October 23, 2020 · 15 min read
The Top States for Nurses to Work
From salaries and cost of living to educational resources and job prospects, we’ve ranked the 50 states for nursing professionals.
Whether working in the ER, in a family practice clinic, or anywhere in between, registered nurses are in demand—everywhere. In fact, nurses comprise the largest portion of the healthcare workforce, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing: There are more than 3.8 million registered nurses (RNs) nationwide, and they make up one of the largest segments of the U.S. workforce.
All of that means you can be choosy as you’re deciding where to live and work as a nurse. The employment options for nursing are good in all 50 states, but factor in average salaries, cost of living, the flexibility to work across state lines and other information, and some states come out clearly on top.
We’ve ranked all 50 states based on three main considerations:
In each state’s profile, we included the average salary to highlight the cost of living difference, as well as some other helpful data. Combined, these factors fill in a picture of:
Higher Education May Take You Further, Wherever You Live
Access to education is increasingly important because your options for employment, regardless of where you live, could get even better if you are a registered nurse prepared with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree or higher.
“Employers are looking for highly skilled nurses able to translate the latest scientific evidence into practice,” Deborah Trautman, president and CEO of the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, says about the marketability of earning a bachelor’s degree, especially if you’re looking to make a jump across state lines. “They are also looking for nurses to lead and contribute to team-based care as interprofessional practice takes hold in many settings.”
“All of these new demands underscore the need for a well-educated nursing workforce able to meet contemporary practice expectations,” says Trautman. “Research shows that more highly educated RNs are linked to lower patient mortality rates, fewer medication errors, and other positive care outcomes.”
Growth and Opportunity Across the Country
In addition to representing a big part of the workforce, the nursing profession isn’t slowing down any time soon, either. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects 7.2% growth in this career through 2029. Thanks to increased demand for healthcare services from a large baby boomer population, more demand for preventive care, and an increase in chronic conditions, coupled with ongoing nursing shortages that existed even before the pandemic, the need for nurses is bigger than ever.
Nurse Licensing is state specific, but you can currently work across state lines with the same license in 34 states.
The rewards for working as a registered nurse are strong—and some incentives are getting stronger. The national average salary for registered nurses is $77,460 and higher for those working in medical and surgical hospitals ($79,460) and outpatient care centers ($84,720), according to the BLS. In addition to a shortage of nurses with baccalaureate degrees, demand for nurses with master’s degrees also outpaces supply.
And while licensing is state-specific, you’ll be able to work across state lines in 34 states that are part of the Enhanced Nursing Licensure Compact.
No matter where in the United States you’re pursuing your nursing degree or looking to land a job—whether you want to stay close to home or embark on a new adventure as a travel nurse—use this guide to help narrow down your options.
State of Demand: Top Five Places that Need Nurses the Most
Where most states expect about a 2.5% change in demand for registered nurses, these five regions have the highest potential demand through 2021, according to Projections Central. And that means more opportunities could exist here for the next generation of professionals.
Anticipated Change in Demand for Nurses
Glossary of terms
(see Methodology for more information)
AACN: American Association of Colleges of Nursing, the national association for nursing academics, which works to establish and implement quality standards for nursing education and promote public support for nursing education, research and practice.
COL: Cost of living
Location quotient: The ratio of the concentration of nurses in an area compared to the national average; above one means a higher concentration of nurses than average, and below one means a lower concentration than average.
Pending legislation: States that are in the process of entering the Enhanced Nursing Licensure Compact.
Notes: Louisiana’s highest salary is centered on the well-known New Orleans area but hits below the national average; however, the concentration of nurses is above average.
Notes: The least populous state in the country is filled with natural beauty—but a peak salary at around the national average, a lower-than-average location quotient, one AACN school, and sluggish demand could make it less appealing for new grads.
Average RN Salary
Notes: One of two states that breaks $100K for average salary, the high cost of living in this island paradise cuts that number down to size. Demand trends are upward but concentration of nurses is a little below average.
Notes: Memphis has the highest average salary in this Southern state; the metropolitan area sprawls across three states: Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas.
Notes: The highest mean salary, per BLS, is actually in Memphis, which shares borders with Arkansas and Mississippi; but two hours west, the Little Rock-North Little Rock-Conway metropolitan area has a comparable salary that’s just a little lower, at $66,300.
Notes: The Sunflower State’s largest metro area, Kansas City, straddles Kansas and Missouri and has the highest salary, but Topeka, the state’s capital to the west, isn’t too far behind at $66,270. A higher-than-average location quotient and healthy demand makes it a solid option.
Notes: The highest mean salary here is in Coeur d’Alene, an outdoorsy, scenic panhandle city—and it’s close to the large, neighboring Washington city of Spokane.
Notes: It’s hard to beat the dense metro New York-Newark-Jersey City, which has the top salary spot; but farther south, resort hub Atlantic City-Hammonton holds its own at second place for this state, with an above-average salary at $82,460, plus healthy demand statewide.
Notes: The highest mean salary, centered on the New York-Newark-Jersey City metro area, bumps the state average way up. The lowest mean salary is a close call between Ithaca, at $63, 520, just a touch above the Southwest New York nonmetropolitan area.
Notes: The highest mean salary centers on the densest economic engine in this Pacific Northwest state, the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue region. There’s a robust demand for registered nurses here, and additional opportunity in smaller metropolitan regions as well, including Spokane on the agricultural and arid east side of the state, and in and around the state capital, Olympia.
