The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 15% growth in the nursing field through 2026, thanks in part to an aging baby boomer population and a growing emphasis on preventive medicine and chronic illness management. Many nursing employers seek candidates with a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN), which allows nurses to access higher-paying positions and more diverse job opportunities. However, nursing school tuition on the rise, presenting a hurdle for prospective students. Students may find financial assistance through scholarships, grants, or loans. Nurses who already hold an associate degree may benefit from RN-to-BSN scholarships and the flexibility afforded by online programs.
How Much is Nursing School?
Nursing school is often more expensive than the institutions advertise, once students take into account expenses for housing, meals, books, and lab fees. Nursing students may also have to pay fees for background checks and clinical education supervision. Many schools also have special fees for on-campus students, such as activity fees or fees for the use of fitness centers.
Nursing School Tuition
Associate Degree in Nursing
An associate degree in nursing prepares graduates to take the National Council Licensure Exam (NCLEX) and begin work as an RN (registered nurse). Most associate programs take two to three years to complete, and some schools offer specializations within their associate nursing programs. This degree path may attract students who want to enter the workforce as quickly as possible. The fastest nursing program is the one-year licensed practical nursing course, but the associate curriculum prepares graduates for higher-paying positions with a greater variety of job options. Associate graduates planning to pursue a BSN can choose from accelerated RN-to-BSN bridge programs at a variety of schools. College Board reports that two-year, public community college nursing programs cost $3,570 per year, on average. Most community colleges do not offer on-campus housing options, meaning students need to find and pay for housing. Some for-profit schools offer nursing programs, though their fees are often much higher, averaging $16,000 a year.
Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing
A bachelor’s degree in nursing prepares students for their future medical duties and gives them the knowledge and experience necessary for leadership roles and complicated care positions. According to PayScale, BSN graduates earn more than associate-degree holders, with a median salary of $61,709, while associate graduates average salaries of $58,619. According to the American Association for Colleges of Nursing (AACN), employers prefer hiring nurses with an undergraduate degree, and nursing job listings indicate a preference for higher degrees. Many healthcare organizations even offer incentives for their RN staff to return to school, such as RN-to-BSN scholarships and grants. Online colleges with bridge programs offer further benefits through their flexible scheduling options. Nursing school costs can vary widely, but the College Board estimates in-state, public university tuition at $9,970, compared to $25,620 for out-of-state students. Private colleges cost more, averaging $34,740.
Master’s Degree in Nursing
Nurses with advanced degrees have the opportunity to step into specialty roles and advanced practice positions. Master’s programs also vary depending on the type of school and location. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that graduate students had an average of $50,200 in student loans in 2012, while students at private schools owed $64,510 upon graduation. Graduate school tuition often exceeds that of undergraduate programs, but PayScale reports a master’s degree can increase average annual wages to $72,715. Nurses who specialize in a specific area of care, such as anesthesia or psychiatry, have higher earning potential. The healthcare industry currently struggles to meet the population’s primary care needs, especially with the increased focus on preventative care and long-term management of chronic illness. Nurses with a master’s degree may help meet these primary care needs by becoming nurse practitioners (NPs), who often work under the supervision of a medical doctor. NPs may diagnose patients and, in some states, prescribe medication; they generally earn higher salaries. PayScale reports that NPs earn an average of $90,064. Nurses with a master’s degree may also find work as educators in nursing schools.
Average Salary for Registered Nurses by Degree
|Associate Degree Nursing (ADN)||$58,619|
|Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)||$61,709|
|Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)||$72,715|
How to Pay for Nursing School
As the need for trained nurses grows across the country, financial aid opportunities are also growing. Federal and state governments provide numerous grants for nursing students, along with low-interest loans and loan forgiveness. Nonprofits and schools can help nurses continue their education through RN-to-BSN scholarships, accelerated degree paths, and general nursing school scholarships. Fellowships and residency programs allow students to gain experience in the field, while earning a steady paycheck to help them complete their degrees.
