How Much Does Nursing School Cost
For those who enjoy work that involves helping others, a nursing career may prove an attractive option. And a prospective student has quite a few options to choose from. A nurse doesn’t only work in a hospital with surgeons and doctors; one can also be a school nurse or nurse educator along with a registered nurse or nurse practitioner. However, the wide range of choices may stymie prospective students. This article lays out the various paths a nursing student may take, including the difference between nursing certification, an associate degree, and collegiate nursing education; along with how to obtain financial assistance for the degree program you ultimately choose.
The average cost of earning a degree or certification in nursing
Nursing education can take anywhere from two to eight years to complete, with tuition to match. Fortunately, there’s more than one way to earn your nursing certification. Here are some of the most common pathways for becoming a nurse, how long each program takes, and anything else it requires.
Certified nursing assistant
The quickest and most inexpensive way to jump-start your nursing career is by becoming a Certified Nursing Assistant. Accreditation programs vary by state, but usually only require a few weeks followed by an exam. Once you become a CNA, you can start accumulating health care experience and clinical hours, which improve your chances of getting into a more formal nursing school. Since the length of these courses varies by state, so does the tuition cost.
Nurses can earn an associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, and even doctorate in nursing. The costs of these various programs are commensurate with similar programs.
- Associate Degree in Nursing: Most schools offering an ADN operate by a credit system, and usually require students to complete 60 credit-hours before awarding the degree. A community college-based program might charge only $30-40 per credit; while a private university bills for upwards of $400. This means the final cost for your associate degree might be anything from $2,000 to $24,000.
- Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing: A BSN takes about four years to earn, and requires the student to complete 120 credit hours. Students cannot earn their BSN from a community college and must attend a four-year university. As such, the costs for such a degree are often much higher, costing anywhere from $30,000 to $70,000, depending on the school. However, some institutions offer an accelerated RN-to-BSN program, allowing students who have already passed the NCLEX to waive a variety of classes and requirements. These degree programs usually reduce the total cost of a BSN degree by up to two-thirds.
- Masters of Science in Nursing: Though this program also only takes about two years to complete, candidates must have a BSN before applying. As this is considered advanced education, tuition for an MSN costs between $80,000-$100,00. State schools usually cost less than private universities, and most institutions offer some form of financial aid.
- Doctor of Nursing Practice: A Ph.D. in nursing is considered the most advanced degree open to nurses. DNP programs vary wildly between both time and cost. If a nurse already has a MSN, completed a DNP usually only takes another year or so. A BSN-to-DNP program, however, takes upwards of five years to complete. These programs usually charge tuition anywhere from $30,000-$70,000.
When evaluating your potential nursing school cost, don’t neglect the incidentals. If you’re going to school full time, you’ll need a way to cover your bills, including housing. Additionally, many schools ask students to pay for scrubs, textbooks, and other supplies out-of-pocket. An individual set of scrubs doesn’t cost much, but these costs tend to add up.
Also, most nursing certifications require some form of continuing education. That is, nurses are expected to pay for and complete various courses designed to keep their skills up to date. The requirements vary by state, but usually require 20-40 hours every two years, and in some cases may require nurses to pass follow-up exams. Some hospitals or medical practices offer tuition reimbursement or other forms of financial aid for completing the continuing education requirements, but nurses working in their own practices must pay themselves.
If you’re worried about how to cover the cost of your favorite nursing program, be assured there are many options! If you start working as a CNA or LVN/LPN with a large health care organization, they frequently offer extra training at a subsidized cost, or have a tuition reimbursement plan. There’s a shortage of skilled nurses currently, so its in the interests of these institutions to offer significant financial aid. And don’t forget the scholarship route! Both general and nursing-specific scholarship funds exist to help you fund your nursing school education.
Benefits of attending nursing school
Prospective students intimidated by the cost or time commitment may wonder if a collegiate nursing education is worth the investment. Rest assured, your nursing school cost will pay dividends for your future.
CNAs are among the lowest-paid nurses, but even they enjoy a solid income. The average base pay for a CNA in the United States is $15.35 per hour, or $34,670 per year. Though starting CNAs usually start at $12 per hour, those who have earned extra certifications (such as CNA 2 or CNA 3, or certifications such as memory care or wound care) can command a higher wage. The best-paid CNAs earn up to $20 per hour, or $41,000 per year. Of course, that assumes a 40-hour workweek; many nursing facilities offer the opportunity to earn significant overtime.
