Free Nursing School: University of Rochester Program Trains More Nurses, Addresses Nursing Shortage

A unique program in upstate New York offers free nursing degrees in just 12 months.
portrait of Matthew Arrojas
Matthew Arrojas
Read Full Bio


Matthew Arrojas is a news reporter at BestColleges covering higher education issues and policy. He previously worked as the hospitality and tourism news reporter at the South Florida Business Journal. He also covered higher education policy issues as...
Published on July 13, 2023
Edited by
portrait of Darlene Earnest
Darlene Earnest
Read Full Bio

Editor & Writer

Darlene Earnest is a copy editor for BestColleges. She has had an extensive editing career at several news organizations, including The Virginian-Pilot and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She also has completed programs for editors offered by the D...
Learn more about our editorial process
Image Credit: kickstand / iStock / Getty Images Plus
  • The UR Nursing Scholars Program's first cohort will begin classes in August.
  • Students will earn a bachelor's degree in nursing in just one year.
  • The tuition-free nature of the program means students can devote their focus to their studies.
  • University officials hope the program will address the community hospitals' nursing shortage.

At a time when the healthcare system needs nurses more than ever, and with student debt on the rise across the board, one university is attacking both problems by removing financial barriers to nursing school for a select group of qualified students.

The University of Rochester (UR) is launching its new UR Nursing Scholars Program this August. The 12-month program offers a tuition-free bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degree program to students who already hold a bachelor's degree and agree to work at a local hospital as a nurse for at least three years after receiving their BSN.

It's the only accelerated, tuition-free nursing program in the country, officials noted.

Lisa Kitko, dean of the UR School of Nursing, told BestColleges that the program is the school's solution to a worsening nursing shortage and addresses a need for new enrollments.

The quick turnaround time to a degree — six months faster than typical accelerated programs — and lack of tuition help open the door to students who are interested in nursing but have been hesitant to commit time to a new degree because of the cost of school, particularly without the guarantee of a job post-graduation.

The UR Nursing Scholars Program addresses all concerns.

"We knew that what we did had to be innovative," Kitko said, "and it had to be bold."

Jillian Kelly, who will be a part of the UR Nursing Scholars Program's first cohort, said it's the ideal program for someone like her. Hesitant to restart her bachelor's journey from scratch, Kelly told BestColleges she was worried she would have to balance her studies with work commitments if she went back to get a nursing degree and her grades may suffer as a result.

Thanks to the tuition-free nature of the program, that won't be an issue.

"I can focus 100% in school and not have to worry about how I'm going to pay for everything," Kelly said. "I can put my best foot forward in school."

Details of the UR Nursing Scholars Program

The UR Nursing Scholars Program requires enrollees to already have a bachelor's degree in something other than nursing.

All program participants will be part of the accelerated bachelor's in nursing program. This program skips the general education courses that enrollees would have completed through their first bachelor's degree. Instead, the program focuses solely on nursing-related classes to prepare students for work in hospitals and other healthcare facilities.

The accelerated program requires students to complete 49 nursing credits and more than 700 clinical hours in medical-surgical nursing, obstetrics, pediatrics, and psychiatry at the UR Medical Center.

Students then sit for the NCLEX-RN exam to obtain a registered nurse (RN) license.

Kitko said the requirement for any bachelor's degree means the program attracts a wide array of students. This upcoming cohort for the UR Nursing Scholars Program, she said, even has a few chefs.

"It truly is a diverse group of students in age, race, and backgrounds," Kitko said.

In exchange, graduates agree to work for at least three years at Strong Memorial Hospital or Highland Hospital.

High Demand From the Jump

Kitko said it didn't take long for the School of Nursing to realize the potential of this program.

The University of Rochester opened applications for the UR Nursing Scholars Program to begin with the fall 2023 semester. The original plan was to accept 33 students into the program in its first year.

The school quickly realized this would not satisfy demand.

Kitko said the university was flooded with high-quality applications from students hoping to take advantage of the tuition-free degree. So, the university expanded the program to cover 120 students in its first year; 40 starting each semester.

"When we had such an overwhelming response of very qualified applicants," she said, "it was a very easy decision to expand [the program]."

Kelly was part of that initial rush.

Currently a phlebotomist at a nursing home, Kelly had been searching for the right nursing program for over a year. She previously graduated from the State University of New York (SUNY) at Albany with a degree in human biology. While she knew she wanted to work in the medical profession at the time, she wasn't sure what exactly she wanted to do just yet.

"Just working alongside a variety of medical professionals," she said, "I knew I wanted to pursue a career in nursing."

It was difficult, however, to find an affordable program that would also get her the in-hospital experience she desired.

That is, until she discovered the UR Nursing Scholars Program.

A Fresh Start in Nursing

Kitko said the time and financial costs are significant barriers to attracting new nurses.

As the industry has struggled with a nursing shortage, she said the University of Rochester wanted to find ways to remove barriers. The UR Nursing Scholars Program effectively does just that, as the school's accelerated bachelor's in nursing program is faster than the typical 18-month accelerated program.

Kitko described the UR Nursing Scholars Program as a win-win-win for everybody involved.

For the university, it's a chance to attract students and boost enrollment for a struggling program. For students, it's a chance to get the education they desire free of charge in just one year. And for the academic medical center, it creates a pipeline for future nurses due to the three-year work requirement.

It's a work requirement that Kelly looks forward to.

She said she's wanted to work in a hospital for years now. The prospect of guaranteed employment post-graduation created an even stronger draw to the University of Rochester.

Moreover, she looks forward to being able to fill gaps during this ongoing nursing shortage.

"I wanted to be part of the solution," Kelly said.