How to pay for, or pay off, your degree

Tips from financial and academic experts to save up, finance and pay down school debt

5 facts about the U.S. nursing shortage.According to research in the American Journal of Medical Quality, a shortage of registered nurses is projected to spread between 2009 and 2030.The South and West, authors forecast, will suffer the greatest RN shortage.The shortage is due to a variety of factors, including an aging workforce. A 2013 survey found 55 percent of RNs are 50 or older.According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, a shortage of nursing school faculty is also restricting nursing program enrollments.And nursing school enrollment just isn't growing fast enough to meet the demand for services

The majority of nursing careers now require a minimum of at least an associate’s degree (typically two years of college), and most require a bachelor’s degree (four years of college).

Although a nurse can technically become an RN without a Bachelor of Science in Nursing, most U.S. health care employers hire only RNs with a bachelor’s. Additionally, many of the more lucrative, specialized or advanced practice nursing careers require an additional degree such as a master’s in nursing, or other added certification.

Unless you have cash lying around, or parents willing to fund your education free and clear, you need a plan to fund the tens of thousands of dollars needed for your nursing degree(s). According to, tuition for a traditional bachelor’s program ranges from $40,000-$80,000, and up to as much as $100,000 for some schools.

Financial and academic experts provide a variety of strategies for saving money for tuition, finding scholarships and grants, employer assistance opportunities, and even lifestyle changes to help save or earn extra money to pay for nursing school.

Where to begin: savings

The benefit of saving money for your tuition is you won’t pay interest and financing fees, and you may even be able to earn interest on your savings instead of owing interest on a loan. You’ll graduate with less, if any, debt. The drawback of paying for college this way is it can be difficult to find ways to earn enough money to save up for tuition, and you may have to work extra jobs or cut back spending in other areas to make ends meet while saving for college.

There are, however, many ways to save significant amounts of money at a time to help speed up the process and save more quickly, and experts advise starting as soon as possible.

“Parents can begin to research college savings options while they are expecting their child and can open an account as soon as their child arrives,” said Patricia Roberts, author of “Route 529: A Parent’s Guide to Saving for College and Training with 529 Plans.”

“A popular and tax-advantaged option to consider is a 529 college savings plan. Nearly every state offers a 529 plan, and over 30 states and the District of Columbia offer a state tax deduction or credit for contributions to 529 plans. The earlier you can start, the better — but recognize it’s also never too late to start,” Roberts said. If a 529 plan isn’t for you, there are many other ways to save for tuition and creative ways to find money to pay off debt.

“One easy way to save up for tuition costs is by socking away your tax returns into a high-interest savings account before you even start school,” stated Brian Dechesare, CEO of Breaking Into Wall Street. “As of 2021, you can find high-yield accounts ranging from 0.45% up to 0.61% from Axos Bank High Yield Savings — it’s not a huge sum of money, but every extra cent will help you once those student bills start rolling in.”

Dechesare, a former investment banker, also said that students can take advantage of many other tax breaks, which can pump up tax returns and help keep debts to a minimum.

“Students can claim up to $2,500 for the first four years of post-secondary with the American Opportunity Tax Credit. The Lifetime Learning Tax Credit helps students claim up to $2,000 of their education-related expenses, as well as tuition and fees deductions. While you’re a student and after graduation, you can claim the interest paid on your student loans for a tax deduction” he said.

“Saving up and curbing spending during school is key, but there is a limit in how much you can earn and save, especially as a student,” Dechasare states. “Let your money work harder for you by taking any tax advantages you can to make this financially challenging time a little easier.”

Student loans and other financial aid

“How you pay for your nursing education will depend on the type of schooling you’ll need and how long you’ll attend,” said Anna Helhoski, student loan expert at NerdWallet. The duration of nursing school can range from a one-year program for an LVN/LPN diploma, up to six to eight years for an advanced practice nursing degree.

“If you’re eligible, it’s possible to use Pell Grants to cover the cost of tuition and fees for a two-year nursing degree such as an Associate Degree Nursing or a short-term LPN or CNA diploma program,” Helhoski added. “Other aid, such as scholarships and work-study, could help cover living expenses while you attend school. But realistically, some students will need to take on nursing loans.”

“If you have to borrow, do so in this order: subsidized direct loans, nursing school loans offered by the federal Health Resources and Services Administration, unsubsidized direct loans, then Graduate PLUS loans or private options. Federal student loans offer benefits like public service loan forgiveness — which many nurses may be able to pursue after graduation — and income-driven repayment, which could help you keep payments affordable for your salary,” Helhoski said.

