Nursing school is an outstanding investment in your future that will more than pay for itself. The World Health Organization recently reported a 5.9 million shortfall of nurses worldwide. So the demand is high for qualified nursing professionals.
The total cost of nursing school varies greatly depending on what type of university you choose to attend. Community colleges are the cheapest ($18,000–$25,000), where you can earn an associate degree for entry-level RN roles. Public and private universities are the most expensive ($35,000–$120,000), where you can earn a bachelor’s and master’s degree for higher-paying, senior-level roles. And then there are online colleges that fall somewhere in between, where you can earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (Prelicensure) for less than $30,000 and a BSN or MSN for as little as $14,200 if you already have RN experience.
Don’t let these costs get in your way! Nurses earn nearly double the median annual salary for all other U.S. occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This means that in just one year alone, you could pay for the entire cost of your education. Plus, there are many national- and state-based debt forgiveness and repayment programs that can put your dreams of becoming a registered nurse within reach. Read on to review your best options, including student loan forgiveness for nurses, student loan forgiveness for healthcare workers, and the HRSA Nurse Corps loan repayment program.
There are many ways you can pay for your nursing degree. However, grants, scholarships, and student loans are the most common options. Grants and scholarships are the best choices since they don’t have to be repaid, but they won’t typically cover your entire tuition. This is why most nursing students take out student loans to cover the cost of their degrees and why you should pay close attention to getting the most value from your nursing school.
Forbes reports that U.S. student loan debt has hit an all-time high, surpassing $1.6 trillion—that’s an average of around $30,000 per graduate. Of course, you can lower your loan costs by selecting a more affordable degree program and finishing school faster. WGU gives you both options, which is why the average debt at graduation for our students is less than half of the national average.
Other ways to lessen the costs of student loans is to apply for forgiveness and repayment programs. Loan forgiveness for nurses should be your top choice since they effectively cancel some or all of your loans and the balance of what you owe. But if you don’t qualify for one of these plans, student loan repayment programs are good alternatives since they still reduce your student loan balance—they just require some work in return.
Let’s explore the key differences and top benefits that all of these programs afford.
If you could make your student loan debt just disappear, would you? Of course! And that is exactly what student loan forgiveness programs do. Here are the top three national programs that nurses can apply to, including a brief description, their eligibility requirements, and application links:
Description: 100% tax-free student loan forgiveness.
Eligibility: You must make 120 payments on your federal student loans (private loans do not qualify) while working at least 30 hours per week within the public sector—government agencies, nonprofits, and nonprofit hospitals.
How to apply: Submit the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Form annually or anytime that you switch employers. This will ensure you’re working for a qualifying employer and will help the program accurately track the number of loan payments that you’ve made.
Tip: To get the largest amount of debt forgiven as possible, consider switching your loans to an income-driven repayment plan for the first 120 installments. These plans cap monthly payments to a percentage of your income and extend repayment to 20 or 25 years.
Description: Up to 100% tax-free discharge of your Perkins Loan.
Eligibility: This only applies to Perkins Loans, and you must be working full-time as a nurse. If you qualify, your loan will be forgiven incrementally over a five-year period.
How to apply: Since schools disburse Perkins Loans directly, you must apply through your college or university.
Tip: As a full-time nurse, you can opt to defer your Perkins Loan payments during the five-year discharge period. Thus, you’ll get 100% forgiveness!
Description: Up to $40,000 per year for one to three years towards paying off your nursing student loans. Any repayment amounts are taxed.
Eligibility: Qualifications vary by service branch.
How to apply: Contact the medicine department within your affiliated military branch.
Tip: You can defer your student loan while on active-duty service and for 13 additional months after becoming a civilian. Additionally, the Department of Education will pay the interest on your direct subsidized or subsidized federal Stafford Loans during this time.
Again, it’s important to note that all of the programs listed above are loan forgiveness for nurses—meaning the debt is paid (forgiven) by the program provider and does not require anything from you in return. Student loan repayment programs, however, do require you to do something in exchange for the providers’ payments, such as working for their programs for a set number of years. Even still, they’re a superb option for starting your nursing career with little to no student debt.
If you don’t qualify for one of the student loan forgiveness programs we’ve covered, not to worry! The Health Resources & Services Administration (HRSA) offers many excellent student loan debt repayment programs that you may be eligible for.
Established by the HRSA, the National Health Service Corps (aka the NHSC, which is connected to the HRSA Nurse Corps and provides the Nurse Corps Loan Repayment Program) helps to “build healthy communities by supporting qualified health care providers dedicated to working in areas of the United States with limited access to care.”
Essentially, this program will repay part of your student loans in return for you working at a critical shortage facility (CSF) within an underserved community. Here are more details about the four NHSC/HRSA Nurse Corps loan repayment programs (LRPs):
- NHSC LRP—Licensed primary care clinicians in eligible disciplines can receive partial loan repayment assistance with at least two years of service at an NHSC-approved site in a Health Professional Shortage Area (HPSA). Applications are accepted only once per year, and it typically takes three weeks to complete your application, so make sure to plan ahead.
