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When Stephanie White finished graduate school and embarked on a career as a family nurse practitioner, she wasn’t counting on anyone helping her to pay down her $85,000 in student loans.

The 32-year-old Cincinnati, Ohio resident has pretty much always relied on her own smarts, hard work and initiative to get by.

But after getting on the fast track to pay off her loans by refinancing them at a lower interest rate, White got a break she wasn’t counting on — she’s the latest Credible.com $25,000 sweepstakes winner.

Refinancing through Credible was “life changing,” White says. She estimates that reducing the interest rates on her student loans from as high as 6.8 percent down to 3.5 percent will save her $23,000 in interest.

“Just using the refi program alone has cut what I like to call ‘my period of enslavement to higher education’ in half,” she says, and winning Credible’s sweepstakes is icing on the cake. “Psychologically, it makes a huge difference. Now I can start thinking about saving for retirement.”

Graduate nursing school: high costs, big rewards

According to a recent survey by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, 69 percent of graduate nursing students rely on student loans to finance their education, and the median amount of debt they expect to take on to obtain their degree is between $40,000 and $54,999.

But the median pay for advanced practice registered nurses who hold master’s degrees at $107,460 a year, according to the latest numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. So an advanced degree in nursing can more than pay for itself.

However, three out of four graduate nursing students say they also have undergraduate debt. That was also the case for White.

An Army brat who went to eight different schools in 11 years after her mother joined the military when she was in first grade, White graduated seventh in a high school class of 776.

Thanks to her mother’s modest earnings, White’s Expected Family Contribution (EFC) when she headed off to college at Ohio University was nothing — she got through her first year without borrowing.

But then her mother remarried, boosting White’s family income. Suddenly, she had a funding gap to fill, so she started borrowing. By the time she graduated in 2007 with bachelor’s degrees in biological sciences and Spanish, White had $55,000 in loans to repay.

When a plan to join the Peace Corps fell through because of health issues, White found herself working two and sometimes three jobs to pay off her loans. Her first year after graduating, she made $14,000 in loan payments, but over a third of that went to interest.

To boost her earnings, White decided to get a master’s degree. Through an accelerated program at the University of Cincinnati, she was able to first earn her bachelor’s degree in nursing.

That allowed her to work in a hospital emergency room as a registered nurse while she earned her master’s degree in nursing and became certified as a family nurse practitioner.

The last piece of the student loan debt puzzle

With her newly earned credentials, White landed a position with The Little Clinic, whose board-certified family nurse practitioners and physician assistants treat minor illnesses at clinics located in more than 220 retail stores in 10 states.

The work is satisfying, but can also be demanding, White reports. She may see 40 or 50 patients on a busy day, compared to the 20 or 30 patients handled by colleagues who work in doctors’ offices.

“We do chronic care, and practice to the full scope of our license in the state of Ohio,” White says. “You never know how busy you’re going to be. Is it someone with chest pain, or do they have the flu? It keeps it very interesting.”

Although White found her work fulfilling, she still had her student loans to deal with.

“Suddenly, I have a lucrative career as a family nurse practitioner, but I’m paying more than $1,000 a month on my student loans,” White recalls. “They say, ‘You’re a high earner,’ but I had no disposable income.”

With a good chunk of her loan payments continuing to be eaten up by interest, “I thought, ‘I will be in debt until I’m 45!’ “

That’s when White looked into refinancing, which led her to Credible.

“I actually refinanced through Credible twice. The first time, I just refinanced my higher, 6.8 percent interest rate loan,” she recalls. “I was skeptical, but it saved me a ton of money. I realized there were no loopholes and refinanced three more loans.”

White qualified for the Credible.com sweepstakes by inviting friends to explore their refinancing options through the Credible marketplace, where borrowers can see actual rates they prequalify for with multiple lenders in about 2 minutes.

“I started sharing my experience with refinancing because I knew other nurse practitioners who were relocating” to qualify for loan forgiveness programs, she says. “A friend of mine was moving to Alaska because they have a program to pay off your debt.”

Staying the course

White says that despite her good fortune, she has no plans to make any extravagant changes to her lifestyle.

On a recent vacation that included a trip to the Grand Canyon, she stayed at her grandfather’s timeshare in Arizona. But she says she’ll keep driving her 2012 Mazda until it quits, and stick to her goal of getting her retirement savings back on track.

“My plans for next year are more about giving back, and doing some community service,” she says.

While she’d been active in groups like Habitat for Humanity in the past, pursuing her master’s degree and launching her career left little time for such activities.

“If you’re someone who wants to do that kind of thing, you’re not as happy when you can’t do it,” she explains.

Today, when family members ask her to talk to their children about going to college, she advises them to research both the costs and the potential earnings of the career they are thinking of pursuing.

“The cost is so high now, you better know what you’re getting out of it,” she says. “It’s a huge investment, and a huge risk if you don’t know” what the return will be.