“For graduate students, there may be private loans specifically for those pursuing health care degrees. You may even be able to get a better interest rate with one of these graduate loans than with a PLUS loan. Private loans will require good credit and a strong income to qualify, or a co-signer who does,” she added.

Many experts agree that federal loans are a good option, but there are some limitations and drawbacks, according to Jeff Zhou, CEO of Fig Loans, a Texas-based lender offering socially responsible financial products. “At a federal level you can obtain loans that are both subsidized and unsubsidized, depending on proof of financial need. By registering for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, you can find out if you qualify for direct subsidized loans wherein the government will pay the interest on your loan.”

Zhou added there are limits on the amount that can be financed, usually under $6,000 annually, so prospective nurses may need additional loans through a financial institution, or scholarships and bursaries. “The advantage of federal loans is that you don’t have to have an income or credit score when you apply, whereas these would be requisite for a typical student loan from the bank,” Zhou explained. Additionally, federal loans are generally accepted by any educational institution.

Scholarships and grants

Scholarships are an excellent option for paying for college. However, identifying and applying for scholarships can be overwhelming — there is so much information out there, and so many scholarship programs.

Atlanta-based National Society of High School Scholars offers an online toolkit for students who have never applied for a scholarship before called “Your First Scholarship.” NSHSS president and co-founder James Lewis advises doing as much research as possible and applying for as many scholarships as you can.

“These awards can be merit-based, need-based or both; and they can be local, national and even international. Though finding, applying for and earning this ‘free money’ can be time consuming and competitive, it is well worth the effort if that means taking out fewer loans that accrue interest and may be difficult to pay back,” Lewis stated.

Scholarships may be provided by private organizations, colleges, the government or other organizations, according to Imani Francies, a financial expert with, a website that provides educational and financial information related to the insurance industry. Since nurses are usually in high demand, there are a quite a few scholarships available, Francies explains

A scholarship’s monetary value is determined by both the group and the particular recipient. A church or nonprofit scholarship, for instance, may cover a couple of hundred dollars in general costs (like books), while a university scholarship could pay thousands of dollars to tuition.

Christi Doherty, DNP, MSN, director of nursing research for Kaplan, recommends these three scholarships for nurses:

1. NURSE Corps

Scholarship for U.S. citizens willing to work in a critical shortage facility after graduation.

2. Foundation of the National Student Nurses’ Association, Inc.

Scholarships are based on specific nursing specializations and candidates who demonstrate academic achievement, financial need and involvement in student nursing organizations.

3. A Nurse I Am

Scholarship sponsored by Cherokee Uniforms to inspire students to enter the nursing profession. The website includes inspirational videos about practicing nurses.

Additionally, Francies includes the following scholarships among her top picks:

  • Tylenol Future Care Scholarship
  • Nurses Make a Difference Scholarship
  • Nurses Educational Funds
  • ENA Foundation scholarships

Tips for paying down debt more quickly

Nurses who do have to pay for college via loans may have quite a bit of debt to pay off after graduation, which might seem daunting. However, by remaining proactive, organized and focused in your approach, you can manage to pay your debt in a reasonable time frame while still paying your other living expenses from your salary.

Zhou advises students to consolidate or refinance any debts incurred before and during nursing school. “This could include your loan, any student lines of credit you opened in addition to your loans, and your credit card debts. Refinancing gives you an opportunity to reduce the (quantity) of lenders you are paying and essentially combine your debt, usually with a lower interest rate.” Zhou said.

“You should also play the long game,” he added. “It is much better to pay off your debt with a consistency that you can manage each and every month, instead of paying off a high amount that leaves you with little for living expenses. Consistent payments will also help you build your credit score, which may be looking a little frail after graduation.”

Find the best educational and financial value

As a member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, Lindsey Fried consults with nurses nationwide to help them obtain and finance their degrees. For a bachelor’s especially, Fried advises her clients that the program they choose greatly affects one’s financial situation at the end of four expensive years. Therefore, she recommends prospective nurses consider the following when choosing a school:

  • Don’t worry about brand names, focus more on which college offers the lowest cost (nurses are in demand, regardless of where they go to college!)
  • Don’t be afraid to go to a two-year college and then transfer to a four-year college if that makes the most sense for you financially. Community colleges are often a great value financially.
  • Make sure you know the college’s pass rate on the National Council Licensure Examination. That will help ensure you’re going to get a positive return on your investment sooner rather than later

Employer loan forgiveness and signing bonuses

Where you choose to work once you become a nurse can also affect your debt status and financial situation, as many employers offer loan forgiveness or sign-on bonuses for nurses.

