As we’ve seen with the coronavirus pandemic, there’s a desperate need for trained healthcare professionals to support current and future demand. And registered nurses (RN) are at the top of the list considering nursing professionals make up the largest component of the healthcare workforce.
Nurses provide the main source of both hospital patient care and long-term care services. There are currently more than 3.8 million registered nurses across the country, yet the need for more healthcare providers remains.
But joining the nursing profession can take a toll — financially, physically and emotionally. Depending on what type of nurse you want to become, nursing school costs can run you anywhere from $5,000 to $200,000 or more. And the long hours and emotional rollercoaster of providing care can quickly cause burnout.
Here’s what you need to know about how to become a nurse and what to expect from the profession in terms of pay, nursing degree requirements and student loan repayment.
Average nursing salary
There are many career paths within the nursing profession. According to the recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), here is the average annual salary for some of the most common nursing credentials:
- Licensed Vocational Nurse (LVN) – $47,480
- Registered Nurse (RN) – $73,000
- Nurse Midwife – $105,030
- Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) or Nurse Practitioner – $109,820
- Nurse Anesthetist – $174,790
Nursing salaries also vary by industry — meaning whether you work at a hospital, at a residential care facility, in a government care role, or for community clinics or physicians’ offices. Salaries vary by specialty as well, such as clinical nurse specialist and critical care nurse.
Regardless of pay, we know we need more nursing professionals across the board and the job outlook for RNs is particularly strong. The BLS reports the RN profession is expected to grow by 7% between 2019 and 2029. With an average of about 175,900 job openings for RNs each year.
How to become a registered nurse
Registered nurses are required to hold a nursing diploma or complete a two-year associate’s degree program in nursing. But many nurses choose to earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) or higher to increase their salary and meet employer preferences.
A recent survey from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing reported that 46% of employers require new hire nurses to have a bachelor’s degree. 88 percent of employers indicated a strong preference.
Additionally, RNs must have a current license for their state and pass a national licensing exam — the NCLEX-RN.
The primary paths for becoming an RN include:
- Diploma program. These programs typically require one to three years of study in a hospital-based program.
- Associates Degree in Nursing (ADN) or Associate of Science in Nursing (ASN). An ADN/ASN is a two-year degree offered at vocational schools and community colleges. This is a popular option for entering the nursing profession.
- Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). This is a four-year degree offered at universities that includes general education requirements and clinical experience.
- RN-to-BSN bridge program. These programs offer continuing education for nurses with a diploma or associate degree, so they can complete their BSN.
BSN programs prepare nursing professionals for a wide variety of roles, with coursework in nutrition, chemistry, psychology, biology, anatomy and physiology.
Some RNs choose to continue their education and further specialize in the field by pursuing a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN). For example, they may become a certified nurse-midwife, nurse anesthetist or a family nurse practitioner.
Others might choose to earn their Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) through an accelerated BSN to DNP program. There’s also the option to choose from a number of online nursing programs designed for nurses who already have a master’s degree.
Things to consider before becoming a nurse
Most nurses join the profession out of a desire to care for others. But being a nurse often comes at a personal cost.
As a nurse, you can expect to encounter the following:
- Long shifts that include holiday and weekend hours. Much of which will be providing around-the-clock care.
- Extensive physical demands, including walking, standing and lifting patients throughout shifts.
- Increased health risk if coming into contact with infectious diseases and hazardous materials or substances.
- The emotional strain that comes with losing patients or being limited in the care you can provide.
However, nursing is a rewarding profession for those who are called to serve others. You get to be someone’s lifeline or shoulder to lean on in times of need — and earn a good income while you’re at it.
How to repay nursing student loans
Because of the high cost of nursing school and the demand for advanced credentials, many begin their nursing career with a large amount of student loan debt. Especially if they pursued a master’s program after being drawn from a different field of study.
As a healthcare provider, you may be eligible for various loan forgiveness programs for nurses. If you have federal student loans, consider pursuing Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF).
PSLF for nurses will depend on the type of organization you work for. If you work for a nonprofit or government organization, you can qualify to have your student loans wiped away, tax-free, after 120 qualifying payments.
You may also have access to state loan forgiveness programs depending on where you live. For example, Texas and Florida have state programs designed to encourage nurses to work in rural or health shortage areas.
There are also a number of repayment programs and refinancing options that can help lower your monthly payment.
With so many options, it’s hard to know what the best route is to pay off your nursing school loans. Student Loan Planner® consultants have helped many nursing professionals figure out a debt repayment strategy that fits their unique financial situation.
But we also help students create custom plans for their student loans BEFORE they attend a costly program. Schedule a pre-debt consultation with a member of our team and start your nursing journey with a clear plan that will help you avoid the common pitfalls and mistakes most borrowers encounter with student loan debt.