While a prospective nursing student may possess the passion, character, and desire to become a great registered nurse (RN) figuring out how to pay for nursing school can be a bit of a hassle. Whether the individual decides to pay cash, obtain financial aid, apply for scholarships and grants, or is able to receive employer education assistance, where there's a will there's a way!

Firstly, be aware and prepare for the "hidden" costs of RN school, tuition excluded. This is not meant to deter the excited future nurse but rather to help in making an informed decision and serve as a reality check. But, as always, anything worth doing takes time, money, and hard work, but with proper planning, most students will graduate and be great nurses.

"Hidden" Costs of RN School

Books

From thick and heavy textbooks to downloadable PDF study materials, all nursing programs require purchasing books for classes. Most schools are fairly transparent about the approximate cost of textbooks, but prices may vary by vendor. The student should have access to a list of books and it is wise to look online and in textbook stores for the best prices. Some schools may provide all textbooks to the student and include the cost in tuition which is great for students with financial aid because this is included. Other schools may not include this and the student will be required to pay cash for the books. If the student is able to check with different vendors for the best price he or she should be sure the ISBN matches ensuring the correct textbook is purchased.

Supplies

Nursing school supplies go above and beyond the traditional paper and pens. While these are needed, the student will also require a stethoscope, pen light, medical scissors, comfortable shoes (usually white), and possibly be required to purchase student scrubs. Scrub costs may be included in tuition costs depending on the school or the student may have to purchase them from a scrub store and pay cash. The school may require a tablet, laptop or smartphone for textbooks or other materials, some with required specifications. An outdated device may require replacement. Many Apps are available for those in the medical profession, including Apps with medication information and nursing care plan assistance, these range from a few dollars to quite expensive.

Transportation

The nursing student is responsible for getting to and from school and to and from clinical locations independently. Using mass transit may be an option depending on the city, so purchasing a commuter pass may be necessary. However, many students rely on his or her automobile. Factor in gas money, scheduled maintenance, or maybe even purchasing a more reliable vehicle when considering the school budget. Nursing programs are not usually forgiving about a student missing hours, no matter the reason.

Childcare

A few schools may provide daycare, but most will not allow children in school, and children are definitely not allowed in clinical locations. Finding safe and reliable childcare should be done prior to making the commitment to start nursing school. The childcare must be reliable. The state mandates a certain amount of clinical hours and if the requirement is not met, the student can not take the NCLEX-RN state exam. Most nursing schools are unforgiving when it comes to this issue because of the difficulty schools have in arranging clinical hours with facilities. Arranging for make-up hours is not an easy option.

Food

Consider meals while in school and at clinical sites. Some clinical facilities will allow students to keep food in the breakroom refrigerator allowing for a less expensive option to the cafeteria. Some facilities, such as skilled nursing facilities, do not have public cafeterias at all. Eating out may be the only option for nursing students onsite. The same idea applies to schools. When eating on a budget consider an insulated lunch bag and no access to a microwave.

NCLEX-RN Mandatory State Exam

Each state requires a graduated nursing student to pass this exam in order to licensed. The state licensing board requests transcripts, usually mailed by the school upon graduation, and fingerprints and background checks from the graduate. The student will then be cleared to take the Exam. Once he or she passes the Exam, he or she is now considered a registered nurse. Check the state website for fees and requirements associated with the Exam. Exam, fingerprinting, background check, and any additional licensing fees may be required.

Online and in-person review courses are optional but may be desired, for additional fees, of course.

Read our guide to the NCLEX-RN exam.

Various Program Fees

Additional fees may be worked into the program structure. These may include laboratory, parking, clinical fee, etc. They may be worked into the tuition cost and therefore paid for by financial aid or scholarships, if the student has these. If not, these are more fees that may be required in cash.

When researching schools take a close look at the tuition breakdown and any fine print. Schools will be somewhat upfront about these costs but don't assume they will answer questions you don't know to ask!

Tuition Costs

Tuition costs will vary by program, state, current education level and school type. A prospective nursing student may find many nursing programs in his or her area offering different programs with tuition costs. Private nursing schools, community colleges, and Universities vary greatly in their programs and costs.

