How to Become an RN: Nursing School & Loans

Why choose nursing?

If you’re planning to become a registered nurse (RN), you've made a great choice. A career in registered nursing offers many benefits.

  • First, RN jobs are typically well-paying positions, with a median annual salary that’s nearly twice the national average — $68,4501 for registered nurses versus $37,0402 for all other jobs (in 2016).
  • Second, registered nurses are in great demand thanks to a U.S. population that’s living longer and requiring more and more health services.
  • Finally, one of the best reasons to become an RN is that you can make a real difference in the lives of others.

A career that offers great pay, long-term job security and personal satisfaction? You can’t beat that.

Registered Nurse (RN) Jobs at a Glance

  RN Jobs1 All Jobs
Median Pay, 2016 $68,450 per year $37,0402
Typical Entry-Level Education Bachelor's degree N/A
Number of Jobs, 2016 2,955,200 140,400,0403
Projected Job Growth, 2016-26 15% (Much faster than average) 7%

How to become a registered nurse

Before you begin your education to become an RN, it’s important to understand what’s involved. The first thing to know is that the licensure requirements are determined by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) and the compact agreement. The approval of nursing education programs is determined by the Board of Nursing in each state. 

At a basic level, there are a few main steps to becoming a registered nurse (RN):

1

Get an undergraduate degree or a diploma in nursing.

All state nursing boards require that applicants for a registered nurse license have one of the following educational credentials:

  • An associate degree in nursing (ADN)
  • A bachelor of science degree in nursing (BSN)
  • A diploma in nursing (a vocational, non-degree credential)

While an associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree and diploma all offer a nursing education and hands-on clinical training and all require the passing of the National licensing exam, a BSN degree is the best option if you are looking for advancement opportunities in your nursing career.

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Smart Tip

Prior to choosing to a nursing education program, you should visit your state’s Board of Nursing's website to make sure the nursing school you're interested in accredited and approved.

 

Research your chosen nursing school to find out about the cost, length of time in the program, the clinical exposure, and most importantly the historical Pass rate on the graduates who have taken the NCLEX-RN exam.

2

Apply for an RN license with your state board of nursing.

Once you’ve received your nursing degree or diploma, you can apply for an RN license.

  • Apply online or by paper application with your state Board of Nursing.
  • Undergo and pass a criminal background check.
  • Register for the national RN licensing exam, the NCLEX-RN®4 (National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses).
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Smart Tip

You must apply with the state Board of Nursing prior to taking the NCLEX-RN; the Board will verify that you meet the education and background check requirements to be an RN and, if so, issue an authorization to take the NCLEX-RN exam.

 

If you are a student in a college nursing program, the school you attend may facilitate your RN licensing application and registering for the NCLEX-RN exam.

3

Take and pass the NCLEX-RN exam.

Follow testing rules and procedures. The test may be retaken, if needed. The National Council of State Boards of Nursing publishes detailed information about the NCLEX-RN, including a bulletin that reviews testing rules and procedures and a test plan that outlines the topics of the test.

4

Begin your career as a registered nurse.

Find a job in a medical environment such as a doctor’s office, hospital, nursing or rehabilitation health facility or home health setting — and enjoy your new career!

More Planning Tips

Before getting a nursing degree, volunteer in a healthcare setting to observe nursing up close.

“Try before you buy.” Before you commit your time and money to getting a nursing degree, volunteer with a medical facility to see if the reality of nursing work is what you expected, and ask if you can talk to or shadow a nurse to find out about their day-to-day tasks. Many health systems offer summer volunteer programs.

Carefully research nursing schools.

Check to see if the nursing school you are interested in attending is fully accredited. There are multiple accrediting bodies that are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, but make sure that you are looking at the requirements that govern the state(s) which you plan to be employed.

If applicable, consider alternate paths to an RN license.

Many states have special programs to enable the accelerated paths to an RN license for those who have already acquired some nursing experience, such as a licensed practical nurse (LPN) or a military medic. Similarly, some nursing schools also have accelerated nursing degree programs for those candidates who have a diploma or an associate’s degree that are seeking a BSN. Individuals who have non-nursing undergraduate degrees may also choose to obtain an RN licensure. Please contact your state’s Board of Nursing to see what alternative education options are available in your state.

Paying for Nursing School

To come up with a plan to pay for nursing school, it is necessary to understand nursing school costs and to be familiar with the common ways to finance a nursing education, such as scholarships, federal aid, private student loans and employer assistance programs.

Nursing School Costs

Nursing school costs are really the cost of getting an undergraduate degree (associate or bachelor) plus any costs that are uniquely associated with a nursing education, such as clinical fees, lab fees, medical equipment costs and similar expenses.

