That the cost of college is a common concern for nurses who want to advance their education isn’t surprising. But everyone has a different financial picture, so you want to estimate the actual costs and gather as much information about available funding before you take the plunge and enroll. This article provides plenty of resources and examples, but you also may want to seek financial advice from another reputable source such as the financial aid office at the college you plan to attend, a credit union, or a bank. One word of caution if you do seek financial aid advice: Beware of scams. (See Spotting scams.)
If it has been some time since you were last in school, you may be a bit rusty on what resources are available to help direct your choices and provide information. Start with these two resources:
- U.S. Department of Education: Federal Student Aid—You’ll find much of the financial aid information you need here.
- American Association of Colleges of Nursing—This is a great resource for scholarship and nursing program information.
Pull together all of the personal financial information you’ll need to complete college applications, scholarship and grant forms, and, most important, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®).
To receive any financial aid from federal or state grants, loans, or work-study programs, you must complete a FAFSA application. Many scholarship programs also want that information. You can complete the FAFSA starting January 1 of each year. On the website, create a Federal Student Aid ID and complete all the information; if you can’t finish it at one time, you can save your work and come back later.
After you submit the FAFSA application, you’ll receive a student aid report (SAR), which will be sent to all the schools you list on the application. The SAR has a section called the estimated family contribution where you can request two estimates—one with loan amounts and one without—to help you determine how much scholarship, grant, tuition reimbursement, or personal finances you need to aim for to cover your education costs. Remember, you must complete a new FAFSA each year you’re enrolled in school.
Figure out the costs
Estimating how much money you’ll need to pay for college will help you compare different school and program costs. Don’t get sticker shock the first time you look at the cost of tuition—that number will come down when you subtract available funding or eliminate unnecessary expenses.
So how do you estimate college costs? One way is to use a net price calculator. The federal government, through the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, mandates that each school post a net price calculator on its website. The calculator provides information on direct costs such as tuition and fees as well as indirect costs such as parking and books for specific programs. To find the net price calculator on a school’s website, simply type in the phrase “net price calculator” in the site’s search box. Another option is to use one of the net price calculators located on the U.S. Department of Education website or the College Board website.
Most net price calculators ask you to provide some basic demographic information, such as number of dependents, to help with the calculation. Remember, the net price will be a rough estimate. Review it carefully for any costs you can quickly exclude. For example, if you own your own home and plan to commute to school, you can eliminate housing costs. (See Calculate the cost.)
Some college costs—such as tuition—are fixed, but many are optional or negotiable. For example, many colleges offer student health insurance. If you already have insurance through your employer, you may be able to opt out of the student insurance. Other costs that may be optional or negotiable are activity fees, meal plans, and orientation fees. You also might be able to save money on transportation if the school offers a bus pass at a student rate, which will save you parking fees. After you eliminate the optional or negotiable costs, you’ll see how much the total cost drops. (See Common costs.)
Discover the money
Now that you’ve done your homework and decided where you want to go to school and have a rough estimate of costs, it’s time to locate and secure some funding to make your dream come true. Your potential sources of funding include employers, scholarships, grants, loans, veteran’s benefits, and personal assets.
The first place to explore is your current employer. Many organizations offer some type of tuition assistance, but ask these questions:
- How is the tuition assistance distributed? Some employers pay the school directly, while others reimburse you after you’ve completed a course and received a passing grade.
- Are there any postgraduation obligations? Some employers will want you to sign an agreement to continue working for them for a certain number of years in exchange for assistance; if you don’t, you’ll have to pay back their investment in your education.
- Is there a cap on the amount available? Some employers will pay for only one course per semester or may limit the total amount you’re eligible for, even if you haven’t finished. You don’t want to be halfway through a program and learn you’re maxed out.
Instead of tuition reimbursement, some employers offer loans, which may be forgivable if you agree to continue working for them for a specified amount of time after graduation. Another option is an employer loan that you pay back through payroll deductions, sometimes with little or no interest.
Another employer benefit might be paid time off. If you work in academia, ask about taking a paid sabbatical to complete graduate education. Or ask your employer about working 4 days per week but still maintaining full-time benefits. It doesn’t hurt to ask.
One last benefit to check out is whether your employer offers discounts. Some schools have a contract with an employer and give students discounts if they sign up for more than the one course covered by tuition reimbursement. Other discounts may be with different vendors. If you need to purchase a computer, other electronic equipment, or software for school, ask your work information technology and human resources departments if they offer employee discounts.
Scholarships can be need-based and require financial information, merit-based and require a transcript or other supporting documentation about your professional goals, or membership-based and require you or someone in your family to be a member of an organization, union, alumni association, or other group. A major advantage of scholarships is that most don’t require repayment, but make sure before you apply. If possible, apply to all scholarships where you meet the eligibility criteria.