The average salary for a licensed vocational nurse or licensed practical nurse (that is, a nurse who has passed the NCLEX but does not have a formal degree) is $24 per hour, or $45,000 per year. As with CNAs, an experienced LVN/LPN can command a higher wage if they pursue training for specialized skills. The highest paid LVN/LPNs can earn up to $73,000 a year.
Becoming a registered nurse requires extensive, challenging schooling, which gives nurses an advantage in the job market. Most nurses can expect to earn slightly above the general market rate for someone with a similar degree in an equivalent field. The national mean salary for a registered nurse is $75,000 per year, with exceptionally talented nurses (such as certified nurse anesthetists) making over $100,000 per year. On average, a nurse with a BSN degree makes about $3 more per hour than one with an ASN. If you have the time and financial ability, pursuing a collegiate nursing education definitely gives you an advantage in the wider job market.
Nurse practitioners consistently make over $100,000 per year. The highest-compensated nurses frequently have specialized in a difficult field, such as neonatal care or oncology. One exception is the nurse educator; this job usually earns about $76,000 per year.
Of course, these salaries don’t take into account other benefits. As health care workers, nurses often have excellent insurance. Some medical practices have begun offering profit-sharing bonuses to their nurse as well.
In addition to a generous salary, here’s what else someone pursuing a nursing career can look forward to.
- Job security. As mentioned above, the US is currently experiencing a dramatic shortfall of trained nurses. If a job isn’t working out for you, finding a new one will often prove quite easy. Even without the shortfall, people will always need care. Unlike other fields, a nurse does not have to worry that her job might be eliminated through automation.
- Flexible working hours. Because hospitals and other care facilities operate 24 hours a day, they need staff for all shifts. If you prefer working night or swing shifts, you’ll easily find a job which suits. You also have the freedom to choose how much you’d like to work. Both part-time and full-time nursing jobs are available, and most facilities allow for overtime.
- Specializations. If the idea of caring for others appeals but you don’t want to work in a hospital or medical office, you still have options. A good nurse can find employment almost anywhere. Do you like seeing the world? Consider becoming a travel nurse, and tending to patients on holiday. If you prefer working with children, pursue a career as a pediatric, neonatal, or school nurse. Non-governmental organizations and charitable foundations always need nurses willing to bring health care to under-served populations. And if a particular branch of medicine appeals, you can always focus your training on becoming an emergency room or surgical nurse.
- Personal satisfaction. It always feels good to help someone who needs it, and that’s what nursing is. Nurses consistently report high levels of job satisfaction across all levels of employment. In one study, 94-98% of nurses reported being happy with their career choice. Furthermore, thanks to a combination of job security and high compensation, most nurses felt adequately prepared for retirement.
- Gender equity. Though nursing remains a female-dominated field, more men are choosing nursing as a career path every year. Though a pay gap exists, it’s much narrower than in other fields. And many large health organizations are actively working to address the problem.
What nursing school includes
Still interested in becoming a nurse? Here’s what you can expect while going to nursing school.
Most nursing school programs require applicants have a high school diploma or GED. Competitive programs may also require applicants have a certain GPA and SAT or ACT score. You’ll need a BSN as well before applying to an MSN or DNP program. Many programs also conduct criminal background checks and drug tests on applicants. If you cannot pass either, your application will be rejected. Certain programs may have their own standards for admission as well; always take the time to research a program you’re interested in and ensure you meet those standards before applying.
You may also be expected to take a physical, including a mental health workup, as part of the admissions process. Most schools want to know their students are in reasonably good mental health and able to withstand the rigors of not only nursing school, but the career itself. Additionally, you’ll have to provide proof of immunization against polio, mumps, rubella, and other illnesses (including covid-19), and take a TB test.
Lastly, most schools charge a nominal application fee, though you can apply for financial aid in the form of a fee waiver if you’re currently experiencing hardship.
Types of programs
As CNA certification varies by state, each state offers different programs. However, you can usually find a good CNA program through a local hospital or community college. Most CNA programs are designed with working adults in mind, and thus offer night and weekend classes.
