Back-to-School Guide for Adult Nursing Students

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Written and reported by:

Denice Rackley

Contributing Writer

nursing students raise hands in class
nursing students raise hands in class

Pursuing her dream of a nursing career, Lori Beal, RN, of Burlington, Kentucky, began nursing school later in life.

“I have always wanted to be a nurse but going back to school to begin a career at 48 was rather daunting,” Beal said. “Juggling school with family responsibilities was difficult, but it was worth it.”

There are many options enabling adults to fit school around their work and home commitments since programs are now available online, in person, during the evenings, as hybrid models, and even accelerated or self-paced programs.

“Being realistic about your available time and totally committed to obtaining a nursing degree are key, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend pursuing a degree as an adult,” Beal said.

Why go back to school?

Like many adults, Beal found that life interrupted her plans during her early twenties. Married to a military pilot, she was never in one place very long. Children soon entered the picture and became the priority.

“Once my girls were starting their own careers and lives, it was time to go after my dream,” Beal said.

Adult learners often pursue higher education to change career, increase opportunities in a current career, and increase their earning potential. Adult students, defined as learners over 25 years of age, bring varied life skills and experiences to the classroom helping them succeed. Understanding how to communicate, experience juggling multiple tasks, having critical thinking skills, and knowing how to handle stress all can be put to use.

Adult learners often pursue higher education to change career, increase opportunities in a current career, and increase their earning potential.

Beal found returning to school as an adult had advantages. With age comes a certain amount of self awareness, and knowing yourself and what you want makes committing to classroom work easier. Understanding the value of a dollar and how much your time is worth encourages you to make the most of an opportunity for a new career, Beal said.

Gone are the days when most of students on campus were in their 20s. Adult learners comprise about 40% of the students in U.S. higher education. The National Center for Education states there are around 8 million adults enrolled in college.

How to Go Back to School as an Adult Nursing Student

There are numerous options for nursing careers and just as many options for obtaining degree. Deciding what particular part of nursing that is most interesting to you will help you choose a program that fits your life and goals.

Which degree is right for you?

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Your desired nursing occupation (e.g. CNA, RN, APRN, etc.) will determine the type and level of education required. For instance, a CNA needs only a state approved certificate or diploma, which takes between four and twelve months to earn, to begin working, whereas Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRN) require either a master’s (MSN) or doctoral degree (DNP), which takes between six and eight years to earn.

Additionally, it’s important to consider the salaries typical of differing levels of nursing education as they can vary widely. A CNA earns a median annual salary of $35,760 while Nurse Practitioners (who are APRNs) earn median annual salaries of $121,610, according the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS).

You should make certain that the salary of your desired occupation aligns with your financial needs and expectations.

Find the right nursing program.

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There are accelerated programs, self paced programs that fit around your schedule, evening or weekend courses, and online programs.

“Online options become greater if you already have an RN degree,” said Oliver Bryant, counselor at Grand Canyon University. “Our ADN to BSN program can be completed online in 16 months since those students have successfully completed the hands-on learning of laboratories and clinicals during their associate degree. The program is rigorous, so I always advise students to take time away from work to be able to concentrate fully on the program.”

If you aim to become a Registered Nurse (RN), options are more limited due to the laboratory and clinical portion of programs required to earn your license.

“Completing the hands-on portion at a healthcare facility might be an option. However, the majority of programs are set up so everything is done in house since that institution is responsible for your learning and awarding the degree,” Bryant said.

If you’ve already completed college-level courses at an accredited institution, you might be able to transfer those credits to your nursing program. Doing so can reduce the overall cost of completing the degree and shorten the duration of your education as you may be able to apply those credits to your nursing program’s prerequisites.

“We don’t require testing to sign up for nursing programs, but transcripts showing previous classes may apply to the degree, shortening the time needed and cost of the program,” Bryant said.

Ensure you meet the prerequisites for admission.

woman researching online in library

Admission requirements vary by program and school. Certificate-based nursing professions, like Certified Nursing Assistants (CNA) and Licensed Practical Nurses (LPN), have fewer requirements than those professions that require a degree.

Most RN programs have an application process that involves writing an essay, submitting ACT or SAT scores if you haven’t been to college, basic knowledge of math and science, academic or professional recommendations, and more. If you’ve already earned your associate or bachelor’s degree or credits toward a degree, college transcripts are required rather than test scores.

Each individual school’s admission process is unique so you should check with the school’s office of admissions for more detail.

Find scholarships and research financial aid.

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The next step after deciding which nursing degree you are interested in and finding a program that works best for you is to investigate financial options.
You should take the time to explore scholarships, grants, and whether your employer reimburses employees for their tuition (or a portion of it). The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a great place to start for all students since it determines the government assistance for which you qualify.

Scholarships are generally awarded based on achievement or accomplishment and their size ranges from hundreds of dollars to “full-ride” scholarships that cover the entirety of your expenses. Most scholarships are designed with details restricting eligibility to certain individuals, cultural identities, medical specialties and many other requirements. However, there are many nursing student scholarships available making it worth the time needed to sort through the eligibility requirements. 

Traditional government loans for education can be a good option to bridge the gap between your financial aid and the money you can contribute on your own. Federal student loans are repaid after you leave school, have lower interest rates than private lenders, and credit history isn’t needed for the application.

Why now is a great time to pursue a career in nursing

According to the BLS, there are 194,500 opening for RNs each year and the profession will grow 5.6% thorugh 2031. With high demand and above-average pay for some nursing professions, now might be a great time to pursue your career in nursing. While the job and getting the education necessary to start it can be stressful, the rewards can outweigh the stress.

“Working in private practice enables flexibility in my schedule as well a great work environment. I get to educate patients and make a difference in the lives of others,” Beal said. “You need the support of family and friends to be successful while you are in school. There were many weeks the laundry didn’t get done and the refrigerator was empty. Without a supportive husband, graduation in 36 weeks wouldn’t have been possible.”

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With professional insight from:

Lori Beal, RN

Pediatric Nurse

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Oliver Bryant

Counselor at Grand Canyon University

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