While nurses may carry a large burden in terms of patient care, they typically receive good pay, solid workplace perks and plenty of job security in return. Afterall, job openings for registered nurses are expected to increase 15% from 2016 to 2026, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics — at a time when the average growth for all jobs is projected to be just 7%. Further, registered nurses reported median wages of $68,450 nationwide in 2016, with the top 10% of nurses earning $102,990.
On the downside, the costs of earning a nursing degree can be overwhelming.
An October 2017 report from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing even noted that 69% of nursing graduate students surveyed took out federal loans to finance their education, and the median amount of debt brought on by graduate school was anticipated to be $40,000 to $54,999 for these students.
If you’re considering a nursing degree or a graduate nursing degree, it’s easy to see why these numbers would be disconcerting. The good news is there are a wide range of forgiveness programs available for nurses on both the state and federal levels.
If you’re struggling with expensive nursing school loans or fear you will be, it may help to become familiar with these programs and how to qualify.
Federal student loan forgiveness for nurses
National Health Service Corps Repayment Program
The National Health Service Corps Repayment Program offers up to $50,000 in student loan repayment in exchange for a two-year commitment at a NHSC-approved work site. Accepted sites may be in primary care medical, dental or mental and behavioral health clinics in high-need areas of the country.
According to the program website, priority consideration is given to eligible applicants whose approved work site has an HPSA (Health Professional Shortage Area) score of 26 to 14, in descending order. In other words, student loan forgiveness goes to those who work in the highest-need facilities first. You can look for eligible job sites in your area on this page.
Are you eligible?
If you’re a licensed health care provider who is willing to work or even relocate to an area with a shortage of qualified health care providers for at least two years, you are eligible to apply for this program.
The application process
While the 2017 application cycle is closed, the next application cycle will open in early 2018. To apply, you’ll need to submit a complete application that includes documentation of your loans and proof of qualified employment. You can find a full application checklist on the NHSC website.
Is this program right for you?
This program could be ideal for you if you’re flexible in terms of where you work for the next two years and you have up to $50,000 in student loans to repay.
NURSE Corps Loan Repayment Program
This federal program aims to help registered nurses, advanced practice registered nurses and nurse faculty by paying off up to 85% of their student loan debt in exchange for a 2- to 3-year commitment in a critical shortage position or facility. This program is available to nurses in the three mentioned professions who graduated from an accredited nursing school and work full time in either an eligible critical shortage facility or an accredited school of nursing.
Are you eligible?
To be eligible for this program, you must work as a registered nurse, advanced practice nurse or as nurse faculty and be a U.S. citizen. You need a bachelor’s degree or associate degree in nursing from an accredited school, and you must work full time (at least 32 hours per week) in an approved critical shortage facility (CSF) or accredited school. You must also have outstanding loans related to your nursing degree.
The application process
The 2018 application cycle hasn’t opened yet, although you can sign up to be notified when it does. NURSE Corps suggests reading the Application and Program Guidance document ahead of time so you fully understand the commitment. This document also offers a list of critical shortage facilities and facility types that would qualify for this program.
Is this program right for you?
This program is ideal for nurses who are willing to commit to working in a critical shortage position for at least two years.
Federal Perkins Loan Cancellation for Nurses
If you have Federal Perkins loans and work full time in the nursing profession, you may be able to have up to 100 percent of your student loans wiped away with the Federal Perkins Loan Cancellation program.
Nurses need to be registered and employed full-time to qualify. They also need to be willing to make a five-year commitment to the program. However, since the Perkins Loan program expired on September 30th, 2017, you must have borrowed money for nursing education before that date to qualify.
Are you eligible?
Nurses with Federal Perkins loans who are willing to make a five-year commitment to the program may have up to 100% of their loans forgiven. Unfortunately, you must have borrowed before September 30, 2017 to qualify.