According to data from the College Board, there are significant differences in the undergraduate tuition costs for in and out-of-state community colleges, in and out-of-state public colleges & universities, private non-profit colleges & universities, and private for-profit programs, colleges and universities. Remember that in-state tuition at a public non-for-profit institution will have the lowest tuition options.

Average Published Undergraduate Charges

Average Tuition and Fees and Room and Board in Current Dollars, 2016-17 and 2017-185

  Public 2-Year
In-District
Public 4-Year
In-State
Public 4-Year
Out-of-State
Public Nonprofit
4-Year
Tuition and Fees $3,570 $9,970 $25,620 $34,740
Room and Board $8,400 $10,800 $10,800 $12,210
Total $11,970 $20,770 $36,420 $46,950
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Smart Tip

One of the best ways to save money on a nursing education is to find an in-state community college or diploma program that will enable you to receive your RN licensure, and then transfer to a college or university to get the BSN.

What are the key takeaways?

Research your chosen nursing school to find out about the cost, length of time in the program, the clinical exposure, and most importantly the historical Pass rate on the graduates who have taken the NCLEX-RN exam. This is often used as a deciding measurement for students who plan to attend a particular school.

Don’t forget fees and special medical expenses

Did you know nursing uniform feeds can cost hundreds of dollars? As a nursing student, a uniform is something you’ll need and have to pay for. You may also have to pay malpractice insurance, immunizations, lab fees, CPR certification, special background checks, expensive medical books and more. All of this can add up to hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars each year. So, in addition to carefully looking at a college’s tuition and costs, make sure you also understand the nursing-specific program fees. Most colleges publish their nursing school fees, but they don’t label these fees the same way, which makes it hard to compare the costs of different institutions. Contact each nursing school you are applying to and get a full explanation of its fees so that you can accurately assess and compare the costs.

How to Pay for Nursing School

As with any college degree, nursing students should first look for scholarships and grants, then federal aid, then private student loans.

Scholarships

Good news! Because nurses are in high demand, there are many scholarships available to encourage students to enter the field of nursing. Here are some of the places you can find these scholarships:

  • Nursing school websites — Most schools have a listing of nursing-specific scholarships and financial awards; in some cases, the awards may be specifically for the school you want to attend, which will narrow the field of scholarship applicants.
  • Professional nursing associations — Many nursing associations, including state nursing associations offer scholarships.
  • Scholarship search sites — Popular search tools include the College Board scholarship search, the CareerOneStop sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor, FastWeb, a private scholarship search engine. SunTrust also offers a list of scholarship sites.
  • Other resources — Local foundations, and health related organizations often have endowments and nursing specific scholarship funds. Medical facilities and hospitals often offer scholarships/grants/loans as an encouragement for future employment.

Federal Aid

The federal government is a great source of student aid and offers both need-based and non-need-based student loans and grants. To apply for federal aid, you will need to fill out the FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The government also has programs to forgive student loan debt for nurses who work in underserved areas, such as the NURSE Corps Loan Forgiveness program.

Private Student Loans

After you’ve explored other financing sources, if you still need more money for school, a private student loan could be the way to fill in the gap. SunTrust offers private student loans for undergraduates and graduate students, including those in nursing programs. Compare our private student loans.

Employer assistance for graduate nursing programs

Many health organizations actively support the higher and continuing education of their staff. RNs who wish to go from an associate’s to a bachelor’s degree or from a bachelor’s to a master’s level position such as an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) may find that their employers provide partial or full reimbursement for their education.

See the 2017-18 Winners. The 2018-19 SunTrust Off to College Sweepstakes will begin again in mid-September 2018.

 

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Apply for a new SunTrust private student loan and you may be able transfer the balance of an existing loan.

 

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Important Information

This content does not constitute legal, tax, accounting, financial or investment advice. You are encouraged to consult with competent legal, tax, accounting, financial or investment professionals based on your specific circumstances. We do not make any warranties as to accuracy or completeness of this information, do not endorse any third-party companies, products, or services described here, and take no liability for your use of this information.

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4  Copyright ©2017 National Council of State Boards of Nursing, Inc. 

5  Source: College Board, Trends in Higher Education, https://trends.collegeboard.org/college-pricing/figures-tables/average-published-undergraduate-charges-sector-2017-18. The average published tuition and fee price for full-time in-state students at public four-year colleges and universities is $9,970 in 2017-18, $300 (3.1% before adjusting for inflation) higher than it was in 2016-17.

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An RN isn’t the only kind of nursing job.

Below are the different types of nursing specialties that fall under the scope of Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRNs), which require a master's degree level training:

  • Nurse Practitioner (NP)
  • Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA)
  • Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM)
  • Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS)

Another level of nursing practice at the doctorate level is the Doctor of Nurse Practice (DNP). This is an advanced degree that can cover multiple specialties depending on the interest and specialty practice of the nurse.

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