Like any higher education program, an RN-to-BSN degree can come with a considerable price tag. In addition to tuition, nursing students potentially need to pay for books, housing, and other expenses. Fortunately, many financial aid options for nurses exist, such as federal and private loans, scholarships, and residency and fellowship programs.
Before pursuing financial aid opportunities, however, students should understand concepts like loan repayment plans, fixed versus variable interest rates, and loan forgiveness. This guide covers these concepts and other important information about financial aid for nurses.
Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)
The federal government provides low-interest student loans, grants, and scholarships. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) determines whether students qualify for financial aid from the federal government and how much aid they can receive. Students also learn whether they qualify for work-study programs, which allow them to work on campus or in public service positions off campus to pay for education costs.
All U.S. citizens and eligible noncitizens may apply as long as they possess a high school diploma or GED. Students' financial awards depend on several factors, including the cost of university attendance and expected family contribution based on income.
Students should apply by June 30 of the upcoming school year to determine their financial aid for that year. The application window lasts about a year and a half, so students enjoy plenty of time to submit their paperwork. Applicants need their or their family's federal income tax returns, W-2 forms, bank statements, investment records, and untaxed income records, if applicable. For more information and to fill out the application, students should visit the FAFSA website.
Scholarships for Nurses
Scholarships give nursing students money to pay for their education, and students do not need to pay it back, making them the best option for financial aid for nurses. Many colleges and universities issue merit-based or athletic scholarships. Professional associations, companies, and community groups also offer scholarships. Students may receive scholarships based on factors like financial need, academic performance, identity, or the type of degree they're pursuing.
Scholarship boards usually consider factors like GPA and other academic and extracurricular accomplishments to determine award eligibility. Scholarship committees may also require candidates to write essays or submit recommendation letters from a professional or academic source. Because filling out scholarship applications requires a significant time investment, students should choose and apply for scholarships strategically.
Grants for Nurses
Grants operate like scholarships in that they are awarded according to factors like financial need and academic performance and don't need to be repaid. However, grants often require more of a commitment from students than scholarships.
Nursing grants in particular often work as an exchange; students may receive full or partial tuition coverage during their BSN program in exchange for a commitment to work for a particular employer or population for a designated amount of time after graduation.
Those interested in this kind of financial assistance for nursing students may qualify for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' (HHS) NURSE Corps (NC) program. Program participants receive full tuition and fee coverage during school as well as a monthly stipend for the duration of their programs. Upon graduation, NC scholars must fulfill a service obligation working two years at a healthcare facility in one of the Health Professional Shortage Areas (HPSAs) designated by the HHS.
Many nursing grants are also sponsored at the state level. Unlike federal aid, which is administered directly through the Department of Education, state grants are distributed by the student's school. Once students submit the FAFSA, they are automatically considered for all government-sponsored aid programs, including state-sponsored grants.
Loans require borrowers to pay back their loans with interest. Some loans require students to make payments while they're still in school while others allow students to wait until they graduate and begin receiving an income to start repaying the loan.
Students can find loans from several sources, although federal loans feature the lowest interest rates. Students can usually pay back federal loans through an income repayment plan. Private loans from banks, credit unions, and other lending organizations often feature higher interest rates and less repayment flexibility than federal loans.
Federal Direct Loan Programs
The federal government offers four direct loan programs to help students cover tuition and living costs: direct subsidized loans, direct unsubsidized loans, direct PLUS loans, and direct consolidation loans. Students apply for these loans by submitting the FAFSA.
Undergraduate students can apply for subsidized loans based on financial need. Professional, graduate, and undergraduate borrowers can take out unsubsidized loans regardless of financial need. While students must pay all interest on unsubsidized loans, the federal government pays the interest on subsidized loans during a six-month post-graduate grace period and through deferment periods. For both subsidized and unsubsidized loans, the college or university determines how much students can borrow.
Direct PLUS loans allow parents to borrow money to help finance their children's educations. This loan does not depend on financial need, but borrowers must complete a credit check. Graduate and professional students can take out this loan on their own, but undergraduate students cannot.
Direct consolidation loans merge all federal loans into one consolidated loan, which allows graduates to repay their balances in one payment every month. Individuals who choose direct consolidation loans may qualify for income-driven repayment plans and the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which is explained later in this guide.
Private Loans From Financial Institutions
If students need additional help paying for nursing school, they can consider taking out private loans from banks, credit unions, lenders, and other financial institutions. Private loans usually cover a greater amount than federal loans, but also feature higher interest rates and stricter approval guidelines.
Private loans can also come with fixed or variable interest rates. While fixed interest rates remain the same over time, variable rates fluctuate. Private loans may not offer as forgiving deferment or forbearance periods for people struggling to keep up with their loan payments as federal loans.
Loans From Family and Friends
Students can also borrow money from family and friends. People tend to choose this option when they do not qualify for federal loans, cannot get a bank loan, or just need an extra financial boost. In this scenario, borrowers and lenders may decide on repayment terms through an informal agreement. Although this may seem like the simplest solution, students should note that if they cannot repay the money after graduation, it may strain their relationships.
