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


From thick and heavy textbooks to downloadable PDF study materials, all nursing programs require purchasing books for classes. Most schools are pretty 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; the student must pay cash for the books. If the student can check with different vendors for the best price, he or she should be sure the ISBN matches, ensuring the correct textbook is purchased.


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, depending on the school, or the student may have to buy 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 An outdated device may need replacement. Many apps are available for medical professionals, including apps with medication information and assistance with nursing care plans – these range from a few dollars to quite expensive.


The nursing student is responsible for independently getting to and from school and clinical locations. 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.


A few schools may provide daycare, but most will not allow children in school or in clinical locations. Safe and reliable childcare should be found before committing to start nursing school. The childcare must be trustworthy. The state mandates a certain amount of clinical hours; if the requirement is not met, the student can not take the NCLEX-RN state exam. Most nursing schools are unforgiving regarding this issue because of the difficulty of arranging clinical hours with facilities. Arranging for make-up hours is not an easy option.


Consider meals while in school and at clinical sites. Some clinical facilities will allow students to keep food in the breakroom refrigerator, which will be a cheaper option for the cafeteria. Some facilities, such as skilled nursing facilities, do not have public cafeterias. 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 having no access to a microwave.

NCLEX-RN Mandatory State Exam

Each state requires a graduated nursing student to pass this exam to be 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 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 included in the program structure. These may include laboratory, parking, clinical fees, etc. They may be included in the tuition cost and, therefore, paid for by financial aid or scholarships if the student has these. If not, more fees may be required in cash.

When researching schools, look closely 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 how to ask!

Tuition Costs

Tuition costs 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 significantly in their programs and expenses.

Private Nursing Schools

Offering an associate's degree in nursing (ADN) may be more expensive than community colleges, but they usually offer shorter waiting lists. They may provide 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 few 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! However, these programs will usually be able to find students who need the required clinical hours before 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 more comprehensive selection of accelerated or bridge programs, daycare, and shorter waiting lists. In exchange for these luxuries, tuition costs may be higher than those of traditional schools.

Nursing Programs at Community Colleges

Offering an Associate's Degree in Nursing (ADN), they are usually somewhat affordable 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 completed before being listed on the waiting list or may have competitive waiting lists that require prospective students to retake courses 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 four 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 significant, 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 RN 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

Prospective students have many options for paying 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.


Paying cash for school is an excellent option if the prospective student can do so. 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 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 grants. 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.

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


Many scholarships are available for nursing students and, like grants, do not require repayment. However, they may also be difficult to obtain and may be focused on minorities, students with low socioeconomic status, or students of certain ethnicities. 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 necessary if the scholarship standards are not met during school.

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

Many "scholarship finder" websites and downloadable applications (Apps) for smartphones are available. Applying for scholarships and grants usually requires an application and supporting documents, most commonly an essay. The scholarship provider clearly states the topic of the essay. 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 and provides a starting point for candidate selection. Many prospective nursing students will apply for scholarships and grants, and only a few will be awarded.

RELATED: Scholarships & Grants Available to Nursing Students

Student Loans

While some students may feel hesitation about applying for student loans, they may want to remember that 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 pay 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 an excellent salary. This is by far the most popular method of paying for education.

Once accepted into the program, students can speak to the school’s financial aid office to gather more information or apply for financial aid. The new student must complete an application called the FAFSA, which can be completed 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 that 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 of the 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 information about independent students. 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.

Is BSN Tuition Reimbursement a Possibility?

For registered nurses working at many healthcare facilities, the answer is "yes."

The facility may offer many incentives to advance education for registered nurses who are already employed. These may include:

  • Tuition reimbursement
  • Increase in salary
  • Eligibility to be promoted

Healthcare facilities want registered nurses to be more educated. Many offer a set dollar amount or a percentage in tuition reimbursement to support nurses in this.

The dollar amount would be a set annual or per-semester amount each employee can accept for education.

For BSN program reimbursement, the RN would submit a course schedule or payment receipt to the Human Resources department to receive reimbursement. This process is usually straightforward and streamlined; the money is added to the nurse's paycheck without a fight. Of course, each facility is different, but because facilities encourage advancing education, obtaining reimbursement is usually not very difficult.

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. This may be even more complicated if the student has a family to support.

RELATEDDuring & 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 fewer 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. Still, for those compassionate and brave individuals drawn to the emotionally challenging but enriching career of a registered nurse, it may be the best decision she has ever made. Many programs and ways to pay for them are available. Research is the key to discovering what each program offers, the tuition and "hidden" costs, the best ways to pay for it, and how to balance it all. As frustrating as it can be, remember there is always a way to accomplish your dreams!

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