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Is a Nursing Degree Worth It?

July 22, 2020 | Staff Writers

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As many fields become increasingly tenuous, the healthcare industry remains essential and very much in demand. The nursing field, especially, continues to grow. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects employment for registered nurses (RNs) to increase by 12% from 2018-28. BLS projections also indicate that employment for advanced practice nurses will rise by 26% in the same period.

Before choosing this career path, you should carefully consider the cost of tuition, potential salary figures, and return on investment. On this page, we ask nursing professionals about these concerns. We also explore topics like advancement opportunities, personal fulfillment, and challenges that come with the job.

So, is nursing worth it? Keep reading this guide to find out.

The Cost of a Nursing Degree

Like higher education programs, nursing degrees can cost tens of thousands of dollars. A bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) may cost anywhere from $30,000 to upwards of $100,000.

Those might seem like intimidating numbers, but you can take advantage of several financial aid options to lower your debts. Many colleges, universities, professional associations, and foundations offer scholarships, for example.

About 70% of nursing students take out loans to pay for their degree. BSN degree-holders graduate with an average student loan debt of $23,711, according to data compiled by NerdWallet. That may seem like a lot, but it’s considerably less than the average student loan debt for all college graduates across America, which reached almost $30,000 in 2019.

In comparison, associate degree of nursing (ADN) graduates end up with an average student loan debt of about $19,928. Those who pursue a master of science in nursing (MSN) degree find themselves with an average of $47,321 in student loan debt.

In a Medscape compensation survey, about 35% of RNs reported they were paying off student loans. On top of that, approximately 20% of nurses over the age of 55 said they still had student loan debt.

Calculate the total amount of tuition costs, along with how much you need to take out in loans, and try to predict how long it might take to pay off those loans. Only you can evaluate whether the cost is ultimately worth it for your own unique financial situation.

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Nursing Salaries

On average, RNs make more than the median annual salary for all careers in the United States. RNs earned a median income of $73,300 in 2019. That’s almost twice the national median income of $40,000, according to BLS figures. Nurses acknowledge the demanding aspects of their job, with only 51% of RNs reporting that they earned fair compensation.

Advanced practice nurses, though, earn considerably more than RNs. An advanced practice nurse works in a specialized field and takes on more responsibility than an RN to work as nurse practitioners (NPs), nurse anesthetists, and nurse midwives. These professionals brought home a median annual salary of about $115,800 in 2019. Many nurses earn higher salaries with more experience and with leadership and management positions.

Professional Fulfillment

Nurses find their roles rewarding for reasons beyond their paychecks. Their careers provided something greater than the stability of clocking in and out every day: a sense of greater professional and personal purpose.

“My nursing career has paid off for many reasons: it has been personally rewarding to impact patient’s lives (and) be a positive part of the healthcare system,” said Nancy Brook, an NP and success coach at Stanford Healthcare.

Maryanne Tranter, a Ph.D.-educated pediatric NP and CEO of The Healthy Child Concierge, mentioned similar factors in considering whether her career has paid off. She enjoys helping people every day and tangibly contributing to people’s lives.

“I am honored and proud to be a nurse,” Tranter explained. “I love the concept of life-long learning that is required with this career. I love being such a special part of people’s lives. I love caring for children. I love empowering families… I am hopeful the investment in my Ph.D. will pay off financially with my new business, but the payoff of doing what I want to do is already here.”

Advancement Opportunities for Nurses

RNs can advance to administrative roles as assistant clinical nurse managers or charge nurses. To qualify for further opportunities, though, many nursing professionals pursue master’s degrees.

“Having an advanced degree in nursing opens the door to many professional opportunities,” Brook said. “Aside from being able to take on positions as an advanced practice nurse, graduates are able to teach at the graduate and undergraduate level, consult, write, and take on management positions both in the hospital setting and in industry.”

An advanced degree allows nurses to reach even higher management positions, such as nursing director, vice president of nursing, or even chief nursing officer. For individuals more interested in nursing practice than leadership, advanced practice nurses take on more responsibility than their RN peers. Most states allow them to diagnose patients and prescribe medication.

Either way, nursing professionals in advanced positions earn higher salaries than their peers, which can increase their educational return on investment.

Additional Factors to Consider

When asking yourself “is nursing school worth it?” you should consider more than just tuition costs. You should also consider the challenges of nursing school, and determine whether you can put in the work needed to graduate.

“All degrees need good time management, critical thinking (including questioning information and assimilating it), dedication, being thorough, double and sometimes triple-checking, persistence, and patience,” Tranter said.

The nursing industry itself also comes with its challenges.

“The healthcare system is always changing; there are constantly new requirements, policies, and procedures to keep up with,” Brook said. “Expectations around productivity and billing are always changing, and we are constantly working with new team members as part of a teaching hospital.”

While the industry comes with a certain degree of flexibility, nursing professionals also deal with potential burnout.

Still, “the reward continues to outweigh the challenges as change is a given in any profession,” Brook explained. “Our role continues to evolve, which brings new opportunities for professional growth.”

Advice for Aspiring Nurses

When it comes to deciding if nursing is your ideal career path, take an honest look at your career goals and your financial resources, Brook advises.

“Take some time and talk with those working in the field you are most interested in; take in the information and really reflect on if it aligns with your goals and dreams for the future,” Brook said. “Carefully assess your family situation and financial abilities to ensure that you have the time and money to embark on nursing school.”

Make sure you’re going into the field for the right reasons. If you want to become a nurse for the money alone, you might not make it, Tranter warns.

“Do not just do it for the flexibility and income. People who choose this end up becoming burned out sooner,” Tranter said. “You always need to have a questioning mind and a love of learning, as research and knowledge are always changing, and nurses need to stay informed. You should know that as a nurse, we have the honor of sharing some of the most intimate and important parts of someone’s life.”

Meet Our Contributors

Maryanne Tranter
Expert Reviewer: Maryanne Tranter

Dr. Maryanne Tranter is a Ph.D.-prepared pediatric NP with 25 years of experience working with families from different cultures and backgrounds. She specializes in caring for infants, children, and their families.

She aims to walk parents from panic to peace by providing current research and accurate information to empower parents to raise a healthy child.

She also teaches nursing and NP students, along with speaking and consulting around the world. She has been an expert witness, podcast and group interview guest, and contributes to journal publications.

Nancy Brook RN, MSN, CFNP
Expert Reviewer: Nancy Brook RN, MSN, CFNP

Nancy Brook is an NP and success coach at Stanford Healthcare. She works with nurses and healthcare professionals who want to create more meaningful careers and healthier lifestyles.

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