Communities in many areas of the U.S. struggle to provide their residents with access to the health care they require. Nurses with advanced degrees are vital to fill current and future gaps in health care coverage. Just when the need for highly qualified nurses is greatest, however, many nurses and nursing students face financial barriers that can prevent them from earning the postgraduate degrees necessary to qualify for these positions.
The inability of former students to pay off their nursing school debt exacerbates the critical shortage of nurses with advanced degrees. In response to these challenges, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) announced in October 2018 that it will make an additional $293 million in education assistance available to primary health care clinicians and students through six of its programs, including the National Health Services Corps (NHSC) Loan Repayment Program, NURSE Corps Loan Repayment Program, and Faculty Loan Repayment Program.
Here’s how to leverage HRSA loan forgiveness programs that can help put advanced nursing degrees within financial reach.
How the HRSA Helps Nurses and Other Health Care Providers
The NHSC and NURSE Corps programs offer scholarships and loan repayment to health care professionals in exchange for their commitment to work in primary care in urban, rural, and tribal areas whose residents lack access to the medical care they need. The NHSC and NURSE Corps programs currently assist more than 12,500 clinicians, who treat about 13 million patients. An additional 1,725 primary care students currently in school or residency will join the two programs upon earning their degrees.
In addition to the $47.1 million allotted to the NHSC Scholarship Program and the $25.1 million designated for the NURSE Corps Scholarship Program, the HRSA has set aside $19.3 million to fund the NHSC Students to Service Loan Repayment Program. As a result, there will be 162 new awards to medical and dental students who are currently in their final year of study; the students must be willing to choose primary care as a specialty and to work in a location where residents lack access to health services.
The HRSA provides assistance to nurses, nursing students, and other health care providers to persuade people considering a career as a clinician to pursue family medicine and primary care, the two medical specialties with the most severe shortage of providers. In addition, the NHSC, NURSE Corps, and other HRSA scholarship and repayment programs address the substance-abuse epidemic by supporting the provision of medication-assisted treatment and other behavioral health care services.
Take Advantage of the HRSA’s Many Loan Forgiveness Programs
There is growing interest in leveraging HRSA loan forgiveness programs to earn a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) or other advanced nursing degree. Today’s graduates leave college with an average student loan debt of $32,172, according to Forbes. The Brookings Institution estimates that by 2023, 40 percent of people with student debt will fall behind on their payments. The default rate on student loans doubled between 2003 and 2011.
In response to the financial difficulties that recent graduates are experiencing, schools, employers, and government agencies are making more of an effort to promote loan forgiveness programs. Among the many assistance programs for nursing students and faculty under the HRSA’s umbrella are three designed specifically to help people repay their student loans. Each one targets a particular population of health care professionals and a specific area in dire need of improved health care access.
To qualify for the NHSC Loan Repayment Program, applicants must be a U.S. citizen or U.S. national, and they must be a provider, or be eligible to serve as a provider, for Medicare, Medicaid, or the Children’s Health Insurance Program. Applicants must also be trained and licensed to practice in an NHSC-eligible primary care medical, dental, or mental/behavioral discipline in the state in which they intend to work. Finally, health professionals must have qualified student loan debt for the education that resulted in their degrees.
The NURSE Corps Loan Repayment Program pays as much as 85 percent of the unpaid nursing education debt for licensed registered nurses, nurse practitioners and other advanced-practice RNs, and nurse faculty members. Eligibility for the program requires that recipients receive their nursing education from an accredited school of nursing in the United States. Program beneficiaries must also work full time in an eligible Critical Shortage Facility in an area of high need for RNs and advanced practice nurses or in an accredited school of nursing for nurse faculty.
The Faculty Loan Repayment Program helps people interested in pursuing a career as a nurse educator on the faculty of a health professions school. Faculty members who qualify for the program are eligible to receive as much as $40,000 in loan payment assistance, as well as payments to offset taxes. Applicants must be from a disadvantaged background, as determined by environmental and economic characteristics. In addition, they must have earned an eligible health professions degree or certificate, and they must have an offer of employment from an approved health professions school as a faculty member for a period of at least two years.
Leverage HRSA Programs to Earn a Doctor of Nursing Practice
While the nursing shortage affects all areas of the profession to some extent, the need is especially acute for health care professionals holding a Doctor of Nursing Practice. A recent Health Care Cost Institute report states that patient visits to nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and other non-physician health care professionals increased by 129 percent between 2012 and 2016.
The DNP is quickly becoming the gold standard for leaders in the nursing profession: it is a practice-focused, terminal degree that differs from a research-focused PhD in nursing by emphasizing the application of evidence-based clinical practice. Since 2004, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) has supported increasing the requirement for advanced practice nurses from a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) to a DNP. In May of this year, the National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties (NONPF) announced that all entry-level nurse practitioner positions will require a DNP by 2025.
For nursing students and nurses currently practicing who want to advance into leadership roles in their profession, the challenges can appear daunting. However, our society’s acute need for health care professionals holding advanced degrees is reaching crisis levels. By taking advantage of the loan repayment programs offered by the HRSA, DNP candidates can begin to hurdle one big obstacle: stifling student debt.
Place yourself on the cutting edge of nursing practice by earning an online DNP from Regis College. Speak with an enrollment advisor today about how Regis College’s online MSN to DNP program can help prepare you for your future in nursing.