More advanced programs are also varied. Here are the types you have to choose from:
- Online: Especially since 2020, you can easily find a nursing school offering an online or hybrid model for learning. Though clinicals must still be done in person, you have the option to complete some coursework in an online setting.
- Full-time: Most ADN or BSN degree programs assume students will take a full course load each semester, that is, 9-12 credit-hours per term. Completing an ADN usually takes about two years of full-time study; while a BSN requires four. You can always always accelerate this by taking summer courses.
- Part-time: Especially for ADN degrees, schools offer students the chance to pursue their degree by only taking 3-6 credit-hours per term. This means earning your degree will take longer, but is a viable option if you’re already working or have other concerns such as child care.
- Joint: Some fields, such as public health or health administration, often require students to study the subject so much that it qualifies as its own degree. These are often considered master’s level programs, and may require you to already be a registered nurse with a BSN. If you want to focus on the administrative aspect of health care, this is the educational pathway for you.
- Accelerated: If you want to earn your degree as quickly as possible, some schools offer an accelerated learning program. This is a good option if you’re already familiar with the basics of medical care and want to finish your schooling as quickly as possible. However, these programs are extremely rigorous and challenging; carefully consider your ability to complete an accelerated program if you already have significant claims on your time.
- Dual: This is another rigorous program, allowing students to earn a BSN and MSN, or MSN and DNP, at the same time. Like an accelerated nursing program, expect a rigorous and demanding course load.
Topics of study
Most nursing school programs are remarkably similar to other college programs. Students register for classes and labs, purchase textbooks and other equipment, and attend lectures given by experienced teachers. And like college, students have a list of mandatory and elective classes. Here are some of the subjects you’ll be expected to master.
- Nursing basics. Most programs teach students what to expect in their day to day. You’ll learn common industry terms, how to support other medical personnel as part of a team, how to read a medical chart, and similar principles.
- Physiology. This is the general study of the human body and its various systems. You’ll learn about the skeletal, circulatory, digestive and muscular systems, along with common diseases of each and how to treat them.
- Ethics. Nurses are expected to be discreet when handling patients’ personal health information, but that’s not the only ethical consideration. You’ll also learn the principles behind ethical decision-making, and study case law in which unethical behavior by a nurse opened a practice or hospital up to liability.
- Pharmacology. Quite a lot of medical care revolves around medication, and a nurse should understand what various classes of drugs can do. Since some drug interactions can harm or even kill a patient, you’ll learn how to spot and avoid those, as well. A subset of pharmacology is pain management, and helping patients suffering chronic conditions find long-term relief.
- Gerontology. As our population ages, nurses will have to know how to take care of the elderly. This includes not only how to take care of aging bodies, but minds as well. Many gerontology courses cover end-of-life and palliative care.
- Care transitions. When a patient must move from a hospital to a hospice, or from a short-term care to long-term care facility, the logistics behind such are surprisingly complicated. Nursing students must learn how to probably move a disabled or seriously ill patient with minimal disruption or negative impact.
- Electives. Depending on your career aspirations, you may choose to take electives focusing on such topics as women and infant care, public health, psychology, or leadership and management. Choose these electives carefully, as the right one can make you an attractive candidate when applying for jobs.
And, of course, your clinicals.
Clinical theory and study
Before beginning your actual clinicals, you’ll study the theory: the basics of admitting and evaluating patients, how to administer care, and the general operating procedures of a hospital or medical practice. Once you have completed your theory class, you’ll be put in an actual medical setting, under supervision, to gain hands-on experience and understanding of what nursing truly entails.
As with a doctor’s clinicals, you’ll rotate through various fields to gain experience and see if you truly fit well into the field or sub-specialty you’ve chosen. Each nursing school has their own clinical rotations, but expect some combination of: medical-surgical, labor & delivery, pediatrics, geriatrics, emergency care, community health, and psychiatric care.
A clinical rotation usually lasts a full term. You’ll be assigned an instructor, who will hand out assignments and evaluate your performance. Expect to be graded on:
- Assessment and diagnosis. You must be able to correctly and quickly triage patients. Though you can’t make formal diagnoses as a nurse, you’ll be expected to identify the basics of a patient’s problem and effectively communicate that to a physician.
