How to Manage The Costs of a DNP Program

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A graduate student calculates her expenses.

Earning a graduate degree is a highly effective way to advance your career. Doing so may open new job opportunities to you or help you to command a higher salary.

In the field of nursing, there is no higher degree for clinically focused nurses than the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). As opposed to the Nursing Ph.D., which is sought by research-focused nurses, a DNP can give you extensive skills and knowledge to improve the delivery and quality of care.

The doctorate can help you seek influential nursing jobs and salaries. According to PayScale, nurses with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing earned an average annual salary of $84,378 in 2020; DNP-prepared nurses had an average annual salary near $102,000.

Are you looking to take your career to the next level with a doctorate? This could be the best time to take DNP courses online — so here are some tips for managing the costs of attending a DNP program.

1. Create or Update Your Budget

The first place you should start is your budget. Pursuing a graduate education is an investment in yourself that will ideally pay off later in life. In the near term, however, it means upfront education expenses like tuition, fees, class materials, textbooks and other related costs.

To ensure that your DNP education doesn’t break the bank, you need a budget so you can financially plan for yourself or your family.

Don’t currently have a budget? It’s easy to create one:

  1. Total up the income your household earns in a normal month (including income from jobs as well as other benefits).
  2. Add together the expenses you normally incur in a month, such as mortgage payments or rent, utilities, car loan payments, groceries, insurance premiums and credit card debt, and subtract this from your total income.
  3. Don’t forget to subtract discretionary expenses, like takeout, entertainment, streaming subscriptions and other spending.
  4. At the end, you’ll either be in the red (meaning you’re spending beyond your means) or have a surplus you can use for savings.

Having this baseline is crucial to planning for the costs of a DNP education. In the process of making a budget, you may find areas where you can cut back and save more for enrolling in a DNP program.

If you already have a budget, take some time to update it and try to model out some different scenarios. For example, make up two different budgets: one in which you study full time and another for if you study part time. Many DNP students are working professionals with busy home lives, so part-time studies are often optimal. If you’ve never considered the cost difference of studying full time, however, you could make a budget to visualize the two paths better. The exercise in budgeting can be useful and help you manage your costs in an efficient and effective way.

A graduate student participates in classes online.2. Compare the Costs of Online Versus On-Campus Programs

Online education is a major trend in America, and there are many reasons to study online. For example, if you enroll in the online Bradley DNP program, the quality of the coursework and faculty is the same as an on-campus alternative, and your diploma won’t look any different. Most importantly, you’ll have an opportunity to save some money.

Consider the issue of commuting. Not only does a long commute cost in terms of gasoline or public transportation, but also time spent in traffic or on the road. When you remove commuting from the equation, you may find you can recover costs and time that could otherwise be put toward your studies.

Before you choose a school, do some research and collect various cost data for other target programs. You can plug these values into your budget to compare the costs of the various programs, particularly the differences between online and on-campus options. Doing this will help you choose the ideal fit, the most competitive cost and the best time to take DNP courses.

3. Consider Opening a 529 Account

If you’re saving up to earn a DNP, great. However, if you’re just putting your hard-earned dollars in a regular savings account, you may be missing out on a chance to do more with your money.

A traditional savings account offers you interest accrual, but when rates are low your money might be better off in a 529 account. This is a tax-advantaged savings account that can be used for qualified educational expenses.

Haven’t heard of a 529 account before? You wouldn’t be alone. A 2019 survey from investment company Edward Jones found that 67% of Americans were not familiar with a 529 account.

Basically, you make contributions to the 529 account with pretax dollars, which allows you to benefit from tax-deferred growth and tax-free withdrawals for qualified expenses. These include costs like:

  • Tuition
  • Fees
  • Textbooks and supplies
  • Personal technology necessary to complete your studies

Many financial institutions offer 529 plans, including banks and credit unions. Also, the wide majority of states have 529 plans. Even if you don’t live in one that does, you might still be able to open an account. Many states allow residents of other states to participate in their 529 programs, so just be sure to read about all the eligibility requirements when deciding whether to open a 529 savings account.

4. Apply for Scholarships

It takes time and effort to apply for scholarships. However, the upside could be massive: Money awarded in most cases does not need to be repaid. So, before you start considering student loans, you should make sure to exhaust all avenues of funding through scholarships.

Fortunately, all sorts of scholarships exist for graduate students, with many nursing-specific opportunities available. Such awards are also offered by a wide range of public and private organizations, including:

  • Nursing professional organizations
  • Nonprofits and memorial foundations
  • Hospitals and regional health systems
  • Universities and colleges of nursing
  • Fraternities and sororities
  • Municipalities
  • Private businesses in health care

Some scholarships may be merit-based, meaning they are awarded based on measures like grade point average, standardized test scores and other metrics. Other scholarships are designed specifically for certain types of students, including:

  • Transfer students
  • International students
  • In-state students
  • Minority students
  • Students who identify as LGBTQ

Nursing-specific scholarships for graduate students include options from:

It’s important to read the terms of the scholarship. This fine print will dictate how the money will be disbursed and if there are certain conditions you need to meet to continue to receive the funds.

There is no limit to the amount of money you can accumulate through scholarships. However, that total will ultimately impact the level of financial aid for which you may be eligible.

5. Apply for Financial Aid

Financial aid can come from several sources, including the federal government, state governments and your school of choice.

To begin, fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This is the form used to apply for all federal aid when attending graduate school, so pay attention to the deadlines for filing. Keep in mind, you can send your FAFSA to more than one school. Once you get all the offers for financial aid back, you can decide which one represents your best choice.

Next, research the financial aid available from your state. For example, the Illinois Nursing Workforce Center has a website full of resources and information on state-based financial aid.

Finally, look at what options your school has. Many colleges of nursing operate tuition assistance or reimbursement programs for graduate students. Look at the eligibility criteria for any available option and determine if you can benefit from applying.

6. Consider Graduate Student Loans

Often, students need to take out loans to finance some portion of their DNP education. There are two main sources of loans: the federal government and private lenders.

In terms of government loans, you can choose from:

  • Direct Unsubsidized Loans: When attending a graduate nursing program, you can take out up to $20,500 in direct unsubsidized loans annually. In total, you can take out no more than $73,000 over the course of your studies. You pay interest for the time when you’re in graduate school, whereas the government pays during this time for subsidized loans — which aren’t available to graduate students.
  • Direct PLUS Graduate Loans: These loans can be used to cover any gaps in financial aid and remaining education-related costs. The maximum you can receive is the cost of attendance (determined by the school) minus any other financial aid you already secured. One thing to note about PLUS graduate loans is you may need to undergo a credit check to be considered.

Private lenders of graduate student loans typically include banks and credit unions. The terms and amount limits of each loan will vary from lender to lender. Usually, but not always, private loans feature higher interest rates than government options. The exception is certain adjustable-rate loans that trend lower than the fixed rates of government loans. However, such loans feature fewer protections and forgiveness mechanisms than government loans.

If you do plan to take out loans, have a plan for repayment in place well before you graduate. Make sure you know the interest rate of each loan and the repayment terms so you avoid falling behind or missing a payment.

7. Seek Loan Forgiveness

Skilled nurses are crucial to the health care industry and the well-being of the entire public. As such, many programs exist to help mitigate the costs of completing a graduate education through loan forgiveness.

Typically, you’ll be required to meet certain conditions to be eligible for loan forgiveness, such as working in a specific region for a predetermined amount of time or for a particular provider. When incorporated into your financial planning, loan forgiveness can be a powerful tool for empowerment and better management of DNP costs.

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) has a useful list of loan forgiveness opportunities, which includes programs that:

  • Provide forgiveness in exchange for active duty service in the U.S. armed forces
  • Repay loans for American Indian nurses
  • Financially assist nurses who elect to work in underserved areas

Earn Your DNP Online from Bradley

If you’ve done the preliminary research and think now’s the best time to take DNP courses, consider enrolling in the online Doctor of Nursing Practice program from Bradley. You can enter with either a BSN or an MSN. Nurses with a BSN are eligible to enter the DNP – Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP) track which prepares you to provide high-quality care to individuals and families throughout the life continuum. Those with an MSN can specialize their education in the DNP-Leadership track that prepares you to take on advanced positions like nurse executive or director.

If you’re interested, contact an enrollment advisor today to learn more about the program. You can also inquire about financial aid and other guidance for managing the costs of attending an online DNP program.

Recommended reading:

Bradley — Online Doctor of Nursing Practice

What is the average DNP salary?

Choosing Your Career Pathway: DNP vs. Ph.D.

Should I Move from an MSN to DNP?


PayScale — Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) Salary

PayScale — Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) Salary

Edward Jones — The Majority of Americans Lack Significant Understanding of 529 Plans, According to New Edward Jones Study

AACN — Scholarships and Financial Aid