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How to Become a Nurse Practitioner: Salary, Debt and What to Expect

Nurse practitioners (NP) are an essential part of healthcare. Americans make over a billion visits to nurse practitioners each year, According to the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP).

NPs provide comprehensive care that focuses on the health and well-being of the whole person, rather than just diagnosing a problem. They’re able to diagnose and treat chronic conditions, prescribe medications, and provide preventative education and counseling.

They also work in a variety of settings and specialties — making them uniquely qualified to answer a variety of questions relating to healthcare problems. Here’s what you need to know about how to become a nurse practitioner, along with some nuances of the job.

How to become a nurse practitioner

Nurse practitioners must obtain a master’s or doctoral degree in nursing and complete advanced clinical training.

The basics nurse practitioner requirements are as follows:

1. Earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN).

A BSN has become the standard for hospitals and healthcare organizations, making it a minimum requirement to apply for a graduate nursing program.

A BSN can usually be earned in four years, but there are bridge programs for existing registered nurses (RN) that are typically one to two additional years.

2. Gain clinical experience.

NPs must have advanced clinical training, which may include certain specialties.

3. Earn a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN). 

More employers are now requiring a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), though an MSN is often sufficient. MSN programs can take two to three years as a full-time student.

Nurse practitioners who choose to earn a DNP can expect an additional two years of education and training, unless they choose an accelerated option like a BSN to DNP program.

4. Pass a national certification exam. 

Depending on your specialty, exams are given by the AANP, American Nurses Credential Center (ANCC), Pediatric Nursing Certification Board (PNCB), and National Certification Corporation (NCC).

Keep in mind that not all NP specialties have formal certifications. Common specialties that do have formal certification include acute care, adult-gerontology, emergency and family nurse practitioner.

5. Secure state licensure. 

Each state has different licensing requirements. And may require continuing education to maintain licensure.

It can take a nurse practitioner years of school to complete their education. By the time you account for each of your nursing degrees and any specialty training, you’re looking at a minimum of six years of academic and clinical training. But it could take much longer.

Average nurse practitioner salary vs. debt

As with other healthcare professions, the demand for nurse practitioners is projected to dramatically increase over the next decade. And with demand comes the opportunity for higher pay.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary for nurse practitioners as of May 2019 was $109,820.

Median wages for other nursing professions came in at:

  • Registered Nurse: $73,300
  • Nurse Midwife: $105,030
  • Nurse Anesthetist: $174,790

The high earning potential reflects the extensive nurse practitioner schooling that is necessary, which goes well beyond the initial nursing background.

But these years of additional training can also quickly build six figures of student loan debt. The typical nurse practitioner client we see at Student Loan Planner® has well over $100,000 in debt, with some coming in just shy of $300,000.

These figures can be intimidating, but nursing professionals have many tools at their disposal to make repaying student loans easier.

Things to consider before becoming a nurse practitioner

Being a nurse practitioner can be an intrinsically and monetarily rewarding career. But it can also take a toll emotionally and physically.

As with other nursing professions, you’ll likely work a demanding schedule that may include rotating shifts or on-call expectations. And you might be exposed to blood, infectious diseases or other hazardous working conditions throughout your career.

But there are other potential negatives unique to becoming a nurse practitioner. This may include:

  • Legal risks. Depending on your state law, you might open yourself up to malpractice lawsuits from unhappy patients or their families.
  • Varying regulations for the profession. Some states have more restrictions on how nurse practitioners can practice. Each state defines the level of care allowed and may require a supervising physician or limit the scope of practice.
  • Misunderstanding of the profession. Not all patients understand the level of care a nurse practitioner can provide. Therefore, you may receive push-back and questions as to your qualifications.

However, as nurse practitioners continue to fill vital roles within primary care and specialties, some of these barriers might begin to fade over time.

How to repay nursing school student loans

The path to becoming a nurse practitioner isn’t always a journey from point A to point B. Some nursing professionals choose to work as a registered nurse for years before pursuing a graduate-level degree. And some choose to slowly chip away at their nurse practitioner requirements by working and going to school at the same time.

But if you’re looking for the most cost-savings, it’s best to commit to school full-time and earn your credential as quickly as possible. Here’s why.

Many nurse practitioners can qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) by working within hospital systems. With PSLF, you only have to make 10 years of qualifying payments under an income-driven repayment (IDR) plan. And then your remaining student debt will be wiped away tax-free.

But you can’t start gaining PSLF credits until you’re working in a full-time capacity. This means the sooner you start your NP career, the sooner you can start maximizing loan forgiveness.

Additionally, you might qualify for certain state loan forgiveness programs as a nursing professional. An IDR plan or refinancing options for nurse practitioners after graduation might also help you lower payments on your nurse practitioner debt.

With so many repayment strategies, it can be overwhelming to even begin thinking about repaying your loans. We can help you avoid some of the most common and costly mistakes nurse practitioners make.

Not sure which path to take to complete your NP education? A member of our team can create a customized plan for your NP career highlighting the ways to manage the debt you’ll take on. Schedule a pre-debt consultation today.