Prioritizing RN Student Loan Forgiveness

By John Welsh, RN, Chair, MNA Governmental Affairs Commission

Getting help to nurses who have student debt remains a priority for MNA during the 2024 legislative session.

Graduation cap and Student loan forgiveness on page.

Last year, MNA nurses and staff were able to secure $10 million for loan forgiveness for hospital nurses, and we hope to double that amount during the current session, which will end by May 20.

There are no reliable statewide statistics on the debt held by nurses in Minnesota, but we know it is significant. When the state asked nurses in previous loan forgiveness programs how much debt they had, the average was $40,000. I work on a med-surg floor with a lot of nurses new to the profession. That number seems about right from what I hear from co-workers.

Ten million dollars, or even $30 million, will not cover the student debt Minnesota nurses have—but it will help. Moving forward this year, we hope to make improvements on last year’s loan forgiveness program.

To be honest, MNA was disappointed how last year’s program was implemented. Ten months after the Nurse and Patient Safety Act was signed into law, no funding has reached any of the 1,700 nurses who applied.

The Minnesota Department of Health has the responsibility of turning the law into reality with a program that is well run and free of fraud and abuse. Not an easy task, to be sure. However, some aspects of the program they developed need significant adjustments. For example, the application process included an essay to select recipients when the number of applicants exceeded available funding. Another example is the requirement for a letter of reference from a direct supervisor or someone who trained you but is not a co-worker. The advantage of this application process is that it allows a process for a smaller group of grant winners and so they could receive more money: $6,000 for one year and $12,000 for two years.

MNA believes this process to be too burdensome. Why involve management? Why require an essay? Is that fair to working parents or other nurses with exceptionally busy off times? Would it be intimidating to nurses who aren’t native English speakers? How does MDH account for implicit bias in the review process that too often screens out people who are already marginalized and oppressed in our society?

On the Facebook page for my hospital’s union nurses’ reactions to the requirements were, justifiably so, critical. One commenter called the requirements a joke. Another said, “That’s BS. Who the hell has time to jump through flaming hoops??”

This year MNA hopes to change the process of awarding grants. Our proposed language for the student loan forgiveness program is more explicit than last year. Instead of a letter of reference from your boss, the bill proposes a simple employment verification letter. And if the number of applicants exceeds the available funding, a lottery will determine who receives the grants, instead of requiring essays and other burdensome requirements.

Another change from last year is adding a requirement that those receiving loan forgiveness must have been working in hospitals for at least three years. The goal being to make sure this is used as a nurse retention tool.

This type of student loan forgiveness program is a short-term fix. It doesn’t change the messed-up system of higher education funding in our country. But coming off COVID, the ongoing staffing crisis, and the flight of nurses away from hospitals, it seemed a way to get some relief to nurses who need it. That’s why it was included in last year’s Keeping Nurses at the Bedside Act.

In the future, however, MNA nurses and staff are exploring if there are other ways to help nurses stay at the bedside – especially those with many years of experience. Earlier this year we had an informal discussion with state Senator Erin Murphy, RN, about nursing sabbaticals.

Sabbaticals are a time of leave from a job for self-exploration and rejuvenation. While more common in the academic world, wouldn’t nurses benefit from such a program? We think so. But the practicalities of the length of the break or the funding still need to be studied. If you have a strong opinion on the subject, feel free to email me at the address below. And stay tuned to our progress at the legislature this year as we pursue our Healing Greed agenda to improve the lives of nurses, our patients, and our communities.

John Welsh, RN is a med-surg nurse at Unity Hospital in Fridley. He is chair of MNA’s Governmental Affairs Commission. He can be reached at

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