Free Application for Federal Student Aid for Nursing Students
In 2014, the federal government spent almost $80 billion on federal grant programs and tax credits to help students pay for their higher education. Grants and tax breaks help reduce the burden of nursing school tuition costs, and don’t have to be repaid. To access these programs, students must complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA uses student and parent income and educational information to determine financial need and whether they qualify for grants, work-study programs, or federal loans. Many states also use FAFSA information to determine whether students are eligible for state-funded aid, and need-based scholarship programs often use FAFSA information, as well. To fill out the FAFSA, you’ll need your Social Security or Alien Registration number, copies of federal tax returns and earning statements, bank statements, untaxed income records, and your Federal Student Aid ID.
FAFSA applicants may need their parents’ information, as well, even if they are independent. Students should consult their school’s financial aid office about whether their parents’ information is necessary. Applicants need a high school diploma or GED to qualify for the FAFSA, and graduate students don’t qualify for some types of aid. Forms may be submitted after Oct. 1 each year. The U.S. Department of Education sets a June 30 deadline to complete the FAFSA for the following award year, but many states and schools set earlier deadlines. Students must make progress on their academic goals and complete the form each year to continue receiving aid.
Financial Aid Available for Nursing Students
Federal and Private Loans
Students may consider nursing student loans to pay for their education. The FAFSA determines whether a student is eligible for an unsubsidized or subsidized federal loan. With subsidized loans, the government pays interest costs while students complete their studies, but students must demonstrate financial need to qualify for this program. Interest from unsubsidized federal loans accrues while students are in school, but students often don’t need to begin repaying these loans until after they have graduated, and they may deduct loan interest on income taxes. In either case, federal loans tend to have relatively low interest rates, and students don’t need to have established credit or a cosigner to qualify.
The Health Resources and Services Administration partners with certain schools to offer low-interest loans to students who demonstrate financial need. Federal aid programs limit the loans students might receive depending on how far along they are in their educational program. First-year students may only borrow $5,500, and the amount increases with each subsequent year of study. Graduate students do not qualify for subsidized loans. Students must repay all federally issued loans, whether they complete their degree or not. Federal loans include a 10-year payback plan, but borrowers may also request income-based plans, which gradually increase the payment amount over time. Students facing temporary economic hardship may request deferment or forbearance, halting loan payments for a period, but interest will continue to accrue during these times. Students who do not make payment arrangements for their loans risk having their wages garnished or forfeiting their tax refund. Students also can’t easily erase student loans, whether federal or private, by declaring bankruptcy.
Nursing school scholarships help students reduce their out-of-pocket education expenses, and they don’t have to be repaid. Scholarships for nursing students are available through schools, nonprofits, healthcare companies, and government agencies. Scholarship selection committees evaluate student applications based on merit or need, or a combination of the two. Merit-based programs reward students with high academic achievement or who have extensive community service, especially if that service relates to healthcare. Need-based scholarships consider the burden of educational costs on the student. Other programs may provide incentive for nursing students to specialize in a particular field or relocate to a specific area after graduation. Employers hoping to encourage nursing staff to continue their education may offer RN-to-BSN scholarships. Funding organizations may pay awards to recipients’ schools, or fund the students directly to help them pay for books, uniforms, or medical equipment. In the latter case, the granting organization may require students to track how they used the money and follow up with a report on their academic progress.
Government agencies recognize the growing need for more nursing graduates and more highly trained nursing staff, so many state and local governments offer grant programs to help meet these needs. Grants often prioritize students’ financial need, though recipients must usually maintain academic progress. Students should check with their state department of education about special grant programs, such as RN-to-BSN bridge grants. Some grant programs may require students to commit to working in a particular area for a specified number of years after graduation. Failure to follow through on such grant commitments could result in having to repay the grant. Governments may pay the award directly to the school to defray tuition costs, with excess funds going to the student to pay additional fees or purchasing books and equipment.
Paying Out of Pocket
Many financial aid programs require students to attend school full-time, but those with jobs or family commitments may find that impossible. Part-time students can enjoy the flexibility of fewer classes during a semester, and also pay for only the classes they take each term, reducing the lump-sum cost of attending school. Some schools require up-front payment of tuition and fees, but others offer monthly payment plans. Students should also budget for their courses’ book and equipment expenses, and they can pay in-person or by mail, though most schools offer payment platforms online or by phone.
