The decision to pursue a medical degree is certainly not one to take lightly. After all, the median amount of debt for medical school students was $200,000, according to a 2020 report by the American Association of Medical Colleges. That’s a huge financial hit that could serve as a real deterrent in your quest to become a doctor.
However, the high cost of a medical education aside, someone committed to the medical field can certainly find alternative routes to finance their required years of schooling. You might be able to earn scholarships, draw on savings to cover a portion of the cost, rely on a spouse’s income for living expenses, or research medical schools that would fund a lot of your degree based on your career commitment, post-training.
Look for scholarships
Medical students can benefit from scholarships, and since those consist of funds you don’t need to repay, this is likely the first avenue you should explore. You’d be surprised at the number of full scholarships available to medical students if you search online for a wide variety of funding.
Scholarships are available for medical students pursuing a specific area or specialty of medicine. You might find scholarships offered to minorities or to those planning to work in underserved regions.
Exhaust all the possibilities for scholarship and grant money before borrowing money, and be sure to ask the financial aid officers at your chosen medical school for guidance.
Join a service program
Some medical students can achieve much of their education by enrollment in a service program with a participating institution, such as one affiliated with the military or government. These programs vary in terms of how much they cover and requirements.
The general idea of a service program is that a program covers your medical school costs such as tuition in exchange for your agreement to work for them following your graduation. Service programs usually specify the number of years you must work in that particular field or with that program. They might either pay your way through school or offer a reimbursement after your service period is completed.
Always research service programs carefully, examining all of their eligibility requirements to be sure you can meet them. The funding and reimbursement available through such programs can be wonderful, but it’s essential that you fit the qualifications and are able to follow through on the post-graduation service commitment.
The following are a few examples of service programs to include in your research and planning.
National Health Service Corps (NHSC)
The NHSC offers scholarships to people seeking work in a primary care health profession. You must serve for two years full-time in exchange for every one year of repayment support, for up to four years of medical school.
Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP)
The Health Professions Scholarship Program is for medical and dental students in the U.S. Army. Full tuition is available in addition to a monthly stipend of over $2,000 to cover living expenses. Active duty in the armed forces following your degree completion is a service requirement of the program.
Attend a medical school that covers your costs
If you’ve got the grades and other qualifications, you can minimize federal and private student loans by being extra selective about the medical school you choose. Some university medical schools have begun implementing tuition-free programs, which could put a significant dent in your educational savings.
If you select a medical school solely based on its cost advantages, be sure to ask the financial office of the school plenty of questions to ensure you understand how their program works. If the school has only committed to a certain number of years, be sure you’re not coming in at the tail end of that period.
For example, Kaiser Permanente’s Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine is waiving tuition and fees for all students who enroll between 2020 and 2024.
Other medical schools offering hefty scholarship programs:
- UCLA David Geffen Medical. These scholarships cover the cost of instruction for up to 20% of students enrolling in medical school each year.
- New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine. NYU’s Grossman School of Medicine provides full tuition scholarships for MD students who maintain satisfactory academic progress, regardless of merit or financial need.
- Weill Cornell Medicine. Cornell University’s Weill Cornell Medicine began offering scholarships in 2019 to medical students with demonstrated financial need. This program is intended to replace medical school loans for Cornell enrollees.
- Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Washington University offers a need-based scholarship to medical students. It discounts tuition to zero for up to half of its students, while offering partial scholarships to those with lower financial need.
Something to beware of with a school that promises free tuition: recognize that first of all, tuition isn’t the only mandatory expense involved in medical education. Some medical schools like this still require students to pay certain fees that could total tens of thousands of dollars. Others may offer a true full ride, but only to a certain population of students (based on need or merit).
Pay for medical school with savings
Of course, funding a medical degree is a tall undertaking. Not everyone can afford to pay for their medical training out-of-pocket, but it’s important not to ignore the potential of dipping into savings for at least some portion of your education.
One thing that’ll make this more of a realistic option is if you have kept your undergraduate school costs as low as possible. Perhaps you completed your undergraduate degree on a scholarship or worked your way through school because you knew that medical school was looming ahead.
Try not to think about the average medical school debt as inevitable for you. There truly are options that can help you lower the costs a great deal, and if you combine several strategies including savings, scholarships, service programs, and loans, your medical school bills don’t have to drown you for the foreseeable future.
Use your spouse’s income
If you’re married and planning to pursue your medical degree, one possible strategy for paying for medical school is to use part of your spouse’s income. How feasible this is depends on many factors, including their income level and your living expenses, but some medical students may be able to partially fund their degree this way.
If your spouse’s income is high enough, it could affect your ability to receive federal loans. But the plus side is they might be able to funnel a portion of their income into paying for your medical education. Minimizing your student loans ultimately helps you both weather joint-life goals in the future.
Financial gifts or inheritances can help
A sudden windfall of funds is hard to plan for, and not everyone can bank on this type of thing. However, if you do happen to receive a significant financial gift, consider using it for your medical school expenses.
If the loss of a family member brings you a six-figure inheritance, for example, prioritize your medical school fees and tuition with as much of that money as possible. You could also notify your family members of your desire to minimize medical school expenses in case they would want to contribute, in lieu of giving gifts.
Remember that loan forgiveness might be an option
Not only are there multiple special programs for medical student loan forgiveness based on a commitment to working in certain locations or specialties, but many physicians qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness, or PSLF. Using federal student aid often means your loans can be forgiven after a period of repayment.
PSLF can be a lifeline for you if you happen to have tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands in medical school debt. If, when you finish your degree, you work for a nonprofit or government-run hospital or medical facility, you could receive forgiveness through PSLF. As long as you work for a PSLF-qualified employer for the duration and make 120 qualifying payments on your loans, the remainder of your federal student debt can be forgiven.
You do need to be careful during your borrowing phase, however. Only federal student loans are usually eligible for forgiveness, so you want to avoid private loans if at all possible. Once you begin your 120 qualifying payments, you need to be on an income-driven repayment schedule as well.
Although medical school can be a major financial burden on students and families, it does not mean all is lost. There are ways to pay for medical school without loans, such as scholarships and strategically using your savings.
Plus, if you do borrow to pay for medical school, you can increase your chances of having a large amount of your loans forgiven by sticking to federal loans and then working for a PSLF-compatible employer.
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