- NHSC Substance Use Disorder (SUD) Workforce LRP—Developed to combat the nation’s opioid crisis, this LRP requires you to work at an SUD site with a mental health or primary care HPSA score that’s too low to qualify for NHSC funding. In return, you’ll get partial loan repayment. See its webpage for the annual application date.
- NHSC Rural Community LRP—Similar to the SUD LRP, this program focuses on combating the opioid epidemic in our country’s rural communities. Again, in exchange for two or more years of service, you’ll get some of your nursing student loans paid off. The annual application launch date is usually in February.
- NHSC Students to Service (S2S) LRP—If you’re in your final year of nursing school, you can apply to receive student loan repayment assistance in exchange for at least three years of service at an NHSC-approved site in a designated HPSA. Currently, the application deadline has been extended and, as with all NHSC LRPs, the process takes several weeks.
Another way to help manage your nursing school debt is to refinance your student loans through a private lender. If you don’t have good credit or a stable job with good pay, you’ll need to get a co-signer to help qualify. Before getting started, you should exhaust the loan forgiveness and repayment options listed above because refinancing your federal student loans can make you ineligible to apply.
The main benefit of refinancing is lowering your loans’ interest rates, and, thus, your monthly payments. This can make a big impact on your quality of life, especially when starting your first job out of nursing school. It can also make you less likely to default on your student loans or be late in other financial obligations, which will improve your current and long-term financial health.
Refinancing your student loans can be accomplished in six easy steps:
1. Research lenders to find the best fit for you. For example, some lenders specialize in medical school refinancing, fast repayment options, student loan consolidations, etc.
2. Shop the interest rates. After you find several lenders that suit your needs, get prequalified so you can see which one has the lowest rate. Note: loan prequalification won’t hurt your credit score. However, an official loan application may.
3. Select your lender and loan terms. Decide whether you want a fixed or variable interest rate and how long you want your repayment period to be. Both will affect your monthly payment, and it’s best to decide on a number that you’ll be comfortable with.
4. Complete your loan application. Even if you’re prequalified, you’ll still have to submit your official refinance loan application.
5. Approve and sign your loan docs. Once your application is approved, you’ll have time to review the terms and sign the paperwork. You’ll also typically have three days to cancel the agreement should you change your mind.
6. Ensure that your loan is paid off. After your refinancing loan is finalized, continue making payment to your previous lender until you receive your official loan payoff statement. Then begin making payments to your new lender and enjoy your lower premiums!
In addition to national student loan forgiveness and repayment plans, many states have their own similar programs. Find your state in the list below or check with your local agency (if it’s not included) to learn more:
The Arizona State Loan Repayment Program offers up to $50,000 in student loan repayment for qualified healthcare professionals committed to working in HPSAs for a minimum of two years.
California’s Bachelor of Science in Nursing Loan Repayment Program is open to registered nurses working in HPSAs or medically underserved areas. Only a one-year commitment is required with the option to receive up to three awards of $10,000 per year.
Up to $50,000 in loan forgiveness is available for advanced practice nurses working in Colorado’s Health Professional Shortage Areas. A three-year term is required and you can apply through the Colorado Health Service Corps Program’s website.
Florida’s Nursing Student Loan Forgiveness Program provides up to $4,000 of loan repayment per year for a maximum of four years. It applies to LPNs, RNs, or ARNPs working full-time in the state’s HPSAs.
The Hawaii State Loan Repayment Program is grant-funded, meaning the amount awarded depends on the available funds. To apply, you must work full-time for two years, or part-time for four years, in a qualifying HPSAs.
Nurses working in Idaho’s HPSAs may be eligible for two annual repayment awards valued at $10,000 to $25,000. The Idaho State Loan Repayment Program funds must be matched by the applicant’s employer and are available to those working in public and nonprofit organizations.
Registered nurses who commit to working in Illinois’ veterans’ homes can receive up to $5,000 of loan assistance per year for four years. To qualify for the Veterans’ Home Nurse Loan Repayment Program, you must meet state-based licensing requirements and have your employment rated in good standing by the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs.
Open to nurses, ARNPs, and nurse educators, Iowa’s Health Care Loan Repayment Program awards the lesser of $6,000 or 20% of your total outstanding qualified student loans—which must be in good standing. You can apply for up to five straight years.
The Kansas State Loan Repayment Program is available for nurses and other healthcare professionals working in HPSAs for two years. Recipients can be awarded up to $20,000 for the first two years, $15,000 for the third year, $10,000 for the fourth year, and $5,000 for the fifth and final year.
