The Nursing Student’s Guide to Debt-Free Education
There’s no denying it: Earning a nursing education can be expensive. The cost can be a major reason people don’t pursue their dream careers—especially knowing how people spend decades after school paying off loans. Nursing education debt has public health implications, too: Despite the Institute of Medicine (IOM)’s benchmark recommendation that all RNs have at least a bachelor’s degree, many are put off by existing student debt loads to think about going back for further education.
Though it’s nearly cliché now to bemoan the rising cost of degrees and student loan burdens, there are still options for nurses, aspiring nurses, or others considering healthcare careers to graduate from college without debt or to have their debts forgiven after completing school.
How Much Does Nursing Education Cost?
As of the 2020-2021 school year, the average annual postsecondary tuition costs for all majors were:
Two-year colleges: $3,770
Public four-year colleges, in-state: $10,560
Public four-year colleges, out-of-state: $27,020
Private four-year colleges: $37,650
That’s just tuition, not living expenses. Plus, master’s and doctoral programs are often even more expensive.
Nursing degrees don’t always fit into these specific molds. According to SoFi, as of 2018, Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degrees cost roughly the same as other bachelor’s degrees. But, a registered nurse (RN) license achieved via an associate program may cost around $31,000, and a licensed practical nurse (LPN) program generally runs $10,000 to $15,000. Certified nursing assistant (CNA) programs can be free (with training programs such as those offered by Premier Nursing Academy), but others cost anywhere from $200 to $1,200.
In addition, all levels of nursing school have expenses other types of programs don’t, like scrubs and medical equipment—and these costs aren’t factored into tuition. You’ll also need to pay for your exams, the costs of which vary by state.
But you have options!
The Case for Starting with CNA Programs
CNA programs are typically the least expensive to complete out of all nursing degrees or licenses and can be a valuable stepping stone to nursing degrees. If you attend a program that charges tuition—remember, not all do—you’ll generally graduate with little to no debt to begin with. But, there are some opportunities to either have your tuition and supplies paid for before you begin or have those costs reimbursed after completion.
See if you qualify for Pell or Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity (FSEOG) grants. For both options, you need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). FAFSAs must be submitted between October and February, so relying on federal aid may limit when you can begin school. To earn these grants, community colleges are usually your safest options, as they’re most likely to receive government funding—but other educational or training facilities may also offer them. Talk to your school’s financial aid office to see if they participate in these grant programs.
If your program doesn’t qualify you for Pell or FSEOG grants, you should be mindful of where you apply for jobs.
If you receive your CNA training while already on the job—which isn’t uncommon—the federal government requires your employer to cover all expenses, including textbooks and other required materials. If you receive your training elsewhere but are employed within 12 months of completing your certification, your state government must reimburse you for your educational costs. So, you pay out of pocket, but you get your money back.
However, this isn’t necessarily universal—you may need to work in a facility with a Medicare and/or Medicaid contract. These repayment requirements also often only apply to nursing homes or assisted living facilities. Check with your employer or with your individual state board of health or medicine to see what their regulations are.
Beginning your career as a CNA can be highly beneficial in the long run. Not only is this generally the least expensive nursing education pathway, but it’s often a job you can do while attending more advanced programs. This means you may have to take out fewer loans to pay for those additional degrees. Certified nursing assistants earn a mean salary of $30,720 per year, or $14.77 per hour, as of 2019, but earning potential can be different based on your location. CNAs’ work schedules vary, but many opt to work nights, weekends, or part-time if they’re attending school. If those options don’t work for you, you could also arrange daytime schedules with evening classes or earn additional degrees online.
How Can I Graduate From Nursing School Without Drowning in Debt?
Perhaps you looked at the nursing school costs above and thought, “eek…that’s out of my budget.” But there are ways to get through your nursing program without spending the rest of your life paying off student loans.
Nursing School Grants
Like CNA programs, you may be eligible for Pell or FSEOG grants in an undergraduate program. In fact, your eligibility is more likely, as nursing programs are often offered by publicly funded colleges and universities. The FSEOG can be between $100 and $4,000 per year, while the Pell is up to $6,345 annually.
Graduate school grants for nurses don’t exist at the federal level, but individual states may provide them. You could also receive this kind of money from your educational institution. To find out about these opportunities, check with your state’s board of education and your school’s financial aid office.
You may also find grants through membership organizations. There’s an association for nearly every nursing specialty, and these organizations often offer grants, scholarships, and a variety of job search and networking opportunities. If you Google “[nursing specialty] association,” chances are you’ll find something that fits your needs.
Scholarships for Nursing Students
Nursing scholarships may be offered by local governments, educational institutions, outside organizations, and even seemingly unrelated businesses like law firms.