Financing Programs Available for Nursing Students
Fellowship and Residency Programs
Nursing students can enhance their educational experience through fellowship and residency programs. These intense, hands-on learning programs provide students with essential nursing skills and also allow students to network with professionals and gain a better understanding of what their responsibilities will be when they begin full-time work. Residency and fellowship programs look great on a graduate’s resume, and may help students gain future employment. Many programs pair new nurses with mentors who provide professional development support, and both residencies and fellowships may accept undergraduate or graduate students. Most programs offer stipends or salaries to compensate the student. Much like a paycheck from a regular job, students may use their funds however they choose, such as paying for housing or student loans. Some residency and fellowship programs may also include an educational award that waives or forgives part of a student’s tuition. Residency and fellowship commitments are offered in part-time and full-time formats. These positions may coincide with a student’s school attendance or begin shortly after graduation from a nursing program. Fellowships often offer training in a specialty practice area, such as anesthesiology, obstetrics, or psychiatry.
Career Ladder Programs
Hospitals may hire an RN with only an associate degree, but many other healthcare organizations require their nurses to hold a bachelor’s, and even hospitals hiring associate graduates may stipulate that they obtain a bachelor’s within a few years’ time. To help nurses meet their education requirement, hospitals and healthcare organizations offer tuition assistance programs to help them pay for continued education. These programs may include RN-to-BSN scholarships, direct tuition payments, or tuition reimbursement after students complete their classes. The Institute of Medicine recommends that 80% of nurses have a BSN by 2020, incentivizing health employers to help nurses obtain undergraduate degrees. Research finds the increased level of education makes good business sense for medical providers, since they end up with improved mortality rates, shorter hospital stays, and fewer readmissions. Each healthcare provider sets its own guidelines for nurses accessing tuition aid, and often, hospitals and providers provide some flexibility in work schedules to help students stay on track with their studies.
Loan Forgiveness Programs
Nursing students qualify for several federal loan forgiveness programs, and some state governments offer similar programs, as well. Private lenders rarely agree to forgive loan balances, regardless of how deserving a student may be.
Federal loan forgiveness programs vary. Some graduates who complete five years of eligible service qualify to have 100% of their Perkins Loan canceled. Nursing graduates who agree to work in underserved communities, like public health agencies or high-need areas, may qualify for loan forgiveness programs, as well. The NURSE Corps program allows students to cancel 60% of direct loan balances after two years of qualifying employment, and an additional 25% after their third year. The Public Service Loan Forgiveness program cancels any remaining balance after 10 years of employment, provided the applicant has worked in a public health agency. Students must make on-time payments to qualify for any of these programs, and programs do not forgive loans that are in default.
Grants and Scholarships Available for Nursing Students
Aspiring or current college students can find funding opportunities through charities, industry associations, employers, and individual schools. Each scholarship program sets its requirements, and many scholarships are reserved for students entering the nursing field. Students should carefully review all scholarship requirements to ensure they submit complete application packets.
- Who Can Apply: The Lambda Pi Alpha Sorority offers this annual award to undergraduate nursing students in Illinois who have completed one semester of nursing school. Applicants must present proof of community service hours, have at least a 3.0 GPA, and provide three letters of recommendation. The scholarship also requires applicants to write a statement about why they are seeking the award.
- Amount: Varies
Kaiser Permanente Health Care Career Scholarship
- Who Can Apply: Open to high school seniors at each of the 133 public schools in the northwest service area, this scholarship is awarded based on academic achievement; extracurricular or community service work; commitment to a career in healthcare; and individual character, diversity, and economic need.
- Amount: $2,000, $5,000, or $10,000
Nurses Service Organization Master’s Scholarship
- Who Can Apply: Awarded by the Emergency Nurses Association (ENA), this scholarship supports emergency nurses continuing their education with a master’s degree. Applicants must be members of ENA and attending an accredited school.
- Amount: $5,000
Gardner Foundation Education Scholarship
- Who Can Apply: Open to members of the Infusion Nurses Society seeking collegiate or post-collegiate education, this application requires a two-page essay on professional goals.
- Amount: $1,000
Gil & Billie Gillespie Memorial Scholarship
- Who Can Apply: Applicants must be of Hispanic descent and seeking an associate or pre-licensure bachelor’s degree in nursing. This scholarship requires candidates to have worked for one year in an emergency department and provide letters of recommendation from the nursing manager and a current member of the ENA.