Notes: In contrast to its similarly sized scenic and outdoor-activity oriented neighbor to the north, Wyoming, this more densely populated state makes the top 10 list of states for nurses, with a higher-than-average increase in demand, 14 colleges for continuing education, and a just slightly above-average cost of living.
Notes: The highest average salary here is in the home of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Cross-state licensing is pending legislation, while the concentration of nursing jobs across the state and the demand are about average.
Notes: Prescott, located in central Arizona a couple of hours north of the state’s capital, just edges out the Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale metropolitan area in salary ($79,370 vs. $79,200). But ultimately the highest salary goes to the state’s nonmetropolitan area, the only state on our list where that is the case.
Notes: Cross-state licensing is pending here, so keep an eye on it if you are keeping your travel options open. Demand here is above average, and the concentration of nurses is also above average.
Average RN Salary
Notes: This large state has a salary swing that reflects the diversity of landscape and living throughout. Sleepy college town Chico in the north has dramatically different needs than Silicon Valley’s sprawling San Jose area.
Notes: Our number one state just beats out its neighbor to the west in a few areas: Cost-of-living takes a smaller chunk of change from the mean salary here, while it logs a slightly higher percentage demand trend through 2021.
Methodology and Sources
To determine the best states for nurses to work and live in, we ranked all 50 states on three main considerations: salary adjusted for cost of living, job opportunity, and change in demand for nurses. We then sorted by each of our three factors, to see how states were distributed in each category—for example, how many states had average (mean) salaries of $40,000 or above, how many had a 2% change in job demand, etc. Based on that, we assigned points to number ranges for each.
We added each state’s points together, and then sorted based on their totals. Naturally, there were ties (except for one state that earned 10 points!). To break those ties, within each grouping, we sorted further by salary, weighing states with higher mean salaries more heavily.
Salary adjusted for cost of living
This number comes from the average cost of living for a single adult in the U.S. ($33,480, the total cost of food, shelter, transportation, and utilities—calculated from a 2018 Consumer Expenditure Survey from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) multiplied by the cost of living (COL) index in each state, which is then subtracted from the average annual salary of a registered nurse in each state, according to 2019 figures from the BLS. The resulting figure demonstrates remaining disposable income.
$50,000–$60,000 or higher = 4 points
$40,000 = 3 points
$30,000 = 2 points
$20,000 = 1 point
This number is the ratio of the concentration of nurses in an area to the national average, from the BLS. It is a measurement of job opportunity available in a state. A value of one is average; above that means a higher concentration of nurses than average, and below that means a lower concentration than average.
1.1–1.5 = 4 points
1–1.09 = 3 points
0.6–1 = 2 points
Change in demand for nurses
This number, sourced from State Short Term Occupational Projections (2019–2021) from Projections Central, demonstrates the need for nursing in an area by comparing the number of nurses employed in a state in 2019 to projected numbers through 2021.
5%–6.9% = 4 points
3%–4.9% = 3 points
0%–2.9% = 2 points
We added further details to each state’s profile, including the average salary to illustrate the cost-of-living difference, as well as areas in each state with the highest and lowest mean salaries (note: the BLS often groups regions and states with some figures, especially if a metropolitan area borders multiple states). We also highlight employment projections and added other insights where applicable.
In addition, we include the number of schools available where you can pursue additional training, but did not use it to rank. Access to ongoing education—based on the number of colleges in each state that offer nursing training, per the American Association of Colleges of Nursing—is included because continuing learning is an integral part of maintaining a nursing career. Note: the figure does not include non-member colleges or colleges with associate degree programs.
How Nursing Licensure Varies by State
If you’re considering a move out of state to start your career as a registered nurse, it’s important to keep licensure in mind. Nursing licensure is very state specific, so take a look at the credentials needed to get a job in the state you are aiming for by checking its board of nursing; the National Council of State Boards of Nursing has a drop-down menu linking to each state’s board, which has licensing information and industry news.
In addition, 34 states are part of the Enhanced Nursing Licensure Compact. If you have a license in one of these states as your primary residence, you can practice with your license across participating state lines (another six states are in the process of enacting legislation to join the compact). This is an especially good option for those who want to consider travel nursing or similarly mobile specialties.
State-Specific Financial Aid
Financial aid in the form of grants, scholarships, or loans vary greatly by school—and by state. While some states offer residents enticing incentives to start your education, there are other place-bound opportunities that can help pay for current schooling or help pay off loans once you’re out in the workforce. (Don’t forget to fill out the FAFSA to receive any financial aid!)
Options vary by state and school, but some states offer loan forgiveness for agreeing to work in specific areas or facilities in need for a couple of years. Because of this requirement, you will want to consider this option carefully if you’re looking to move out of state.
Grants and Scholarships
There are many scholarships available for nursing students, and many state-specific scholarships have emerged to address nursing shortages in certain areas. Your school’s financial and merit aid office will be one of the best sources of information for finding such scholarships in your area.
You can also look into options that reward you for pursuing certain specialties in a specific state. For example, in Washington, the Washington State Opportunity Baccalaureate Scholarship provides up to $22,500 in financial aid, along with career-launching support services, to students pursuing high-demand STEM and healthcare majors.
With professional insight from:
Deborah Trautman, PhD, RN, FAAN
President and Chief Executive Officer of the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN)