Scholarships, Fellowships, Loans, Oh My!

Can we talk?

When it comes to finding the financial support to pay for a quality education in nursing–whether at the undergraduate or graduate level–nothing works like talking. Potential sources of funding are many and they are often just a conversation away. The nursing school of your dreams might offer generous scholarships—call and ask. A federal, state or local government agency might offer student loans—check their Web site. A community organization or future employer might offer financial aid—enquire by email.

Ask and ye just might receive. Don’t ask and you’ll never know.

“Government funds [available to nursing students] often go unused because nobody looked for them,” says Dodie Sharp, multicultural and health professions advisor at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center in Oklahoma City. She advises minority nursing students to “turn over every stone—state, local, city and federal. In rural areas, for example, where there may be shortages of health professionals, there are organizations that have an interest in funding a future nurse who is willing to work in that area.”

While it’s tempting to dream about receiving a humongous scholarship that would cover your every conceivable educational expense for the next four years, the reality isn’t that simple. For the average nursing student, financial aid is seldom a matter of a single scholarship, grant or loan, but a combination of several forms of aid from several sources, mixed and matched to suit the student’s goals and needs.

Several small scholarships are just as good as one large award when it comes to financing an education. Similarly, a careful blending of financial aid, scholarships, grants and loans can often free a nursing student from having to work a part-time job, and yet still minimize the money that must be paid back post-graduation day.

Above all, educators say, two crucial principles should guide every student seeking financial aid:

1. Don’t accept aid that forces you into a career path that’s not of your liking. A scholarship tied to a later commitment to working on an Indian reservation, or in a hospital for children with cancer, can be wonderful—but only if you have a sincere interest in working in that setting.
2. Choose the school that best meets your career needs, not just your financial needs. “Go to the program you really want to be in, regardless of what you get financially,” says Dr. Pamela Hammond, RN, PhD, FAAN, dean of the School of Nursing at Hampton University in Hampton, Va. “You’ll be happier.”

How Much Is Enough?

Any search for financial aid must begin, of course, with a calculation of how much money you need. Tuition and housing costs are the obvious major expenses, but there is so much more to consider. There are books to be bought and fees to be paid. There is the cost of transportation and, for some students, child care. For your public health courses, you may need a car. For your clinical rotation, you’ll need scrubs and uniforms and shoes. You’ll need a computer and a telephone, and personal equipment such as a stethoscope and blood pressure cuffs. You may need to buy liability insurance. And, oh yes…once in a while you’ll have to eat.

All of these expenses, large and small, are fairly included in any assessment of financial need, but students often underestimate them.
On the other side of this need equation, financial aid experts say, it’s common for students to overestimate their own resources, frequently because they are ashamed to admit just how strapped for money they—and their families—are. They claim to have funds that they simply don’t have. As a result, they end up receiving a financial aid package that is insufficient to meet their needs.

“The best thing you can do is to be very honest about your financial situation,” says May Wykle, RN, PhD, dean of the Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. “Tell your potential funding source, ‘I want to go to school, this is my background,’ and let the university or agency look into it. If they’re asking you to be honest about your need, it is only to help you.”

The university or funding agency will then conduct its own needs assessment, beginning with an estimate—in the case of students who are still dependents—of how much the parents reasonably can be expected to contribute. “A university’s ability to give scholarships and financial aid has a lot to do with the family’s financial situation,” Wykle says.

Where to Look First

Do not roll the dice, do not pass Go, head straight to…the school of your choice.

When it comes to looking for financial aid for a BSN degree program, the best place to start is the nursing school itself. Virtually every college and university offers a combination of scholarships and other forms of financial aid, and many offer scholarships specifically for minority students and/or students from economically or educationally disadvantaged backgrounds. It is not uncommon, for example, for a school to offer a scholarship to a student who is the first generation in his or her family to go to college.

Your school’s financial aid office can also assist you in lining up federally funded scholarships, grants and loans, although students are limited to only one source of federal funding.

Wykle, who is African American, urges students of color to fully explore their options before assuming that they cannot afford to attend a particular school. “We need more minority nurses in four-year programs, but sometimes [nurses] hesitate to approach the university,” she says. “It takes a long time to pay back loans, and sometimes minority students just opt for two-year community college programs so that they can graduate and find a job faster. But it’s important to approach that four-year university first. If you don’t ask them what they have, they can’t do anything for you.”

Ironically, the chronic shortage of four-year degree nurses nationwide has not led to an increase in financial aid sources, says Cornelia Porter, RN, PhD, FAAN, former director of the Ethnic Minority Fellowship Program of the American Nurses Association. “A nursing education is still so expensive and there is still so little money,” she says. “This explains why so many people go for associate degrees in nursing rather than bachelor’s degrees.” But like Wykle, Porter encourages minority students to not give up on their educational dreams. “I’m working with someone now who started by getting an associate degree and today is in a PhD program. She never stopped.”

Where to Look Next

Your school’s financial aid office can be a valuable resource for financing your nursing education—but it’s by no means the only one. While there are many other potential sources of financial aid available, they are frustratingly decentralized and often obscure. States, community groups and health organizations often have small pockets of money set aside for educational assistance, with eligibility linked to highly specific criteria. The trick is to find them.

Undergraduate scholarships and grants, as well as graduate fellowships, are the most desirable forms of aid. Unlike loans, they do not have to be repaid. Grants, as well as many scholarships, may be reserved for students who are committed to a particular field of nursing, who are members of underrepresented groups, who live in certain areas of the country, who demonstrate financial need or are specifically interested in research careers.