Private Nursing Schools

Offering an Associate's Degree in Nursing (ADN), may be more expensive than community colleges but usually offer shorter waiting lists. They may offer more flexibility allowing the student to work his or her current job while going to school and semesters may be non-traditional perhaps starting every couple months. Be aware that these types of schools, especially newer schools, may have difficulty arranging clinical hours because they are not well known in the healthcare community or large enough to compete with traditional schools. Be sure to ask the advisor about this when researching schools and listen closely to how he or she responds to questions. This is not something schools like to brag about! But, these programs will usually be able to find students the required clinical hours prior to graduation. If they couldn't, students could probably work out an alternative.

Private Nursing Colleges

Private colleges are smaller institutions with more flexibility and usually a focus on working or older students versus traditional schools, such as community colleges or Universities. Private nursing colleges may boast more flexible schedules, a wider selection of accelerated or bridge programs, and possibly daycare, and shorter waiting lists. In exchange for these luxuries tuition costs may be higher than traditional schools.

Nursing Programs at Community Colleges

Offering an Associate's Degree in Nursing (ADN), are usually somewhat affordable when compared to private schools and universities. They are traditionally well established in the nursing community which allows the school to arrange clinical hours without difficulty. However, the waiting list may be lengthy and classes may only start two or three times a year with the traditional semesters, fall, spring, and maybe summer.

Community colleges may require prerequisite classes to be complete prior to being listed on the waiting list or may have competitive waiting lists requiring the prospective student to retake classes for a higher GPA. Consider these costs when researching schools.

Nursing Programs at 4-Year Universities

Universities offer a Bachelor's of Science in Nursing (BSN), usually earned after 4 years of nursing school. They are usually more expensive than community colleges but may be comparable to private schools in cost, but not in degree earned. A private college could charge the same price as universities but only offer an ADN instead of a BSN.

For students who already hold a Bachelor's degree with another major many Universities offer Bachelor's to BSN transition programs for less money than the traditional BSN program.

Private schools, community colleges, and universities may offer transition or bridge programs such as, LPN to RN, ADN to BSN, or Bachelor's to BSN programs. These will usually have shorter wait-lists than entry level nursing programs because not all prospective nursing students hold a degree. Added benefits include working in healthcare while attending RN school and paying for fewer classes, as many were completed in the prior program of study.

Short wait-lists are important to consider. If working as a nurse will provide a higher salary than one's current position it is worth paying more upfront for a program with a shorter wait-list. This will allow the individual to start earning more money faster and gaining experience which will promote raises and pay increases in the future. Earning the RN should be the first priority as this degree is needed for a well paying career.

Ways to Pay for RN School

There are many options available to the prospective student to pay for school. Whether paying cash, applying for grants or scholarships, or applying for student loans, finding a way to pay for school may be difficult but possible.

Cash

Paying cash for school is a nice option if the prospective student is able. Paying cash removes the hassle of applying for scholarships, grants, or student loans, and graduating with student loan debt. Some schools may offer payment plans. However, a financial adviser may suggest taking out a federal loan with a low and fixed interest rate and investing the cash in a higher interest earning account.

Grants

Grants are a form of financial aid that does not need to be repaid. Many types of grants are available although they may be difficult to obtain. Grants are commonly awarded based on need and how the "need" is determined varies but is often financial. Low income earners often receive the grant. Stipulations may apply to the student, such as remaining in the nursing program until graduation or maintaining a certain GPA. Not complying with these stipulations may be grounds for grant repayment.

Applying for grants may be completed online or with private companies. The most popular grant is the Federal Pell Grant. The best way to research grant is to search online and speak with a financial aid advisor at the school.

Scholarships

Many scholarships are available for nursing students, and like grants, do not require repayment. However, they may be also be difficult to obtain and may be focused on minorities, students with low socioeconomic status, or students of certain ethnicity. Many scholarships require the nurse to maintain a set GPA throughout school and have a low rate of absences to remain in good standing for the scholarship. Repayment would be required if the scholarship standards are not met during school.

