Returning to School

If you are working as a full-time nurse, returning to school to earn your bachelor's in nursing may seem challenging, if not impossible. However, doubts such as feeling too old to go back to school or believing that you do not have the time should not stop you from researching educational opportunities such as RN-to-BSN programs. After all, the vast majority of students earning their bachelor's degrees in nursing are 30 or older.

Nurses who hold an associate degree may choose to earn their bachelor's for many reasons. For a majority, the answer involves the higher salary earned by registered nurses with bachelor's degrees. Also, nurses with a bachelor's can choose a specialization that may open up new job opportunities, which is a boon if you plan to move to a new city or state after graduation. Finally, many go back to school to hone pre-existing skills and learn the latest best practices in the nursing field; nurses in this category may decide to earn their master's degree, making them eligible to work as nurse practitioners.

The following sections include information on the benefits of returning to nursing school, transferring college credits, applying work experience toward your degree, and securing financial aid opportunities, including relevant scholarships.

Benefits of Returning to Nursing School

As with most careers, the more advanced a degree someone holds, the more competitive they become in the job market. Companies who employ nurses value applicants with education and experience -- two attributes that RN-to-BSN graduates possess. Furthering one's education also indicates a commitment to the nursing field, and employers want to hire nurses dedicated to their careers. Finally, as RN-to-BSN programs permit nurses to continue working while they earn their degrees, they can apply their new skills and knowledge on-the-job.

After earning a bachelor's, nurses can choose to earn a master's degree, increasing their salary potential and making them eligible to work as nurse practitioners. Although nurse practitioner requirements vary by state, in all cases nurses require both a master's degree and at least 1,000 hours of additional work experience. Nurse practitioners can work independently and prescribe medication, making them notable professionals who earn significantly higher salaries than registered nurses with an associate or bachelor's degree. The table below illustrates the average salaries of nurses with different levels of education.

Average Salaries for Nurses by Educational Attainment
$45,030 $45,354 $70,000 $110,930

Online Learning for Adults Returning to Nursing School

More than one in every four college students takes courses online. For many online students, their programs' convenience, flexibility, and affordability led them away from the traditional college experience. The majority of online programs allow students to begin their education as soon as possible, while traditional, on-campus programs ask students to wait months before classes start. When studying online, students can view lectures at any time, making this instructional style perfect for students who can study only in the early morning or late at night. Online programs charge less in tuition compared to on-campus programs, and students do not have to pay additional room and board fees or travel expenses to and from campus--the latter of which saves money and time.

Many online RN-to-BSN students experience additional benefits once they begin their programs. All bachelor's in nursing programs, both on campus and online, require students to complete clinical rotations. On-campus students or those without a nursing license must accept any clinical placement their college or university provides them, while online RN-to-BSN students can complete their clinical rotations at their current place of employment. By completing clinicals at their workplaces, these nurses can make a positive impression on different managers, and this increases their chances of continued employment and career advancement.

Transferring Credits as a Returning Student

To make a successful return to nursing school, keep your associate degree at the forefront of your mind as you research different RN-to-BSN programs. If you earned your associate degree from an accredited liberal arts or community college, your bachelor's program should accept most, if not all, of your credits. Accredited colleges and universities represent those that hold regional accreditation granted by one of the seven regional accreditation agencies authorized by the U.S. Department of Education.

Each college and university you consider sets its own credit transfer policies; schools typically cap the number of credits transfer students may apply to their bachelor's degrees. Keep in mind that although college credits do not expire, a college will not accept credits if they came from courses that the college does not offer or if the curricula has changed significantly in the preceding years. To send your transcript to your new school, contact the records department at the school where you earned your associate degree. Sending the transcript may involve a small fee.

When examining your past credits, keep in mind that general education courses transfer more easily than your nursing courses; as mentioned in the previous paragraph, nursing instruction may have changed since your earned your associate degree. Your new college or university may not accept these credits. Many RN-to-BSN students retake one or more courses to make up for credits that do not transfer.

Transferrable Credits

If you earned your associate degree from a public college, consider earning your bachelor's from a public college or university in the same state. If a public school receives a transfer request from a student who attended a public school within the same state, the school can easily check course equivalency, course level, and quarter versus semester transfers for every course on the student's official transcript. Schools outside the system typically take longer to process transfer requests and may ask transfer applicants to provide additional information such as course syllabi.

Course Equivalency: The matriculation department at every public college or university contains an official course equivalency list. When a worker receives a transcript from another public school in the same state, they compare the transcript to their list. Transfering credits requires only a few minutes to complete. However, some credits may not transfer if the school does not offer a particular course. Schools may allow these nonequivalent credits to transfer as general education credits. When the transfer process finishes, students receive a new transcript that assists them in planning their path to graduation.