The application process
According to the U.S. Department of Education, you must apply for Federal Perkins loan forgiveness with the school who made your loan or with the school’s Perkins Loan servicer. Your school or servicer will provide forms and instructions on how to move forward with the process, they note.
Is this program right for you?
This program is ideal for nurses who graduated with Perkins Loans before September 30, 2017. Unfortunately, it won’t be of any help to future generations of nurses – at least for the time being.
Programs for nurses by state
While the federal government supports several national programs that can help nurses shed their expensive student loan debt, some states offer their own programs as well. These programs vary in length and commitment, but most require at least a few years of work in a critical shortage area of nursing in exchange for forgiveness.
The following chart highlights the current programs available, what they offer and who is eligible:
Description of program
Alabama residents enrolled full time in accredited nursing education programs and pursuing graduate degrees to become certified registered nurse practitioners (CRNPs), certified nurse midwives (CNMs), or certified registered nurse anesthetists (CRNAs) are eligible to receive $12,000 in loan repayment. Graduates must be an Alabama resident for at least one year before they apply.
Through Alaska’s SHARP (Support-for-Service to Healthcare Practitioners) Program, nurses can receive up to $27,000 per year in loan assistance in exchange for a work commitment in an eligible critical shortage area.
The Arizona Loan Repayment Program offers loan assistance for health care professionals working in areas of critical shortage. Available to nurse practitioners who work half-time or full time for at least two years, this program offers up to $50,000 in repayment assistance for each year of service in a qualified position.
Registered nurses in California who hold a bachelor’s degree may qualify for this program if they have outstanding student loan debt and agree to serve in a medical shortage area, a prison, or a veteran’s facility. Up to $10,000 is awarded for one year of service.
Colorado nurse practitioners, nurse midwives, and psychiatric nurse specialists may receive up to $25,000 for part-time work and $50,000 for full-time work in exchange for a three-year commitment in a Colorado Health Professional Shortage Area.
Connecticut registered nurses and nursing students may be eligible to have up to 60% of their student loans forgiven in exchange for a two-year, full-time commitment at an eligible Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services Facility. A third year of commitment may result in an additional 25 percent of loan forgiveness.
Delaware nurse practitioners, nurse midwives, and psychiatric nurse specialists who work full time in a designated critical shortage area may receive between $30,000 and $100,000 in loan repayment assistance in exchange for a two-year commitment.
Florida licensed practical nurses, registered nurses and advanced practice registered nurses who work full time in a designated critical shortage site may receive up to $4,000 per year in loan forgiveness for up to four years.
This program, which is available to advanced practice registered nurses in the state of Georgia, offers up to $10,000 per year in loan cancellation in exchange for full-time work in a rural Georgia county.
Nurse practitioners and certified nurse midwives licensed to work in Hawaii are eligible for loan forgiveness after committing to at least two years of full-time work in a healthcare shortage area in the state. Award amounts vary based on grants available.
Healthcare practitioners in the state of Idaho can qualify for $2,500 - $25,000 per year in loan forgiveness for working in a critical shortage area designated by the state.
Licensed nurse educators in the state of Illinois may be awarded up to $5,000 in loan forgiveness for up to four years provided they work as a nurse educator and meet the licensing requirements of the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation.
Registered nurses and nurse educators who owe a balance on their student loans and have loans in good standing may earn up to $6,858 per year in loan forgiveness for no more than five consecutive years.
Certified nurse practitioners may qualify for up to $20,000 per year in assistance for two years and $5,000 - $15,000 per year in assistance for the next three consecutive years. Full-time work in a designated healthcare shortage facility is required for each year of forgiveness.
Kentucky nurse practitioners, certified nurse midwives and registered nurses can receive $20,000 - $40,000 in loan repayment assistance depending on their designation. A two-year commitment in a critical shortage area in the state of Kentucky is required.
Certified nurse practitioners and certified nurse midwives can qualify for up to $15,000 per year in loan repayment assistance for up to three years. A full-time commitment in a designated healthcare shortage area is required.
