Returning to School

Nursing students often return to school to pursue higher-level licensure, better career options, and higher salaries. According to a survey by the National Nursing League, nursing students aged 30 and older enrolled in registered nurse (RN) to bachelor's, master's, and doctoral programs at significantly higher rates than in other nursing programs in 2014.

nursing students aged 30 and older enrolled in registered nurse (RN) to bachelor's, master's, and doctoral programs at significantly higher rates than in other nursing programs

Associate of nursing graduates are prepared for the RN exam, but bachelor's graduates are typically more competitive job candidates and enjoy greater prestige, responsibility, and earnings. Nurses may also return to school to pursue a master's or doctorate in nursing, qualifying them to sit for nurse practitioner certification. This guide will discuss how nursing students going back to school can find financial assistance and successfully transfer credits from prior coursework.

Benefits of Returning to Nursing School

Holding a BSN greatly increases nurses' chances of securing long-term work. According to a 2017 survey of 586 nursing schools from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), 49% of hospitals and other healthcare environments require a BSN from new nursing hires, while 86% indicate strong preference for candidates with a BSN. In 2017, New York passed a law requiring RNs to earn a BSN within 10 years of licensure. Moreover, a growing body of data suggests that employing nurses with BSNs may correlate with lower levels of patient mortality and medication errors.

A graduate-level degree in nursing can lead to advanced management positions, plus a wide range of specialized positions including family care nurse practitioner, pediatric nurse practitioner, and nurse anesthetist. Specialized positions in nursing require a nurse practitioner license, which requires at least an MSN, though some employers may even prefer a doctorate.

Average Salaries for Nurses by Educational Attainment

LPN/LVN $40,959

RN (ADN) $59,045



Online Learning for Adults Returning to Nursing School

According to a report from Learning House and Aslanian Market Research, as of 2016 the average undergraduate online student was 29 years old, and the average online graduate student was 33. Distance learning primarily caters to adult students, but these statistics show that online learners are getting younger. From 2014 to 2015 the average age went from 36 to 32 for undergraduate online students, and from 37 to 35 for graduate students.

Online learning appeals to working professionals for a number of reasons. Distance learning programs typically offer asynchronous courses, meaning students can participate in discussions and complete their assignments at their own pace. On top of having a more flexible schedule, these students save on expenses related to transportation and housing. Online nursing students can usually complete the in-person clinical and internship elements of their degree at a nearby facility, for added convenience.

Transferring Credits as a Returning Student

Transferring prior credits can help you save time and money on pursuing your next degree. Transfer students must request transcripts from their prior institutions in order to transfer those credits, which usually requires them to complete a transcript request form and pay a small fee. It's easiest to transfer credits from accredited institutions, because accreditation vouches for the quality of your education at a prior university. Make sure your school's nursing program is accredited by either the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) or the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE).

Some schools may limit the amount of credits students may transfer from prior institutions. They may also stipulate that students transfer credits within a specific time frame after graduating; at some institutions, transferrable credits can expire in as few as three years. General education courses typically transfer more easily than upper-division coursework, and in rapidly changing fields like nursing, students should prepare to retake certain courses.

Transferable Credits

Students have the best chance at transferring prior credits if they transition between two public schools in the same state. These schools are usually regionally accredited, and often have established partnerships called articulation agreements to help credits transfer more easily. Admitting schools always have discretion over whether or not to accept transfer credits, but aspiring transfer students can get a step ahead by researching course equivalency at their prospective school, plus policies regarding transferring between course levels and quarter- and semester-system schools.

Course Equivalency: Course equivalency refers to making sure coursework from your prior institution meets your prospective school's degree requirements. One school may require a human development psychology course as part of its nursing program, while another may not offer the course at all; a student transitioning between these two institutions may only be able to transfer the psychology course credits as general elective credits, rather than major-specific credits.

Course Level: It is easiest to transfer credits from lower-division courses in the 100 and 200 ranges, since these courses are generally the same at all nursing programs. Upper-division coursework, on the other hand, is more specific, and has less of a chance of transferring to another institution with its own unique upper-division requirements. For this reason, transfer students often end up having to retake their upper-division courses.

Quarter vs. Semester Transfers: Consider your prospective school's term system (quarters or semesters), and how it transfers credits from schools with a different term system. The most common formula for such transfers is as follows: one quarter credit equals .6667 semester credits, and one semester credit equals 1.5 quarter credits. In other words, two semester credits is usually the equivalent of three quarter credits.

College Credit for Work Experience

Many schools award students credit for learning gained through professional experience. Prior learning credit may come from workplace training, military training, independent study, or civic activities, and schools award it based on how students' prior learning measures up to degree program standards. Universities determine prior learning credit through prior learning assessments (PLAs), which include exams and portfolio assessments.

