Nurses, it’s time for some real talk: I have nursing school debt. $75,000 dollars of it, to be exact - and that’s only from my Master’s degree. I pay $12 in interest PER DAY on these loans. And guess what? I’m going back to school for my Doctor of Nursing Practice this Fall.
Going through my finances to prepare to pay for this third degree has got me wondering: What do first-time students understand about what it means to take out a student loan and how that will look for them post-graduation? Most have no frame of reference for what $75,000 even looks like. I was the same way. My thinking was, “I’m going to grad school to become a Master’s-prepared nurse. I’m smart, I’m capable. I’ll have no problem getting a job.”
Getting the job is the easy part. Just because you have a nice, full-time nurse job with benefits and PTO doesn’t mean you’re rolling in the dough. I pay $800 a month just to my loans - and I’ll be doing that for the next 10 years of my life. With rent, utilities, and loans accounted for, that’s one paycheck a month after taxes - aka half of my income right now.
I share all this because we have a student debt problem in this country. In 2019, 44.7 million people owe a grand total of $1.56 trillion dollars on their student loans. $1.56 TRILLION! And somehow - like the climate change debate (Really, America?) - this has become politicized. Regardless, most people can agree that when the nation’s young people are strangled by large sums of debt with high interest rates, it’s bad for the economy - and bad for progress.
Not only am I not buying a house or having children anytime soon (Sorry, Mom), I’m also less likely to start my business right away. I’ve entered adulthood $75k in the hole… and looking up from the debt pit isn’t the most inspiring start to independent life.
As I was filling out my FAFSA this winter, I realized I’ve learned some things while funding - and continuing to pay off - my degree. I hope these Tips to Fund Your Next Degree make your financial journey through nursing school a little easier.
Choose your school (and your tuition) wisely.
In a previous post, I discuss how nursing school rankings don’t tell the whole story. The #1 school may seem like the shiny prize… but that doesn’t mean it’s the prize for you. Look past the prestige to what the institution is actually doing for its students and the future of healthcare as a whole. Which institution best represents your values? Which community feels like home? Once you’ve done that, if you’re still stuck between a few schools, pick the cheapest.
Land internal scholarships.
Some scholarships at your college or university will be awarded without the need to submit a separate application. Others will require more work pre- or post-acceptance. Make note of these deadlines early on in the application process, so you don’t miss any opportunities to reduce your tuition!
Negotiate with schools.
My friend Mary leveraged one law school scholarship offer to land another when her dream school hadn’t been as generous as she’d hoped. It worked. This can be a little risky, but as long as you’re direct and respectful, the worst thing they’ll probably do is say ‘No’. A school that takes away a previous offer because you’ve advocated for yourself probably isn’t a place you want to go to anyway.
Check with your employer.
The health system I work for offers me a few thousand dollars in tuition relief for each year I’m in school. This is, of course, coupled with a commitment to stay in the health system for a certain amount of time. They invest in me, I invest my time in their organization. It’s good business.
If your employer doesn’t offer such a program, ask them ‘Why not?’. Maybe you want to work somewhere else - somewhere that values you continuing your education and wants to partner with you in building your future.
Look for outside scholarships.
Google, people. There are swaths of scholarships out there, especially for nurses right now. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but there’s a nursing shortage. That’s not great news for everybody else. But for you in this moment, it can be. Take advantage.
Don’t just go for the big dollar scholarships! Though you should certainly throw your hat in the ring, these are bound to be more competitive. Thus, your percentage of winning is far less likely. Medium and smaller-sized scholarships are your ticket. I spent one afternoon applying to a scholarship, and the next week had scored $1,500 towards my first year of doctorate school. Not a huge amount of a money, but that’s 1,500 more dollars I don’t have to cough up myself!
Go for the grants.
Grants are different from scholarships in that they usually require some continued work on your end. If there’s a particular population or disease process you’re interested in researching or working with, search the web for grants that apply. Grants and loan repayment options are available for nurses interested in working with veterans, oncology patients, the Indian Health Service, and more!
Consider being a Teaching Assistant.
Many universities have Teaching Assistant or Work Study programs that pay you for your labor by reducing tuition. The amount of money you save on school ends up being much greater than the amount of money you’d earn if paid a wage for doing that work. In other words, it’s a sweet deal. These positions are usually quite competitive for this reason, so make sure you apply early and stay on top of deadlines.
Prepare yourself to take out a loan.
Finally, even with a nice scholarship or grant, you may need to take out a loan. This is a totally normal thing to do, so don’t get freaked out or down on yourself. It’s just the reality of getting a degree in the US - especially if it’s graduate school. Take a breath, fill out your FAFSA, and then wait and see what they offer you in terms of interest rates. (While you’re waiting, apply to scholarships like crazy.) Typically, you’re going to have interest rates between 5% and 6%…usually closer to 6%.
The important thing to remember about loans is that although you usually don’t have to repay them while you’re in school, they WILL accumulate interest during that time. After my year and a half in grad school, my initial loan of $70,000 became $76,000 when I graduated. Be ready for that.
Get a job.
This may seem like the most obvious way to pay for something, but not everyone can work while they’re in their program. And that’s fine! BUT. You should be the one to make that call. When I started my Master’s program, I was told that it was so challenging, so accelerated that I would not be able to have a job - even part time - while completing it. I listened. Looking back, I wish I hadn’t.
So here’s my advice: Play it by ear. If you have a job now, maybe don’t quit until you’ve tried it and know you have to. If you don’t currently have a job, wait a month or two and then think about picking up something part-time. Towards the end of my degree, I worked casually at a boutique. There was a lot of down time, and I actually got a lot of study time in while on the job! Paid to do my homework? I’m in!
If you’re pre-licensure (meaning you can’t work as an RN yet), a job like this - though it won’t pay much - will be a welcome break from the stress of clinicals. If you’re an RN working on a post-licensure degree, continuing to work as an RN probably makes the most sense. You’ll make good money and will likely be able to apply what you’re learning in school to your job. Plus, the bonus about nursing is you can always go Per Diem or Casual.
Spread the word.
So why do I care so much about your personal finances? That’s easy. I’m Pro-Nurse.
It’s important to me that nurses are encouraged to find financial freedom. We need y’all at your best, most creative selves these next few decades. If you’re working overtime every month just to pay the bills, that’s one less activist or innovative brain we’ve got working on solutions to some really big problems.
Beyond these suggestions for your personal financial situation, there are actions you can take on a systems-level as well:
Advocate for tuition reimbursement programs from your employer.
Stay informed and support your union when they negotiate with your hospital for raises.
Vote for federal, state, and local candidates who support nurses and support the elimination of student debt.
For my doctorate degree, I’ve been smarter. Right now, the plan is to keep working full-time while I’m getting my DNP. I'll need to take out another loan, but the more money I earn while in school, the faster I can pay down my loan interest. If work and school become too much to handle, I’ll reduce my hours at the hospital.
For additional funding sources, I’ve gotten a very generous scholarship from my university, tuition relief from work, a scholarship from my hospital, and I have a few other scholarships hopefully coming down the pipeline. I’ve applied for a TA position, and next, I’ll be looking into grants. Perhaps a benevolent philanthropist is out there, looking for a nurse with a blog about healing the healthcare system!
If you care about our healthcare system, if you care about nurses, if you care about your patients, share these tips with your colleagues! And if you have any suggestions for future or current nurses going back to school that you think I’ve missed, please share with me! You can reach me on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.