Scholarships and grants usually require a bit of effort on the part of the applicant. Finding, applying for, and maintaining scholarships and grants may be time consuming, but well worth the effort for "free money." Searching online is the best place to begin.

Many "scholarship finder" websites are available as well as downloadable applications (Apps) for smartphones. Applying for scholarships and grants usually requires an application and supporting documents, most commonly an essay. The topic of the essay is stated clearly by the scholarship provider. Topics may include stating why the applicant wants to be a nurse or some variation of this, discussing a wonderful, terrible, etc. time of life, or why the applicant believes they deserve the scholarship or grant. Writing demonstrates the applicant's current level of comprehension and communication as well as providing a starting point for candidate selection. Many prospective nursing students will apply for scholarships and grants and only a few will be awarded.

Student Loans

While some students may feel hesitation about applying for student loans he or she may want to remember the earning potential for a working nurse increases every year with experience and student loans are usually at a fixed and low interest rate which will eventually will be paid off. Going into student loan debt is not an idea many people embrace, it may be the fastest way to start nursing school and begin earning a great salary. This is by far the most popular method of paying for education.

Gathering more information or applying for financial aid can be accomplished by speaking to the school's financial aid office once accepted into the program. The new student must complete an application called the FAFSA which can be done online at FAFSA.ed.gov, or on paper.

Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)

Some general requirements to apply for federal student loans include:

  • Being a citizen of the United States of America
  • Possessing a valid social security number
  • Having a high school diploma or GED
  • Not being in default on any current student loans
  • Having a clean criminal record
  • Attending a school which qualifies for federal financial aid
  • How to prepare your FAFSA

Be sure to gather these documents before beginning the FAFSA:

  • If this is a renewal application, be sure to have your Personal Identification Number from the previous year available
  • Proof of citizenship including social security number
  • Recent bank statements
  • Previous tax returns and W2's
  • If considered a dependent, these documents must be from the perspective student's parent or guardian
  • The federal government considers a student independent
    • if he or she is over the age of 23, is married
    • is active military or a veteran
    • or is applying for graduate school

The FAFSA will be based solely on the independent student's information. A dependent applicant's FAFSA will be based on the applicant's parents or guardian.

The determination of how much money is awarded is a complex process. The information gathered in the FAFSA is processed and summarized in the Student Aid Report (SAR). Within the SAR is the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) which is the estimated amount a family can "afford" to contribute to nursing school, based on the information in the FAFSA. This information is then sent to the school and they create a student loan package which is usually sent to the student with admission paperwork. Generally, US citizens with low income on the tax return, little money in the bank, and who wish to attend a school he or she would be unable to afford otherwise, will get awarded more money than those meeting opposite criteria. Governmental regulations exist which control how much federal financial aid may be awarded per year.

Deadline for FAFSA Completion

Visit the Official FAFSA website for deadlines.

Lost Wages Versus Working During School

While some school programs, especially transition or bridge programs, may offer the flexibility of accommodating the working student, many schools maintain a traditional curriculum. Students must consider how much money will be lost while attending school instead of working his or her current job versus how much will be earned upon graduation and how to pay those pesky bills during school. If the student has a family to support this may be even more complicated.

RELATED - During & After RN School

Each financial situation is different, but cornerstones of balancing work and school include:

  • Saving money before starting school to allow for working less hours or not at all to keep up with the demands of nursing school
  • Creating and being diligent about maintaining a budget
  • Changing work schedules, if possible, and allowing for more study time
  • Keeping school, work, and home within the same vicinity to decrease travel times
  • Finding a job where the student can study while working
  • Applying for bank loans to help pay bills or deferring bills, if possible

Attending nursing school may be costly and time consuming, but for those compassionate and brave individuals who are drawn to the emotionally challenging but extremely rewarding career of a registered nurse it may be the best decision he or she has ever made. Many programs and ways to pay for them are available. Research is the key to discovering what each program offers, what the tuition cost and "hidden" costs are, the best ways to pay for it, and how to balance it all. As frustrating as it can be, remember that there is always a way to accomplish your dreams!