Course Level: As with general education courses, transfer students can more easily transfer 100- and 200-level nursing courses to their RN-to-BSN programs. As nursing programs offer different specialties, certain higher-level nurses courses may not exist at students' new schools. Like nonequivalent courses, these courses may still count toward general education requirements depending on credit transfer policies. Before committing to a bachelor's program, research if your higher-level credits apply to your bachelor's degree.

Quarter vs. Semester Transfers: Many transfer students wonder if their quarter credits apply to a program that uses semester credits. Fortunately, many colleges and universities use a credit conversion formula to ensure that transfer students receive the credits they deserve. Though using this formula can give you a general picture of how your credits should transfer, always confirm this information with each RN-to-BSN program that interests you. Discussing your credits with an admissions officer can potentially save you time and money later.

College Credit for Work Experience

Students who return to school after years of working possess valuable knowledge and experience. Many colleges and universities recognize their students' expertise by either awarding credit or allowing eligible students to skip certain courses. This process begins when a college or university program accepts a student. In the matriculation department, a student will discuss their experience with a school official who will then suggest prior learning assessment (PLA) evaluation. In the section below, you can learn more about PLA assessment categories and if you can apply your prior knowledge and experience to help fulfill your degree requirements.

Methods of Prior Learning Assessment

The vast majority of colleges and universities use the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning's four PLA categories: standardized exams, challenge exams, individual assessments, and evaluation of non-college credit and training. A program may ask RN-to-BSN students to provide an essay about their on-the-job training and career path to determine PLA credits.

Standardized Exams: Testing companies create exams to help colleges and universities determine whether students' professional experience meets specific academic standards. The College Board's College Level Exam Program (CLEP) and the Department of Defense's DSST exams allow students to show their proficiency in general education courses such as mathematics, English, and history. Passing one of these exams qualifies students for college credit or permission to skip a course. Incoming students take these exams either at the college or a testing center.

Challenge Exams: Each school creates their own challenge exams. These exams allow schools to assess each course's specific learning targets. Challenge exams and standardized exams share a similar format, although challenge exams may include one or more writing components that professors analyze to determine test takers' subject matter proficiency. Students preparing to take challenge exams should contact the relevant academic department(s) for information regarding exam format and possible study guides.

Individual Assessments: Some colleges and universities personalize the PLA experience by offering individual assessments, often in the form of a portfolio. In a portfolio assessment, incoming students write an essay detailing how their professional experience meets a course's learning targets. Students must complete a portfolio for each course they hope to receive credit for. Schools may ask for additional evidence in addition to the essay, such as an interview with a faculty member to go over the portfolio's contents.

Evaluation of Non-college Education and Training: Non-college education and training, such as that provided by the U.S. military, often satisfies course requirements. Other professional certifications and licensure might also play a role depending on a school's policies. Out of all the PLA options on this list, evaluation of non-college education and training requires the least amount of time for colleges and universities to review. Students need only to present proper documentation proving their competency in one or more academic subjects.

How PLA Credits Transfer

PLA credits transfer in one of two ways. A school or university may decide to award credit, and in some cases the awarded credit may go toward the student's major. If the school does not have an equivalent course, the credit may count as elective or general education credit. In this case, the student retakes the course if that credit initially applied to their nursing major.

A school may decide not to award credit, but allow a transfer student to skip courses. In this case, the student takes additional courses to meet the school's credit requirements. This path typically requires longer to complete and costs students more in tuition. Keep this fact in mind as you research different programs and their PLA credit transfer policies. Investigate if programs cap the number of credits students may transfer and if PLA credits transfer if you need to change schools in the future.

Paying for School as a Returning Student

In this section, you can learn more about paying for school as a returning student. Topics include filling out the FAFSA as a nontraditional student and determining your financial need.

Filling Out the FAFSA as a Nontraditional Student

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) helps millions of U.S. citizens and eligible noncitizens apply for federally backed loans, grants, and work-study opportunities. To receive aid, applicants must prove their financial need by providing their tax returns and their parents' tax returns (if applicable). Age, previous work experience, and previous educational experience make no impact on your eligibility determination for financial aid. Therefore, all nontraditional students should consider the FAFSA as the first stop on their financial aid journey.

If you intend to begin school at some point during the next academic year, you can begin filling out the FAFSA on October 1. Your eligibility determination remains valid for one year, at which time you fill out the FAFSA again using your updated financial information. The process resembles filing your taxes; the FAFSA asks many questions regarding your income and financial holdings. When you submit your application, you receive a determination almost immediately. If the FAFSA determines that your ability to pay for the coming year exceeds your projected tuition, you do not qualify for financial aid through the federal government; however, not receiving aid one year does not disqualify you from applying the following year.