- Care plan. Once you and the medical team have arrived at a diagnosis, you’ll participate in developing and implementing a patient’s care plan.
- General nursing. Treat your clinical like a job. Show up on time and prepared to work. Your instructor may assign extra homework on top of your clinical work, and you should complete this well and on time. Know also that much of your clinical grade comes from subjective evaluations by your instructor. They’ll observe how well you interact with your colleagues, the quality of your bedside manner when interacting with patients, and the general attitude you bring to your work. To ensure the best possible grade, be open to collaborating, treat patients as instructed, and develop a good rapport with the instructor.
You cannot complete your degree nor become a nurse without passing your clinicals. However, your nursing school very much wants you to succeed! If you find yourself struggling, for whatever reason, communicate that to your instructor. Your school no doubt has resources to support struggling students, don’t be afraid to avail yourself of them.
Types of nursing degrees and certifications
Associate degree in nursing
Often shortened to ADN, expect to need around two years to complete this degree program. Once you’ve graduated, you’re now qualified to take the National Council Licensure Examination, or NCLEX. All state nursing boards in the United States require registered nurses to pass the NCLEX, and a good ADN program prepares you for this test. Once you pass the NCLEX, you qualify as a registered nurse.
Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing
As with an associate’s degree, a BSN program ends with the student taking, and hopefully passing, the NCLEX and becoming a registered nurse. Students who have the money and time often choose to purse this type of nursing degree due to their ability to earn a higher wage. It’s also a required step on the pathway to earning an MSN or DNP.
Master’s of Science in Nursing
A nurse with this accreditation is called a nurse practitioner. A nurse practitioner has more freedom than a registered nurse, even being allowed to prescribe medication without a doctor’s supervision in certain states. However, a student pursuing this type of degree usually specializes in a certain field, such as becoming a nurse anesthesiologist or going into medical research.
Doctor of Nursing Practice
As with those who’ve earned their MSN, someone with this accreditation is also called a nurse practitioner. These nurses usually end up administering nursing departments in large hospitals, or working as a nurse educator to teach the next generation of nurses.
Several career paths are open to nursing school graduates which don’t strictly follow the outlined paths. in some cases, they may require additional accreditation.
- CNA: A certified nursing assistant provides the most basic of care to patients. Each state has their own licensing requirements, but most programs can be completed in three to eight weeks. Because each program varies by state, the nursing school cost in this instance also varies. Look up your state’s individual requirements; if you already work at a hospital, some offer subsidized CNA programs. You can also complete optional additional training to specialize in wound care, memory care, palliative care, and other forms of nursing care. Some states also offer a CNA II license.
- LPN/LVN: A licensed practical nurse or licensed vocational nurse often works as a medical assistant to a registered nurse or doctor. An LPN frequently works in retirement homes or long-term care facilities, providing nursing care to the elderly and disabled. An LPN/LVN does need to pass the NCLEX, but does not need any other degree.
- School nurse: These nurses work in school settings, usually in K-12. The requirements for a school nurse vary by district and state, but usually require the candidate to be a registered nurse. Additionally, since a school nurse usually has to operate without a doctor’s guidance, some number of hours (usually 1,000) of clinical experience are required.
- Nurse educator: Who better to teach a nursing student than another nurse? Nurse educators work in university settings and help students eventually earn their own nursing degree. A nurse educator usually must be a nurse practitioner and have an extensive history of professional nursing. A nurse educator might also be someone who goes out into the community to provide valuable health information, such as the nurse educators who teach young adults about sexual health and safe sex practices.
- Nursing informatics specialist: This is less a specific certification than a career path. Nursing informatics deals with with a mix of communication and technology, as specialists take advances in medical knowledge and technology and devise ways to implement them in the wider community. Most specialists in this field have a dual nursing and STEM degree of some kind.
Becoming a nurse
Now that you have a better understanding of what nursing school is like, you’re equipped to decide if this career path is right for you. Though this was quite a bit of information, it’s not exhaustive. Always look into the details of any program you’re interested in. Get solid data on tuition and length of study. Most importantly, double-check that your program of choice has proper accreditation. Without that, you might inadvertently be wasting a lot of time and money.