Many cultural organizations, community groups and government agencies that serve minorities, such as the Urban League, the United Negro College Fund and the Indian Health Service, offer financial assistance programs for students of color. Tribal scholarships are often available for Native American students, and should be the first place Indian students should look, says Gary Small, project director of the Health Professions Education project of the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board.

As the scholarship listings elsewhere in this issue attest (see page TK), professional associations for nurses are a particularly fertile source of financial assistance. For example, the National Student Nurses’ Association (NSNA), through its foundation, offers a broad range of scholarships, some available only to minority students. In addition, the NSNA Foundation Web site offers a link to the extremely detailed and helpful annual online Student Guide: Financial Aid From the U.S. Department of Education, where you can find information about various types of federal student aid, such as Pell Grants and the Federal Direct Student Loan Program.

Most minority nursing associations, such as the National Black Nurses Association, the National Association of Hispanic Nurses and the National Alaska Native American Indian Nurses Association, offer scholarship opportunities to students who are members of those organizations. Other association-sponsored scholarships are tied to nursing specialties, such as oncology, pediatrics and nurse-midwifery.

The downside of scholarships is that most of them are highly competitive, with large numbers of applicants competing for a limited pool of funds. Like looking for a job, it’s a numbers game—the more scholarships you apply for, the greater your chances of getting one.

How can you tell if you’re a likely candidate to win a scholarship award? “We look at four criteria—academic achievement, financial need, involvement in student nursing organizations and involvement in community health activities,” says Lauren Sperle, executive assistant for the NSNA Foundation. “It’s important that students be involved in their community.”

Unfortunately, says Sharp, there is no one easy route to learning about all available financial aid options, only general guidelines. “Look for a combination of resources,” she advises. “Then take advantage of the Internet and check into grants at institutional, state and federal levels. Then check with private foundations, health care companies and state-level nursing organizations, as well as local hospitals and even chambers of commerce. These types of groups often have funds available and want to make them accessible to students.

“The bottom line,” Sharp concludes, “is to cover all your bases.”

Payback Time

Chances are you know at least one person who graduated from college years ago yet is still trying to pay back his or her student loan. Borrowing money to finance your nursing education can indeed be a scary prospect. Fortunately, thanks to today’s severe nursing shortage, nurses can often receive assistance in paying back their student loans by agreeing to work for certain private or government health care employers for a specified period of time.

The U.S. Public Health Service, for example, offers loan forgiveness programs for nurses who work in medically underserved areas.AmeriCorps will pay off loans for nurses who volunteer to work in certain clinics where the demand for nursing staff is critical. The Veterans Administration, in a program designed to encourage more of its nurses to obtain bachelor’s degrees, will even pay upfront for a nurse’s continuing education. Many private hospitals and health organizations eager to attract nursing talent will do the same—but you have to ask. Don’t hesitate to request a loan payback as part of a financial package with a prospective employer.

One way or another, Wykle stresses, there are ways to get financial aid for a quality education in nursing without incurring a lifetime of debt. The secret, she says, is to “be candid and forthright and not give up just because you don’t have the money.”

Where to Look Online

Nothing beats the Internet when it comes to exploring financial aid opportunities. Most public agencies and private organizations that offer scholarships, grants and loans have Web sites, and several sites are crucial beginning points in any search for funding. Here are four key Web sites for learning about financial aid and applying for it:

FAFSA on the Web
http://www.fafsa.ed.gov/

Operated by the U.S. Department of Education, this is the place to go to complete the FAFSA application—Free Application for Federal Student Aid—that is the first step toward receiving not only federal assistance, but assistance of all kinds. The Department of Education, as well as many states and schools, uses the FAFSA to assess and award scholarships and other aid. Based on the personal financial information you provide on the application, the Department of Education will determine your Expected Family Contribution (EFC)—how much you or your family should reasonably be expected to pay toward your higher education. Schools and other sponsors of scholarships and grants will then use that figure to calculate your financial need, subtracting your EFC from your school’s cost of attendance.

FastWeb
http://www.fastweb.com/

FastWeb and its leading competitor, FinAid, are the two most reliable and popular sites on the Web to find out about scholarships and grants. And, unlike some sites that charge a fee for scholarship searches, they’re both free. On FastWeb, students can create a personalized profile that can be matched against the service’s database of more than 600,000 scholarships. FastWeb also notifies students when new scholarships are added and when application deadlines are approaching.

FinAid
http://www.finaid.org/

Established in 1994 by Mark Kantrowitz, who claims he funded all his own schooling without spending a cent of his parents’ money, this Web site can help you calculate everything from how much your education might cost to how much colleges will expect you to pay. FinAid, as well as FastWeb, can provide complete letters of application to schools—all you do is sign and mail them. Kantrowitz also offers a “Loan Analyzer,” which compares loans by reducing their terms to a single figure—the “K-Factor.” The lower the K-Factor, the better the loan. Plus, FinAid offers multiple hyperlinks to other top student financial aid web sites.

CollegeFunds.Net
http://www.collegefunds.net/

This Web site offers scholarship and financial aid information to students around the world, for a price–$39.95 per search. “Although there are free scholarship searches on the Web,” the company states, clearly referring to FastWeb and FinAid, “students and parents are finding a need to have a professional search done to produce the results they are looking for.” Is it worth it? You be the judge. One advantage CollegeFunds.Net does have over the free sites is that the student information it collects from site visitors is not sold to marketing firms.

Editor’s Note: Don’t forget Minority Nurse’s own online scholarship search source—the “Financial Aid” section of www.MinorityNurse.com. It’s one of the Web’s largest listings of scholarship opportunities exclusively for nursing students; it’s updated regularly; it includes many nursing scholarships available only to minority students; and best of all, it’s free!