“Many, but not all, nursing jobs qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness. PSLF can eliminate all federal debt after 10 years of qualified employment. An eligible employer is a 501(c)(3) non-profit or the government, said Michael Lux, founder of the Student Loan Sherpa. Employer eligibility is especially tricky for nurses, because it isn’t always clear what hospitals meet the requirements.

“I always encourage people to certify their progress towards PSLF a month or two after starting their job. This step isn’t required, but it helps people identify if there are issues with their loans, employer, or repayment plan,” he added. The Department of Education’s PSLF help tool is especially helpful in this effort.

In addition to PSLF, there are other employers that offer student loan forgiveness or assistance. The U.S. military offers options to help pay for health education, and many rural employers offer student loan forgiveness based on government programs and incentives to work in a medically underserved area.

Signing bonuses are another way to help pay down significant portions of student loan debt. A sign-on bonus consists of a lump sum paid when starting a new job. Depending on the amount, it can be paid on day one, or it can be split up and paid out over the course of the first few weeks or months. A quick Google search for “nursing jobs with signing bonuses near me” yields a plethora of opportunities, with bonuses ranging from $500 up to $10,000, including many in locations throughout Georgia and metropolitan Atlanta. Some signing bonuses come with a few strings attached to keep the nurse employed at the organization for a set amount of time. Be sure to confirm how long you need to work at the job to earn out your bonus. Otherwise, if you leave the job too soon, you may have to repay all or part of the money.

Outside the box ideas

We asked experts to provide as many creative tips as possible. Christi Doherty, from Kaplan, provided several for finding extra money to pay for college tuition:

Participate in a clinical study. Consider volunteering to receive interventions (drugs, devices, procedures) or have your behavior observed (diet, exercise, etc.) to make some extra money. pays for participation, and you would be contributing to the health care knowledge base. How much can individuals earn by participating in a clinical research trial? “Patient volunteers may earn up to $4,000 in reimbursement for time and travel by participating in a trial,” said Shraddha Dubal, M.D., clinic director at Mount Vernon Clinical Research in Atlanta. “However, the average reimbursement per study is about $1,500-$2,000.” Dubal added it’s not advisable to participate in more than one study at any given time.

Employer reimbursement/tuition assistance. Many employers contribute to an employee’s college tuition. Minimum hours of work per week may apply, but most companies do not require employees to remain with their employer after graduation to receive this benefit.

Rent out your possessions. If you have a spare room in your house, consider using it as a vacation rental or storage unit. Or, maybe a plot of land for boat or RV storage. Don’t forget your car — consider renting your car on or Getaround. You can rent out some clothing, baby items and even electronics (Craigslist).

Answer surveys, take polls and share opinions. Companies like Branded Surveys, Survey Junkie and Swagbucks pay participants with gift cards or cash to answer questions on specific categories and surf the internet.

Will Peach, a fourth-year medical student and medical educational influencer, has found that a lucrative side hustle is key to paying for nursing or medical school. He said many nurses and students miss valuable opportunities to work their way through school by using “the skills and assets they have at their disposal to create intelligent and wealth-creating side hustles.”

Peach strongly recommends nurses consider tutoring as a side gig, “specifically in life sciences, either high school or early college students. Many tutors can command respectable hourly rates and fix their own schedules (even working remotely), even finding students through platforms like Facebook, Discord, Instagram or TikTok,” Peach said, adding that a strong, active social media presence can help with finding potential clients and business for your side gig.

Stay motivated and stay the course

Nursing is a lucrative and rewarding career that is in extremely high demand from coast to coast. With tenacity, persistence and creativity, plus the wide variety of resources available, you will find a way to pay for your degree and achieve your dream career.

Staying motivated is key and can be tough at times. In challenging times, author and financial services professional Patricia Roberts recommends prospective nurses “keep the destination in mind” throughout the education process. “Take time to visualize the type of situation you would like to be in as you pursue higher education,” she said. Envision your future in your new nursing career, and “hold this vision close in the years that follow, as it will help you remain dedicated to your goal.”

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