Nurses who provide public service in Maryland or local government or nonprofit agencies in Maryland can receive between $1,500 and $10,000 per year in loan assistance depending on their total debt. A full-time commitment in an underserved facility in the state is required.
Nurse practitioners who work full time in a not-for-profit facility with a critical shortage of qualified caregivers may receive up to $200,000 in loan repayment assistance with a commitment of up to eight years.
Licensed practical nurses and registered nurses can receive $5,000 per year in loan repayment assistance with a two-year minimum service obligation in a qualified facility.
Nurse practitioners, primary care registered nurses, certified nurse midwives, and a variety of other healthcare professionals can receive up to $15,000 per year in loan repayment for up to two years in exchange for full-time work in an NHSC-approved site.
Nurse practitioners who agree to work in a critical shortage facility for three years can receive up to $30,000 per year in loan assistance to repay commercial or government student loans.
Primary care nurse practitioners, certified nurse midwives, and psychiatric nurse specialists can receive $45,000 in loan repayment assistance in exchange for a three-year commitment in a critical shortage facility. Candidates who want to extend the program up to another two years may also receive another $20,000 in assistance.
Certified nurse practitioners and certified nurse midwives can receive up to $120,000 in loan repayment assistance over a four-year period of service in an underserved facility with a critical shortage of healthcare providers.
In exchange for a two-year commitment in a designated medical shortage area in New Mexico, advanced practice nurses can qualify for up to $25,000 per year in assistance.
Registered nurses or advanced practice nurses with graduate degrees who teach nursing in the state of New York can receive up to $8,000 per year in loan forgiveness for up to five years through this program.
This program was created to incentivize Ohio students in accredited nursing programs to continue their studies. Awards of up to $1,500 per year are offered and students need to be enrolled in programs with at least half-time study to qualify.
Registered nurses and primary care nurse practitioners can qualify for loan repayment assistance in exchange for a two-year commitment in a health care shortage area. Awards vary based on the shortage level of the facility of employment and funds available.
Certified registered nurse practitioners can receive up to $60,000 in loan repayment assistance for a two-year commitment in a facility with high need.
Rhode Island nurse practitioners and registered nurses can receive loan repayment assistance in exchange for a two-year or four-year commitment in a high-need or critical shortage area. Loan amounts vary.
Nurses who are enrolled in a nursing graduate program may be eligible for loan forgiveness. Nursing students must work full time as a nurse educator for at least four years to qualify.
Texas healthcare professionals other than physicians can receive up to $10,000 in loan repayment assistance after working one year in a designated shortage area in the state.
Licensed practical nurses and registered nurses in Vermont can receive an annual award of up to $10,000 for working at least 20 hours per week in an underserved area as defined by the program.
Nurse practitioners, nurse midwives and registered nurses working in designated shortage facilities in Virginia can receive up to $140,000 (not to exceed their total loan balances) for a minimum four-year commitment.
Nurses who agree to a three-year commitment in an eligible healthcare shortage site can receive up to $75,000 in loan repayment assistance. A minimum 24-hour work week is required for this program.
Nurse practitioners and nurse midwives who agree to a two-year commitment in a facility with a healthcare shortage can receive $40,000 in loan repayment. An additional $25,000 per year in assistance is available for an additional two years of work.
Nurse practitioners and certified nurse midwives can receive up to $50,000 in loan repayment assistance through this program. Eligible providers must work at least three years in a qualified high need facility to qualify.
Alternatives to student loan forgiveness for nurses
If federal or state nurse loan forgiveness isn’t suitable for your situation for any reason, there are several alternative ways to get your student loans reduced or forgiven. Here are some of the main options to consider:
Hospital tuition reimbursement
Some hospitals offer tuition reimbursement to working nurses and nursing students who work in their hospital or hospital system. While some of these programs offer tuition assistance as an ongoing perk for existing employees, others offer loan repayment as an incentive to earn an advanced nursing degree.
