The average salary for a registered nurse (RN) is $71,730. This is a career that pays well, but after learning how much nursing school is, you might question if it’s worth the cost. The salary for an RN needs to be enough to cover cost of living expenses and student loan debt.
Nursing school comes with a high price and a hefty student loan burden. In a study done by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) in 2017, 50% of nursing graduates said their number one concern was their ability to pay their loans back.
The program you complete makes a huge difference in the amount of student loan debt you’ll take on.
Educational pathways to becoming an RN
RNs are required to have at least a two-year associate's degree, but many RNs choose to pursue a four-year bachelor's degree to increase their salary. The path to becoming an RN has options, such as earning a diploma and being able to work while completing your bachelor’s degree.
Every RN must be licensed within their state and pass the NCLEX-RN exam.
The primary options for RN programs include:
- Diploma Programs: Licensed practical nursing (LPN) or Licensed Vocational Nursing (LVN) offer an accelerated program to enter the field. These programs are available through hospitals, vocational schools and community colleges.
- Associate of Science in Nursing (ASN) or Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN): These programs take about two years and are offered at vocational schools and community colleges. An associate's degree is often a stepping stone for those on their way to a Bachelor of Science in Nursing who want to work and earn money sooner.
- Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN): This is a four-year degree program often necessary for a higher-paying salary. This program is offered at universities and includes general education requirements along with your clinical experiences.
Other nursing education options include the bridge program, RN-BSN, which offers continuing education for those with a diploma or associate degree to complete their BSN. Those who completed a bachelor’s degree in a different field of study can choose to complete an accelerated BSN program, but school tuition is more expensive.
How much is nursing school?
How much is nursing school, and what degree should you pursue to accumulate the least amount of student debt? You have two main choices — degree program and location — that affect the nursing school costs.
While looking at degree program and location, you'll also want to weigh the earning potential for each.
According to CostHelper, diploma programs to become an LPV or LPN cost between $5,000 and $25,000 at a public college. If you were to attend a private university, these prices more than double to $20,000 to $40,000. These programs run around 12 to 18 months. The most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) show the average income for an LPN is $47,480.
The ADN program is by far the most affordable nursing program, allowing for a slightly higher salary. These programs typically only take two years and cost $6,000 to $40,000 at a public college. Private schools charge between $30,000 to $100,000.
The average ADN salary can be the same as an RN at $71,730. However, there’s now a push for hospitals and other healthcare centers to hire BSNs first. ADNs start at entry-level jobs, which can progress to positions that will pay more over time or with additional education.
BSN program tuition has a wide range, according to CostHelper data. On the low end, $40,000 for a low-cost, in-state public college. On the high end, $200,000 or more for a private or out-of-state school. BSN programs take four years to complete. The ACCN provides an overview of what should be included in every BSN program.
Where you attend nursing school impacts your debt
Regardless of the program, private schools all charge more than public colleges. Community college programs can be hard to get into, and you may end up waiting around.
This is when private colleges can be more appealing for students. Generally, these for-profit schools have more seats and flexible schedules to fast track you into nursing. But it comes at a cost.
In-state tuition and out-of-state tuition can also make a difference in the amount of student debt you’ll take on.
For example, the in-state tuition for the BSN program at the University of Washington is $3,915 quarterly. Out-of-state students can expect tuition at $13,038, which is more than triple the cost for a non-resident to complete the same degree.
You’re better off financially choosing in-state tuition for your nursing degree.
Accelerated nursing programs cost more
Not yet mentioned are accelerated nursing programs. These are rigorous programs that fast-track you into the nursing profession. The fast-track BSN program takes between 11 and 18 months to complete.
These programs are accepted in the profession, and you shouldn't have trouble finding work.
The problem with the accelerated nursing program is in the cost. For example, the Concordia University Accelerated BSN (ABSN) program tuition costs about $64,050. But that doesn't include additional costs, like student fees, test assessments, insurance, books, lab supplies or uniforms.
