the nursing profession.

Amount: $2,500

Indian Health Service Scholarship Program

Who Can Apply: Candidates need to possess a minimum 2.0 GPA and an approved tribal or village membership. They must also demonstrate a desire to serve the health needs of Native American communities. After graduation, award recipients work at least two years in an IHS-approved organization.

Amount: Full tuition, required fees, and living expenses

Tips for a Successful Return to Nursing School

To succeed, nontraditional students must strengthen academic skills neglected during their time away from university. Support resources and program characteristics also contribute to a student’s successful return to nursing school.

  • Brush Up on Tech Skills: These skills include the ability to use online learning management systems, like Moodle, to access course materials, engage in discussion with classmates, and communicate with instructors in a timely manner. University libraries provide technical support and training in such skills as conducting research through websites and online databases.
  • Find a Support Network: Colleges and universities dedicate specific services for nontraditional students, including childcare facilities and study lounges. Academic advisers assist learners who need help developing a flexible course plan. Returning students may also gain support from campus groups and professional organizations, including the honor society Alpha Sigma Lambda.
  • Choose a Flexible Program: Schools provide flexible degree opportunities to accommodate a nontraditional student’s busy schedule. These include online programs, many of which offer accelerated tracks. Students may opt for in-person night and weekend classes that meet once or twice a week. They can also combine these options to create a hybrid learning experience.