Methods of Assessing Prior Learning

Schools use a range of tools to determine prior learning credit, including third-party standardized exams (such as Advanced Placement exams), school-developed challenge exams, and student performances and skill demonstrations. Returning nursing students may have to assemble a portfolio or take some Excelsior's standardized college nursing theory exams to demonstrate prior learning.

Standardized Exams

The most common PLA exams include the College Level Exam Program (CLEP) and the DSST Examination Program. These programs measure student proficiency in a wide range of subjects. A satisfactory score on a standardized exam from CLEP or DSST usually results in prior learning credit.

Challenge Exams

Schools may offer PLA through challenge exams, in which instructors design their own tests structured around the learning goals of a specific course. For example, nursing students might take a pathophysiology challenge exam to prove competency in that subject and gain credit for the corresponding course. Instructors make these exams unique, rather than building on existing exams, to guarantee they adequately address course outcomes.

Individual Assessments

Students may also undergo individual assessments from faculty members. Individual assessments range from student interviews to documentation to performances and presentations. In most cases, institutions assess the students' prior knowledge based on prior learning portfolios, which act as "evidence" of prior knowledge. Schools review the evidence and use it to determine whether or not students receive prior learning credits. Prior learning portfolios do not usually satisfy clinical degree requirements.

Evaluation of Non-College Education and Training

Workplace and volunteer training, military training, and certification and licensure may also qualify students for prior learning credit. Schools may follow the recommendations of the National College Credit Recommendation Service (NCCR) for awarding credit for workplace training and civic service. They may also award credit for military training based on the American Council on Education's (ACE's) recommendations. They also have the option of awarding credit based on students' relationships with approved local institutions.

How PLA Credits Transfer

Prior learning credits may count toward elective, general education, or major requirements, or they may simply waive curriculum requirements based on PLA. Students should make sure their prospective school awards credit for prior learning to begin with, and review the school's policies on prior learning credit limits. Students should also note which schools have articulation agreements -- anything that makes credit transfer easier can help alleviate the cost and stress of returning to school.

Paying for School as a Returning Student

Students returning to nursing school have plenty of financial aid options at their fingertips, including scholarships, grants, and loans.

Filling Out the FAFSA as a Nontraditional Student

Additionally, anyone who fits the eligibility requirements may access federal grants, work study programs, and loans through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Nontraditional students should complete the FAFSA to get an idea of how much federal aid they might receive. To qualify for federal aid, students must generally demonstrate financial need, be citizens or eligible non-citizens, provide a social security number (with the exception of some students from the South Pacific), register with the selective service, and enroll in an eligible degree or certificate program. They must also sign an agreement stating they will use federal aid money for educational purposes, are not in default on federal student loans, and do not owe money on a federal student grant.

The FAFSA opens every year on October 1, and closes on June 30. Filling it out sooner rather than later can mean the difference between receiving aid and not, especially since many state financial aid programs draw from limited funds for federal aid. Most financial aid offices require students to fill out the FAFSA every year, since their financial need may change from year to year.

What Information Do I Need to Provide for the FAFSA?

Social Security Number

Applicants must provide a social security number to fill out the FAFSA, which generally excludes undocumented students from receiving federal aid. However, they may access scholarships and state financial aid, and if they do have a social security number, they may fill out the FAFSA.

Driver's License Number

The FAFSA asks applicants to provide a driver's license number to prevent identity theft. Have your license number ready, and keep in mind that your driving record won't affect your eligibility.

Federal Tax Information

FAFSA applicants must report their federal tax information, including their federal tax returns, W-2s, and other records of income. They may use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to transfer their federal tax return information to the FAFSA.

Records of Untaxed Income

Students must submit documentation of any untaxed income, along with their federal tax information. This may include workers compensation, railroad retirement benefits, and disability benefits. However, it excludes student aid, child tax credit, military housing allowance, and many other untaxed amenities.

Information on Assets

FAFSA applicants must report their personal assets, including checking accounts, money in cash, and businesses. The value of these assets can influence their eligibility for aid, just like income can. However, applicants are not required to report certain types of assets, including their car, home equity, and the value of their life insurance.

How to Determine Your Financial Need

When determining their financial need for college, students need to carefully weigh two main factors: their cost of attendance (COA) and their expected family contribution (EFC). When it comes to calculating EFC, dependent students' parents' income, assets, and benefits weigh in heavily. However, independent students without children must only take into account their and their spouse's combined income, assets, and benefits. If an independent student has children, this influences the EFC formula.

To calculate the need-based aid for which you may qualify, subtract the EFC from the COA. Students can also calculate non-need-based aid by subtracting the amount of financial aid received so far from the COA. Need-based forms of federal aid include Pell Grants, supplemental educational opportunity grants, direct subsidized loans, Perkins Loans, and work-study. Non-need-based federal aid forms include direct unsubsidized loans, PLUS Loans, and Teacher Education Access for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grants.