Head down the road a bit to one of the most prestigious hospitals, Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), and you’ll still pay less than the ABSN. The cost of attendance for its bachelor’s of science program with a major in nursing for a resident is $52,619 for the entire program.
Accelerated programs cost more, and since you can’t work while attending school, you’ll tend to take on more student loan debt.
ADN vs. BSN: Which one should you get?
For years, the ADN was a standard degree for nurses to earn and begin working. From a student’s perspective, ADN programs are more affordable, and you can begin work immediately.
Whether you can work to pay for a higher degree like the BSN while attending school, however, depends on your own living situation, income and cost of your BSN program.
RN-BSN pathways range from $17,000 and $90,000, depending on where you go. If you take this route, you can end up paying more. You paid for the ADN and a BSN in the end, rather than just a BSN.
The AACN doesn't diminish the ADN degree. However, it does believe a BSN is preferred as BSN candidates are considered more prepared for the profession.
Kathleen, a nurse for over thirty years, says, “You should go for the BSN. It will allow you upward mobility later on. It’s also the best degree if you go back to school to become a nurse practitioner.”
Ideally, to make a higher income and be considered for promotions, you should pursue a BSN at a college you can actually afford. When looking at this, consider the loan repayment options for nurses below.
Loan repayment options for nurses
You can minimize your student debt by taking advantage of scholarships and completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). But even when choosing the most affordable program, nursing school is bound to come with some student loan debt.
There are several programs available to start repaying your student loans as a nurse.
1. Income-driven repayment plans
Income-driven repayment (IDR) plans offer a way to manage your monthly payment based on your discretionary income. The following are the four types of IDR plans:
- Pay As You Earn (PAYE)
- Revised Pay As You Earn (REPAYE)
- Income-Based Repayment (IBR)
- Income-Contingent Repayment (ICR)
If you choose to work for the private sector and don’t want to live in certain areas, you can pursue IDR forgiveness. After making payments for 20 to 25 years, the remaining balance of student loans will be forgiven.
2. Public Service Loan Forgiveness
Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) offers complete loan forgiveness for all federal student loans. You’ll be on an IDR plan while enrolled in PSLF.
You must have 120 on-time, qualifying payments to receive forgiveness. As a nurse, you must work for a nonprofit or government agency to qualify.
Student Loan Planner® has expanded details and further requirements for the PSLF program for nurses if you would like to read further.
3. Nursing loan forgiveness by state
It’s common for states to offer forgiveness programs for healthcare professionals, including nursing.
The student loan forgiveness programs by state typically coincide with a Health Professional Shortage Area (HPSA). Each state has different regulations and rules for forgiveness. The state higher education board or state department of health will list the forgiveness programs offered for nurses.
4. Nursing loan repayment programs
In addition to the standard federal student loan forgiveness programs, there are several repayment programs specific to nurses. Keep in mind these have strict requirements.
- The Nurse Corps Loan Repayment Program is offered by the Bureau of Health Workforce. Awards funds are based on your job role and location as a nurse.
- Hospital loan repayment programs are specific to location. Craig Hospital is one of many programs that offer assistance to nurses.
- The Nurse Faculty Loan Program is an incentive to bring qualified educators to schools. The program authorizes up to 85% cancellation of student loans. The program is renewed annually based on available funds.
- The National Health Service Corps Loan Repayment Program offers up to $50,000 of student loans to be forgiven. You’ll need to work full time at an HPSA site for two years to be eligible for the full $50,000.
Nurses have a lot of options for paying off their student loan debt. Not every repayment or forgiveness program is tax-free, and many require working within rural areas or the inner city. Doing your research for both the program you complete and your future repayment plan is essential to reduce your debt burden.
You can pay off your nursing school debt
Nursing is one of the fastest growing careers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nursing is projected to grow by 7% from 2019 to 2029. This in-demand job is a career choice that can provide a decent salary. If approached with your financial health in mind, you can pay off your student loan debt from nursing school.
The sooner you create a student loan debt payoff plan, the better. Do your research and reach out to our team if you need any help. Student Loan Planner® offers both pre-debt consultation and student loan planning for graduates.