Before you start your search, grab paper and pencil or create an Excel spreadsheet to organize what you find. Search for both national and local scholarship opportunities, and apply for nursing-specific and adult student scholarships. Then look for other eligibility requirements—graduate student, undergraduate, minority, specific programs (for example nurse educator)—to narrow down your search. Once you establish your eligibility, bookmark the website and record the scholarship name, where and how to apply, application deadline, specific requirements, contact information, scholarship amount, and any specific expectations of award winners (for example, attending an award dinner or presentation, sharing your first-year transcript, or providing academic progress updates).
Finding scholarships where you meet the eligibility requirements takes time and detective work. In addition to professional nursing organizations (for example, American Nurses Association, National League for Nursing, American Organization for Nursing Leadership, and Sigma Theta Tau International), check with local nursing organizations and civic clubs (for example, Rotary Club, Kiwanis, and Lions Club), and large corporations or their nonprofit foundations (for example, Pepsi, CVS, and Uniform Advantage). Ask around about local businesses (for example, banks, credit unions, hospitals, and—believe it or not—funeral homes) that might have scholarships that aren’t well advertised. Think about where a grateful patient might set up a scholarship fund or family and friends might want to honor a deceased nurse by establishing a scholarship in the nurse’s name. Don’t forget to check your college for possible scholarships. Ask the financial aid office, alumni association, and student organizations and clubs about any scholarships established by former students or faculty. (See Know your scholarship options.)
Typically, federal and state grants are need-based and don’t require repayment. Federal Pell grants, which don’t have to be repaid and go to any eligible student, are for undergraduates who don’t have a bachelor’s degree. Your FAFSA application will determine your eligibility for this grant. The Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG) is for undergraduate students with exceptional financial need. Unlike a Pell grant, the FSEOG is given out on a first-come, first-served basis.
The U.S. Health Resources & Services Administration (HRSA) wants to increase the healthcare workforce, so it offers grants for nurses in programs that prepare them as nurse educators, nurse practitioners, nurse midwives, nurse anesthetists, nurse administrators, and other specialties requiring advanced education. States also provide grants for residents. Eligibility, amounts, and deadlines vary, so investigate what your state has to offer. (See Look into grants.)
Most loans must be repaid. However, if you plan to work in a health professional shortage area or critical shortage facility after graduation or for the government or other nonprofit organization, the loan may not have to be repaid. Research the repayment requirements before applying and get written confirmation.
The William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program offers four types of federal loans, but the criteria change frequently. Ensure you have the most recent information before you apply.
Personal or private loans are available through your bank or credit union and can be in the form of a home equity loan. You might be eligible to loan yourself money via withdrawal from certain retirement accounts. If you’re considering a personal or private loan, sit down with a financial advisor to go over your options. (See Loan options.)
If you’re in the military or have a spouse or a parent who’s served, review some of the benefits available to veterans and their dependents. If you’re a veteran, find out if your school participates in the Post-9/11 GIBill Yellow Ribbon Program. You also may be eligible for this funding through a direct or transferred benefit if you’re a spouse or child of a veteran or active-duty military personnel.
If you’re a reservist, look into the Montgomery GI Bill Selected Reserve to assess your eligibility. And if you’re a survivor or dependent, check out the two funding sources that are available: the Survivors’ and Dependents’ Educational Assistance program and the Marine Gunnery Sergeant John David Fry Scholarship.
Most nurses don’t have several thousand dollars sitting in their bank accounts, so how can you come up with some ready cash? One option is to sell unused items—such as a motorcycle, snowmobile, jet ski, camper, boat, antiques, or jewelry—that are taking up space at home. Renting space—in your garage or home—is another creative idea. However, remember that rental payments are considered taxable income.
Other possibilities include using inheritance money or asking if a family member wants to support your educational goals. For tax purposes, investigate the limitations on gifts to an individual.
If you dread the thought of being in debt, you may want to consider saving up for college before applying. Many people don’t have the patience or self-control to do this, but it might be the right move for you.
On your way
Tackling the cost of college can be a challenge, but with some time and effort, you’ll find many resources to help you reach your goals. Spend some time researching the options and soon you’ll be on your way to your next degree.
Debra A. Wolff is president/chief executive officer of Nurses – Ready for the Next Step, author of Advancing Your Nursing Degree: The Experienced Nurse’s Guide to Returning to School, and an adjunct professor of nursing at SUNY Empire State College in Saratoga Springs, New York.
Tanabe G, Tanabe K. How to Write a Winning Scholarship Essay: 30 Essays That Won Over $3 Million in Scholarships. 7th ed. Belmont, CA: SuperCollege, LLC; 2018.
Tanabe G, Tanabe K. The Ultimate Scholarship Book 2020: Billions of Dollars in Scholarships, Grants and Prizes. Belmont, CA: SuperCollege, LLC; 2019.