Loan Forgiveness Programs for Nurses
In certain situations, nurses may qualify for loan forgiveness programs. These programs allow graduates to cancel part of their loan's repayment requirements. Below are a few of these programs.
- Professionals who work as providers in the Medicare, Medicaid, and State Children's Health Insurance Program may qualify for this loan repayment program. Candidates need full training and a license to work in the NHSC as a private care, dental, or mental/behavioral health professional. Between $15,000-$50,000 of their loans may qualify for cancellation, depending on whether they serve full time or half time in the NHSC.
- The IHS operates within the Department of Health and Human Services. The agency provides medical care to Native American tribes and Alaska Native people across the United States. Health professionals who work for the IHS for at least two years qualify for up to $40,000 of student debt cancellation.
- The Health Resources and Service Administration (HRSA) administers this loan repayment program for nurses who work at eligible critical shortage facilities in high-need areas or at accredited nursing schools. Candidates must work as licensed registered nurses, advanced practice registered nurses, or nurse faculty members. HRSA pays 60% of members' unpaid nursing debt over two years, plus another 25% if nurses extend the program for a third year.
- The PSLF program partially cancels direct loan repayments for professionals who work full time in the following organizations: local, state, or federal government organizations; nonprofit organizations; Americorps; and the Peace Corps. This program forgives student debt after these professionals make 120 qualifying loan repayments.
- Students who took out the Perkins Loan may qualify for this cancellation program, which forgives partial or full debt. Candidates must work in one of the listed professional roles, which include early childhood education provider, child or family services employee, tribal college faculty member, firefighter, law enforcement officer, or Title I school librarian.
Military Loan Forgiveness Programs
- Nurses who serve in the military may qualify for several military loan forgiveness programs. The Army Healthcare Professionals Loan Repayment Plan may cancel up to $40,000 of student loan debt each year for three years, amounting to $120,000 in debt cancellation. The Navy Health Professions Loan Repayment Program may also forgive up to $40,000 for each year that medical personnel serve in the Navy. The Air Force Active Duty Health Professionals Loan Repayment Program and the National Guard Health Care Professional Loan Repayment Program also offer a maximum of $40,000 in debt cancellation each year.
Federal Work-Study Programs
Federal work-study programs allow students to pay education costs by working part time in a role typically related to their degree. Learners often find jobs on campus, though sometimes universities form partnerships with nonprofit organizations or public agencies that offer students work-study positions off campus. All positions must serve the public interest in some way.
Salaries depend on a few factors, including when students apply, their financial need, and the school's budget. Typically, students earn the federal minimum wage, although jobs that require greater skill may pay more. Students cannot work as many hours as they want; the government grants a specific work-study award for each student based on need, and a student's earnings cannot exceed this award. Participants receive their paychecks through their colleges or universities. Undergraduate students earn hourly wages, and paychecks come once a month.
Nursing Residency and Fellowship Programs
Nursing students can also explore funding opportunities from nursing residency and fellowship programs. Hospitals, clinics, and other healthcare facilities offer these programs, which give students practical experience and mentorship opportunities. Colleges and universities often develop partnerships with these healthcare facilities to create fellowship programs.
Some residencies and fellowships focus on a nursing specialization, like cardiac or pediatric nursing. These programs typically provide stipends or salaries as compensation. Work hours depend on the program, with some places hiring residents to work full time, so students should consider whether they can meet the time commitment of a program.
Post-9/11 GI Bill®️
The Post-9/11 GI Bill®️ covers tuition and provides additional education benefits for certain service members and veterans. This funding comes from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Candidates qualify for the program if they engaged in three months of active-duty service after September 10, 2001 and remain on active duty; if they hold honorably discharged veteran status; or if they were discharged because of a service-connected disability.
The VA covers up to three years of aid. Students attending public, in-state colleges and universities may qualify for full tuition and fee coverage. The VA also pays $1,000 for books and supplies every year and a $500 travel stipend for students who live in rural areas. Participants who attend courses more than half-time may qualify for housing funding.
The amount that students receive depends on how much active service they completed since September of 2001. The GI Bill®️ Comparison Tool helps service members and veterans calculate their benefits by school. These benefits do not expire for individuals who ended their service after January 1, 2013. Others get 15 years to take advantage of these education benefits before they expire.
Candidates may submit an application by mail or through a VA regional benefits office. Students can learn more about the application process here.
A Note on Accreditation
Students applying for federal funding must attend an accredited educational institution. Accreditation ensures the academic quality and rigor of a school. Independent accrediting agencies visit colleges and universities to evaluate whether these schools provide a substantive and valuable education. Schools can receive regional or national accreditation, with regional accreditation generally considered the more prestigious of the two.
Programs within a school may receive programmatic accreditation. Nursing students should look from accreditation from the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing, Inc.. Students can search this database hosted by the U.S. Department of Education to find accredited institutions.