Hello everyone! With the start of Spring semester looming and the idea of state leadership conferences beginning in just a couple short months, I thought it might be a good time to check in. I remember being really nervous before my first SLC in 2010 – I was competing in HOSA Bowl and it’s certainly not the most low-stress of competitions. Suffice it to say that I sympathize with those of you who may be getting nervous.
Another thing that causes students anxiety (great segue!) is the thought of financing higher education. This is a topic that’s hard to write about simply because everyone’s financial situation is different; likewise, each program will be different in how students are allowed to finance their education. I’m going to focus pretty specifically on my experiences in financing medical school thus far, as that’s what is freshest in my mind and because there aren’t many big-picture differences between schools. If you have any questions about student financial aid in general or about other types of programs, I highly recommend collecting information from reputable sources like studentaid.ed.gov. You’re also welcome to email me at email@example.com with any questions.
If you’re entering medical school, chances are you’re familiar with how financial aid worked in undergrad. The same players are still around: scholarships, federal loans of varying types (and interest rates), et cetera. They’ve changed, though, mostly for the worse. Let’s start with scholarships. From what I’ve experienced, they’re far more difficult to come by. Graduate and professional programs (that is, programs that are undertaken after an undergraduate degree) are subsidized at a lower rate than undergrad programs. You’ll see what I mean when we talk about loans, too. Furthermore, these programs are usually more competitive than undergraduate schools, and so there is less incentive to provide students with flashy scholarship packages to draw them in. There are exceptions though, and my school provides a modest scholarship to most students. Talk to your prospective schools at your interview days to find out what they may offer. If you were afforded a scholarship in undergrad due to some aspect of your background, you may still be eligible for it – funding from outside sources probably changes less than funding from schools or the federal government between college and medical school.
Speaking of the federal government, let’s transition to talking about loans. Even if you were able to finance your college education without borrowing money, chances are you will need to borrow some in order to complete your medical degree. The statistics to be found online about the average amount of debt for medical school graduates can be frightening, but I hope to allay your fears a little here. The good news about financial aid in medical school is that there is plenty of it. Simply put, lenders know that as a physician you will be in good standing to pay back any money you take out. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you should take out more than you need, but you will typically be offered as much as (or much more than) you need to live comfortably. Unfortunately, these too change between undergrad and graduate/professional school. Whereas the bread and butter of undergraduate federal loans were subsidized, the best you will probably be able to do now is an unsubsidized federal loan. This means that while you still won’t be required to make payments during school, interest will begin to accrue immediately upon taking out the loan. The interest in the most common loan type doesn’t capitalize until after you graduate, though (this gets complex, so I won’t go into it, but it will be important to research when you enter medical school). On top of the most common loan (usually called an unsubsidized Direct loan), there is usually also an unsubsidized PLUS loan that has a higher interest rate but extends federal aid to cover the remaining cost of attendance. If all of this sounds overwhelming, remember that your medical school’s financial aid office will be there to help you sort out what you need. The gist of it is that you will have access to the funds you need! (And yes, you still need to complete the FAFSA each year to be eligible.)
I do want to digress slightly and discuss private loans. As with the federal government, private lenders know that you will likely be able to pay them back, and so will be glad to lend you as much money as you need. I’ll steer clear of offering any concrete advice here since everyone’s situation is different, but typically these should be a last resort. Even if the interest rate is competitive, these companies aren’t subject to the same regulations that the federal government is, and so students aren’t afforded the same protections as with a federal loan. They also aren’t compatible with any of the loan forgiveness programs that are available with federal loans.
This leads me into my last point of discussion (I told you this would barely skim the surface). There are a few programs that I know about that will erase your student loans entirely. As alluded to in the previous paragraph, forgiveness programs exist that will erase your debt after a certain number of years. The most prominent are IBE/PAYE programs wherein you repay your loans at a pace set by your income. After 25 years of payment on these programs any remaining debt is forgiven. Also well-known is the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, wherein physicians working for certain non-profit organizations are eligible to have their remaining debt forgiven after 120 payments (or 10 years). Note that I’ve described the current iterations of these programs, but they could always change or be eliminated as the federal government looks to change the student lending landscape. The last debt-erasure program that I’m familiar with is the one that you’re probably familiar with, too, and it doesn’t require that you take out any loans at all. The US military is always looking to recruit future physicians and provides pretty good benefits to those who decide to commit to a certain number of years with the armed services branch upon entering medical school. I’ll admit to not knowing much about the specifics of this program, so if you’re interested in it I suggest finding someone who has gone through it or talking to a recruiter from the branch you’re interested in. My thoughts on this are that if you’re interested in a career in the military, this is a wonderful way to pay for medical school. This list is by no means comprehensive, and there are many more debt forgiveness programs that I’m not aware of. I’ve heard, for example, that some employers may provide physicians with debt-repayment incentives after a certain number of years with the employer. Sounds like a pretty good bonus to me.
Let’s summarize what we’ve talked about. Scholarships and grants still exist but are likely to be much less prevalent than in undergrad. Loans are given out generously, but with somewhat worse terms. And there are several programs that offer to help you pay back your debt by erasing part of it. I hope you’ve gotten the idea that there are many, many ways to finance your medical education and make that six-figure number look a little more manageable. Now go get on that FAFSA!