Depending on your designation, you can receive repayment assistance between $20,000 and $40,000 while working in an HPSA for two years. The Kentucky State Loan Repayment Program is a 50-50 match, meaning every program dollar given must be matched by a sponsor, employer, or foundation.
Nurses working full-time for nonprofits or in HPSAs can get up to $15,000 per year from the Louisiana State Loan Repayment Program. This student loan assistance requires a three-year work commitment.
Through the Janet L. Hoffman Loan Assistance Repayment Program, nurses who reside and earned their degrees in Maryland may be eligible for loan assistance. To qualify, you may not earn more than $60,000 per year, and you’ll receive between $1,500 to $10,000 per year over three years, depending on your student loan balance.
The Michigan State Loan Repayment Program offers nurses working full-time in HPSAs up to $200,000 to pay back their student loans. You must agree to a two-year minimum assignment and can apply annually for up to eight years.
Minnesota has several Health Care Loan Forgiveness Programs. Practical or registered nurses working in nursing homes or with people with developmental disabilities can receive $5,000 each year—with a maximum award of $20,000 over four years. The minimum commitment time is two years.
Specific to RNs working full-time in Montana’s state prisons and hospitals, the Montana Institutional Nursing Incentive Program provides repayment assistance for up to four years. The repayment amount depends on available state funding and the number of applicants in the system.
Qualified candidates for the Nebraska Loan Repayment Program must contract to work in HPSAs for two years, with the possibility for a two-year extension. You can receive up to $15,000 per year. However, all state-provided funds must be matched by local entities.
The New Hampshire State Loan Repayment Program awards select nurses up to $45,000 in loan assistance. To be eligible, you must work full-time for at least 36 months within underserved areas. Extensions for an additional $20,000 over two years are also available.
If you’re working full-time as an advanced practice nurse in a medical shortage area for two years, you can apply for the New Mexico Health Professional Loan Repayment Program. Award amounts vary and come from both federal and state sources.
Designed to attract adjunct clinical faculty and nursing faculty members to teach in New York, the New York State Nursing Faculty Loan Forgiveness Incentive Program offers $8,000 per year in debt repayment over five years. Registered nurses must have a graduate degree and must have previously worked as a nursing educator to apply.
Specific to Ohio nursing students, the Nurse Education Assistance Loan Program offers a $1,500+ loan. This loan can be fully forgiven after working full-time as a nurse in Ohio for five years. Those who plan to work as nursing instructors may be eligible, too.
The Oregon Partnership State Loan Repayment Program requires a funding match from employers and bases award amounts on a percentage of your student loan balance. To qualify, you must commit to nursing full-time for two years, or part-time for four years, within an HPSA.
Requiring a service commitment of two years, the Pennsylvania Primary Care Loan Repayment Program offers loan assistance to RNs working in designated HPSAs. Candidates working full-time can receive up to $60,000, while those working part-time can get up to $30,000.
Nurse practitioners, nurse-midwives, psychiatric nurse specialists, and registered nurses working in HPSAs can all apply to Rhode Island’s Health Professional Loan Repayment Program. It requires a two-year commitment, and award amounts vary. Rhode Island also offers a Nursing Awards Program which lowers student loan interest rates to 0% for 48 months of loan repayment.
Developed to encourage Tennessee nurses to become nursing education teachers, the Graduate Nursing Loan Forgiveness Program repays 100% of your student loan after completing four years in a faculty or administrative position at a Tennessee college or university. To apply, you must be currently enrolled in a higher education nursing program.
Texas’ Rural Communities Health Care Investment Program repays student loans for all healthcare providers, except physicians. Eligible candidates must work in rural communities for at least 12 months and can receive awards of up to $10,000.
Requiring 20 hours of clinical work for at least 45 weeks each year, Vermont’s Educational Loan Repayment Program for Health Care Professionals offers a maximum annual award of $6,000. Recipients must work in underserved communities.
The State Loan Repayment Program for West Virginia provides student loan forgiveness for healthcare workers practicing full-time in underserved rural areas. The program requires a two-year commitment working in a Health Professional Shortage Area and pays up to $40,000 for the first two years and another $25,000 for a contract extension.
Through the Health Professions Loan Assistance Program, nurses in Wisconsin may receive up to $50,000 in loan assistance. Eligible candidates must commit to working at least three years in an underserved rural or urban community designated as an HPSA.
The Wyoming State Loan Repayment Program offers loan repayment for nurses working full-time in qualifying Health Professional Shortage Areas. To apply, you must commit to working for at least two years in exchange for an award of up to $20,000.
In summary, student loan forgiveness for nurses and student debt repayment programs are available in all 50 states and through several federal plans. It takes a little bit of time to research and apply to your best options, but the payoff is well worth it! By selecting an affordable nursing program, applying for scholarships, and taking advantage of loan forgiveness programs, you can afford to get your nursing degree—and enter this high-paying, exceptionally rewarding profession.