The UNC Medical Center in Chapel Hill, N.C., for example, offers tuition assistance for permanent working nurses who dedicate at least 20 hours per week to working at one of their facilities. With this program, hospital employees can attend nursing school or nursing graduate school and receive $316.99 per undergraduate credit hour or $589.62 per graduate credit hour. Limits per class are set at $1,870.24 for undergraduate courses and $3,478.76 for graduate-level courses, at a maximum of 20 credit hours per fiscal year.
Duke University Hospital in Durham, N.C., is another institution that offers tuition reimbursement for nurses. This program promises up to 90% tuition reimbursement for nurses who pursue a master’s degree, post-master’s degree certificate or doctorate of nursing practice degree. Nurses must work for the Duke University Hospital system full time (at least 30 hours per week) with a positive record to qualify.
If you’re interested in pursuing tuition assistance, check hospitals in your area to see which ones, if any, offer this type of program.
Student loan refinancing
Another way to reduce the ongoing costs of excessive student debt is to refinance your student loans with a private lender who may offer a lower interest rate or better loan terms. This strategy won’t make your loans go away altogether, but it may help you save on short-term and long-term interest costs or lower your monthly payment.
While this strategy can be advantageous, keep in mind that it doesn’t always make sense to refinance your student loans. If another lender won’t grant you a lower interest rate or lower your payment, for example, it may be hard to justify the hassle or expense of refinancing.
Not only that, but refinancing federal loans with a private lender can result in losing access to important federal benefits like deferment, forbearance and income-driven repayment plans.
Before you refinance your student loans, make sure to use a student loan refinancing calculator to see how much you might save. Only then can you decide if it would be worth it.
Income-driven repayment options
Income-driven repayment plans allow nurses with federal loans to pay only a percentage of their income toward their loans for 20-25 years. These programs can be especially advantageous for nurses with large debt loads and low incomes since your monthly payment is determined based on how much you earn and a percentage of your discretionary income. Not only that, but each of these plans leads to forgiveness of your remaining student loans once you make payments for the duration of the program.
Several different income-driven repayment programs are available for nurses:
Pay As You Earn Repayment Plan (PAYE Plan)
10% of your discretionary income but never more than your payment on 10-year Standard Repayment
Nurses can qualify if their payment on this plan would be less than the payment on a standard ten-year repayment plan
Revised Pay As You Earn Repayment Plan (REPAYE Plan)
10% of your discretionary income
20 years for undergraduate loans and 25 years “if any loans you’re repaying under the plan were received for graduate or professional study”
Nurses with federal student loans can qualify
Income-Based Repayment (IBR)
10% of your discretionary income if your loan originated after July 1, 2014, but never more than the 10-year Standard Repayment Plan; generally 15% of your discretionary income if you’re not a new borrower on or after July 1, 2014; either way, you’ll never pay more than the payment on a standard, 10-year repayment plan
20 years if you’re a borrower after on or after July 1, 2014; otherwise 25 years
To qualify, your payment under this plan must be less than what you would pay under standard, 10-year repayment
Income-Contingent Repayment (ICR)
20% of your discretionary income, or what you would pay over the course of a fixed 12-year repayment plan
Nurses with federal student loans qualify
Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF)
The Trump administration has made it no secret that they’d favor ending the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program, which forgives the balance on your remaining Direct Loans provided you make 120 consecutive, on-time payments and work full time for a qualifying employer.
But so long as this program is still available, it’s worth checking out.
According to the education department, “qualified employment” can entail working for a government agency, a not-for-profit or serving full time in Americorps or the Peace Corp. Candidates must work full time (at least 30 hours per week) to qualify, and only Direct Loans are eligible for PSLF.
Since nurses can find work in not-for-profit organizations, the Peace Corp and government agencies, this is typically seen as a feasible loan repayment option for nurses and other healthcare professionals.