- Amount: $1,000
INS Presidential Leadership Scholarship
- Who Can Apply: Applicants must be members of the Infusion Nurses Society and complete a two-page essay identifying leadership characteristics in areas of collaborative relationships, change, lifelong learning, and service. Applicants must also share how they intend to use the scholarship award.
- Amount: $1,000
ENA Foundation Endowed Master’s Scholarship
- Who Can Apply: The ENA welcomes applications from emergency nurses seeking a master’s degree in nursing from an accredited school. Applicants must be registered nurses and members of ENA. The association awards six scholarships each year.
- Amount: $5,000
Jane Delano Student Nurse Scholarship
- Who Can Apply: The American Red Cross awards this scholarship to promote nursing careers and encourage involvement with Red Cross. Applicants must have volunteered with Red Cross units, or be employed by one. They may use the funds for tuition, academic fees, and books.
- Amount: $3,000
Elizabeth B. Moore Memorial Undergraduate Scholarship
- Who Can Apply: Applicants must demonstrate interest in pursuing a career in emergency nursing and be currently enrolled in an undergraduate nursing program with a minimum 3.0 GPA. Candidates must also demonstrate financial need. Applicants should include a reference letter from a member of the ENA. Recipients may apply for renewed funding each year.
- Amount: $5,000
Elaine Gelman Student Scholarship
- Who Can Apply: Awarded by the National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners, this scholarship program honors students who demonstrate innovation and clinical competence, academic achievement, and advocacy in pediatric health. Applicants must be members of the association and enrolled in a nurse practitioner program. They must provide a personal statement, a resume, and two letters of support.
- Amount: $1,000
Board of Certification for Emergency Nursing Undergraduate Scholarship
- Who Can Apply: Current emergency nurses may apply for this award to continue their education with a bachelor’s degree. The ENA awards 10 scholarships each year. Applicants must be active members of the association and maintain a 3.0 GPA.
- Amount: $2,000
Graduate Scholarships in Cancer Nursing Practice
- Who Can Apply: The American Cancer Society supports nurses seeking a master’s or doctorate with an oncology specialty. The award may be renewed for a second year.
- Amount: $10,000
M. Elizabeth Carnegie African American Memorial Award
- Who Can Apply: Open to black nurses enrolled in doctoral nursing programs, this scholarship requires applicants to hold a current RN license from any state and be a member of a national professional nursing association. Applicants must submit a personal essay and goal statement, as well as three references and transcripts reflecting a minimum 3.6 GPA.
- Amount: $2,000
NURSE Corps Scholarship Program
- Who Can Apply: This program accepts applications from U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents who are enrolled in or accepted to a professional nursing program. Awards include funds for tuition and eligible fees, a stipend for books and clinical supplies, and a monthly stipend for other expenses. In exchange, recipients agree to work in medically underserved communities.
- Amount: Varies
Barbara Rhomberg Nursing Scholarship
- Who Can Apply: Sponsored by B4 Brands, this scholarship seeks to assist non-traditional, full-time nursing school students. Applicants may be enrolled in an associate or bachelor’s program, and they must take at least a three-year break between high school graduation and college courses.
- Amount: $1,000
Financial Resources for Nursing Students
- NURSE Corps: The NURSE Corps offers loan repayment programs and scholarship opportunities in exchange for service in underserved communities. Recipients must commit to working for at least two years in underserved areas or facilities with critical staffing needs.
- New Graduate Residency Programs: This database from the Columbia University School of Nursing includes information on nursing residency and fellowship programs across the country.
- Health Resource and Services Administration: This administration provides information on federal and state loan repayment and forgiveness programs. Students can also use it to learn more about underserved areas through the comprehensive fact sheets and data collections.
- American Nurses Foundation: The American Nurses Foundation provides funding for research grants, fellowships, scholarships, and more. Much of the organization’s scholarship funding filters down to state associations, allowing donors to support nurses across the country.
- Federal Student Aid: Learn about completing the FAFSA, as well as grant programs and loan opportunities available through the U.S. Department of Education. The site also offers information on choosing a school and avoiding scholarship and loan scams.