Submitting the FAFSA as soon as possible ensures that even if you do not qualify for federal student aid programs, you can still take advantage of other financial aid opportunities such as private scholarships, grants, and loan programs. Ideally, your financial aid package should come from multiple sources, allowing you to pay little to nothing for your nursing degree.

What Information Do I Need to Provide for the FAFSA?

Social Security Number: Only U.S. citizens and eligible noncitizens may receive federal student aid through the FAFSA. At the time of application, students must input either their Social Security number or U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services number.

Driver’s License Number: To protect applicants' identities and reduce the chances of fraud, the FAFSA asks applicants to provide their driver's license numbers. The FAFSA does not examine applicants' driving history when making its eligibility determination. Applicants without a driver's license may still submit the FAFSA.

Federal Tax Information: Federal tax information allows the government to make its aid determination. Applicants must include their parents' tax information if their parents still claim them as dependents. Before starting the FAFSA, gather your tax returns from the previous two years.

Records of Untaxed Income: As a nontraditional student, you may possess untaxed income such as disability benefits or workers compensation claims. Although untaxed by the federal government, this income influences your ability to pay for your degree. The FAFSA does not consider all types of untaxed income, so carefully review their criteria before submitting your application.

Information on Assets: Along with income, the FAFSA asks for information concerning your assets, such as banks accounts and investments. Fortunately, your home does not count as an asset, although other real estate holdings do. Retirement accounts and life insurance policies do not affect your eligibility determination either.

How to Determine Your Financial Need

Before filling out the FAFSA or other financial aid forms, you should determine your financial need. First, calculate your cost of attendance (COA). COA includes tuition and fees, room and board, school supplies, and caring for dependents while you attend school. You should understand your COA as your FAFSA report produces an expected family contribution (EFC). Students whose COA exceeds their EFC typically qualify for federally backed financial aid. To help these students, the federal government offers both need-based and non-need-based financial aid programs.

Federal need-based financial aid programs include Federal Pell Grants, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, Direct Subsidized Loans, Federal Perkins Loans, and Federal Work-Study Programs. Each program's financial aid caps at the amount determined by the COA and EFC. If students require additional aid, they may take advantage of one or more non-need-based federal student aid programs, such as Direct Unsubsidized Loans, Federal PLUS Loans, and Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grants. Remember that unsubsidized loans differ from subsidized loans in that they collect interest while students are in school.

Types of Financial Aid for Returning Students


Financial Aid for Graduate Students

If you decide to further your education past a bachelor's degree, you still can take advantage of multiple financial aid opportunities. Like with your undergraduate education, the FAFSA determines your eligibility for Federal Direct Loans, Direct PLUS Loans, and Federal Work-Study. Federal Direct Loans boast low interest rates compared to private loans. If you require additional funding, a Direct PLUS loan can help close your financial gap. If you do not want to incur debt, Federal Work-Study allows you to pay off part of your education by working for a local company or organization. Federal Pell Grants do not apply to graduate students.

Outside the federal government, your state may provide grant, scholarship, or loan programs to nursing students. Check with your state's department of education for more information. Also, some private scholarships, like those listed in the next section, award financial aid solely to nursing students. Finally, your employer may pay for your tuition if you agree to continue working for them for a set number of years after you graduate. If after graduation you change jobs before this cutoff, you may have to pay back up to 100% of your graduate tuition.

Scholarships for Adult and Mid-Career Nursing Students

Tylenol Future Care Scholarship
Who Can Apply: Students who have completed at least one year of undergraduate or graduate study may apply. The scholarship committee considers applicants' leadership potential, academic merit, and community involvement.
Amount: $5,000 to $10,000

Nursing Economic$ Foundation Scholarship
Who Can Apply: Nursing students attending a master's or doctoral program may apply. Applicants must already possess a nursing license. Nursing students who use other scholarships to finance their educations may still apply.
Amount: $5,000

A Nurse I Am Scholarship
Who Can Apply: Nursing students earning their bachelor's, master's, or doctorate may apply for one of the 10 scholarships awarded each year. The application asks students to write an essay response to a nursing documentary.
Amount: $2,000 Scholarship Program
Who Can Apply: awards eight scholarships each year to nursing students who have a documented disability. Applicants must submit an essay, three letters of recommendation, and official verification of their disability.
Amount: $250

AfterCollege/AACN Scholarship Fund
Who Can Apply: Student nurses attending an AACN-member college or university may apply. The scholarship has four application windows each year. Nursing students who do not receive the scholarship on their first try may reapply during the following application window.
Amount: $10,000

Tips for a Successful Return to Nursing School

If you plan to go back to nursing school after an extended break, it pays to research how to make a successful transition back into the classroom.