Types of Financial Aid for Returning Students


Scholarships: Scholarships award financial aid based on merit. In most cases, students must meet particular academic standards, among other requirements, in order to qualify for scholarships.

Grants: Grants award money to students based on financial need. Grants often come from federal or state government financial aid funds.

Federal Loans: Federal loans come from the federal government. They differ from private loans in that they feature low, fixed interest rates, plus lenient repayment plans and other benefits.

Private Loans: Private loans come from banks, schools, and state agencies. Private loans usually have variable interest rates, and require students to start making payments while they are still in school.


School Aid: Schools usually offer scholarships and grants to students, though aid requirements vary by institution. Schools may set stipulations for students to maintain the aid they receive, such GPA standards.

Federal Aid: The federal government provides the need-based financial aid in the form of grants to individual students and schools, plus a variety of organizations.

State Financial Aid: State governments provide grants and scholarships to resident students. These forms of aid often come out of limited federal funding, and are competitive.

Privately Funded Scholarships: Privately funded scholarships come from private organizations, such as the Cesar Chavez Foundation. These scholarships often commemorate valued community members or philanthropists, and are intended for students who are members of marginalized groups.

Financial Aid for Graduate Students

Graduate nursing students have many of the same financial aid opportunities as undergraduate students do. For example, commemorating William D. Ford, the federal Direct Loan Program provides low-interest subsidized and unsubsidized loans to students and their parents. These loans come with strict limits. Direct PLUS loans, on the other hand, allow students who need to take out more than the maximum unsubsidized amount to apply for more aid. Federal work study programs help students pay for school through part-time jobs. Pell grants come from the federal government, and do not have to be repaid. This need-based financial award varies in amount yearly.

State and school aid may come in the form of scholarships and grants, and is often sourced from a limited pool of federal funding. A variety of foundations and organizations also offer merit-based scholarships and need-based grants to nursing students. Students may even seek financial aid from their employers, who may offer it as part of a benefits package. The United Parcel Service, for example, offer such benefits to its employees.

Scholarships for Adult and Mid-Career Nursing Students

Indian Health Service Health Professions Scholarship
Who Can Apply: Native American and Alaskan native students enrolled in undergraduate or graduate-level healthcare degrees may apply for this scholarship. Applicants must agree to honor a full-time service commitment upon completion of their clinical work toward their degree.
Amount: Varies

Oncology Nursing Society Master's Scholarship
Who Can Apply: RNs seeking an MSN with an interest in oncology nursing may apply for this scholarship. Applicants must be enrolled at an NLN or CCNE-accredited school.
Amount: $5,000

March of Dimes Dr. Margaret C. Freda Graduate Nursing Scholarship Award
Who Can Apply: This scholarship caters to RNs enrolled in a graduate program, with a focus on maternal nursing. Prospective applicants must be members of at least one of the following organizations: the Association of Women's Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses; the American College of Nurse-Midwives; or the National Association of Neonatal Nurses.
Amount: $5,000

Meland Foundation Nursing Scholarship
Who Can Apply: The Meland Foundation offers scholarships to BSN holders in New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania. Students must be pursuing careers as pediatric nurse practitioners.
Amount: $2,000-$5,000

AAUW Return to Learning Scholarship
Who Can Apply: The Return to Learning Scholarship is for students returning to school after a long interruption in their studies to complete a certificate, BSN, or MSN. Eligible applicants must live in Illinois, in one of the following areas: Lombard, Villa Park, Oakbrook Terrace, Wheaton, Addison, Glendale Heights, or Glen Ellyn. Women are strongly encouraged to apply.
Amount: $1,300

AfterCollege/AACN Scholarship Fund
Who Can Apply: AfterCollege and AACN offer this scholarship with strong preference toward continuing education students interested in careers in nurse education.
Amount: $10,000

Tips for a Successful Return to Nursing School

Students returning to nursing school must overcome the challenges of re-adjusting to academic life and adapting to updates in a rapidly changing field.

Brush Up on Tech Skills: Returning to nursing school in 2018 requires not just anatomy, chemistry, and nursing development skills -- it often calls for computer literacy, as well. You can brush up on tech skills by taking courses in common applications such as the Microsoft Office suite. Some libraries offer such courses for free.

Find Support Network: Finding a support network can help nontraditional learners stay on track. This could entail networking within a physical or virtual classroom, or reaching out to others in the midst of your clinical work. A local support group will make both getting the degree and taking the next step in your career much easier.

Choose a Flexible Program: A flexible program can alleviate the stress of returning to nursing school. You may opt for an online program that runs on an asynchronous format, or choose a school with a more lenient credit transfer system.