Scholarships tend to be granted based on need and/or merit. Many further narrow the field by offering them to people of specific backgrounds. This can include:
- Women/female-identifying people
- Those living with disabilities
- Members of specific religions
- LGBTQ+ community members
Nursing Loan Forgiveness
Whether or not you received scholarships or grants, you may still have had to take out loans. For nurses in this situation, there are loan forgiveness options:
Military Health Professions Loan Forgiveness
If you haven’t served in the military previously and decide to become a nurse for the Army or Army Reserves, Navy, or Air Force, you may have your student loans forgiven.
Nurse Corps Loan Repayment Program
NCLRP is open to licensed registered nurses, advanced practice nurses, and nursing faculty members who work in critical shortage facilities (CSFs) or certain accredited nursing schools for at least two years. CSFs are healthcare institutions facing significant nursing staff shortages. This is something to ask about during the job interview process, but if this option interests you, focus your job search on facilities in rural and/or impoverished areas, as they’re more likely to be considered CSFs than those in suburban areas. Qualifying applicants can get up to 60% of their outstanding nursing school loans repaid, and if you stay on at your facility for a third year, you can get an additional 25% reimbursed.
Perkins Loan Forgiveness
Many nurses don’t realize that Perkins Loan forgiveness is available to them, as it’s generally associated with teachers. However, if you received a Federal Perkins Loan, you may be eligible to have up to 100% of that loan canceled if you’ve spent five years working in a qualifying position.
Public Service Loan Forgiveness
If you work 30+ hours per week for a qualifying employer—a government organization and many nonprofits—and make 120 qualifying payments via an approved repayment plan, you may be eligible for Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF). Peace Corps and AmeriCorps volunteers are also eligible. Approved payment plans are all those considered “income-driven repayment (IDR)” plans, which use your salary to decide your monthly payment. PSLF discharges all remaining student loan debt.
State Loan Forgiveness
Every state offers some sort of loan forgiveness for nurses, though they vary in amount and types of nurses eligible. Most forgiveness options are limited to those working in CSFs.
Nursing Tuition Reimbursement
When it comes to enticing nurses to work for them, many employers opt for having tuition reimbursement plans. This is because the return on their investment is usually high—they pay some or all of your loans (usually a set amount per year of employment), and in return, you’re more likely to keep working there.
As there’s a nursing shortage, tuition reimbursement isn’t the only perk healthcare facilities are offering. Particularly in high-shortage areas, some institutions provide sign-on bonuses, pay for relocation costs, offer free housing, and even cover college tuition for nurses’ children. When you’re job hunting, keep an eye out for unique benefits like these.
Getting Help Paying for Miscellaneous Nursing School Costs
We mentioned that nursing programs have costs other programs don’t, and it’s not uncommon for aid to not cover miscellaneous costs. However, there are ways to pay for things you need without racking up too many credit card charges.
According to The Nerdy Nurse, some of the unusual items you’ll need may include:
- Comfortable shoes
- Flesh-colored underwear—some hospitals require white scrubs
- Medical supplies
- Nursing clipboard
- Specialized study guides, “cheat sheets,” and apps
- Voice recorder
- Watch—some hospitals don’t allow phones
allheart further mentions the need for compression socks and lab coats/jackets, and all resources mention the need for a good tumbler and water bottle—not to mention excellent coffee to keep you going.
Low-Cost Nursing Supplies
This roundup of sources can help you find free or discount supplies related to your nursing education:
This is a website for selling and purchasing books, including nursing textbooks and other medical guides. So, whether you’re looking to buy a reduced-price book or sell one you’re done with, this is the site for you.
This store’s clearance section offers scrubs, compression socks, personal protective equipment, medical supplies, etc.
Beverly Hills Uniforms
BHU sells scrubs, lab coats, shoes, PPE, and medical supplies at wholesale costs.
You won’t believe the low, low prices this store offers on scrubs.
Glowforge Ear Savers
Glowforge is a laser printer company, but in response to COVID-19, they created a pattern for “Ear Savers.” These are attachments for masks to keep their straps from rubbing the backs of your ears all day. Even if you don’t have a Glowforge printer, if you can access a laser printer (perhaps at your local library), you can make these using a printable pattern. Best of all? The pattern is free! You can also sign up with Glowforge, either on behalf of a nonprofit or as an individual frontline worker, to have someone else make them for you—costing you no more than shipping.
Though a bit pricier than others on this list, this site has scrubs others don’t, like antimicrobial, maternity, and holiday options. They also have compression socks, nursing supplies, and more. Their sale section is a great place to start.
Medical Scrubs Mall
Offering more than just scrubs, this low-cost site has fashionable workwear and accessories for nurses.
If you need clothes, PPE, watches, stethoscopes—basically any standard nursing supply!—chances are PulseUniform has it, and at a good price to boot.
Your own school may have supply swaps for nursing students. These are usually organized by students, and they pass along things like textbooks they no longer need at much lower prices.