Bringing medical school tuition down to size

Parents want to see their kids become one. Television shows revolve around them, and children see them as white-coated fountains of knowledge. Everyone has their own ideas on what doctors do, but only the most dedicated get into medical school. The problem is that medical school costs money, and usually a lot of it. For people not experienced in the financial aid system or selecting a medical school, this could seem like an insurmountable barrier. But it doesn’t have to be; with the proper research and acquired knowledge, students can get through medical school with much less debt than most, and some may be able to have their debs totally forgiven.

Costs of medical schools vary-so study the rankings

Among those who graduated medical school in 2012, 86 percent had debt. The average debt for those with student loans was $170,000, according to a 2013 report from the Association of American Medical Colleges. The lowest priced tuition for a private school in 2013-14 was the Baylor College of Medicine coming in at around $31,000 for the year, while universities like Case Western, Washington University in St. Louis, and Northwestern were all over $50,000. Public universities and their medical schools tend to come in at less cost, but not every public university is ranked highly either. Students should thoroughly check out each school they are looking at to see not only how the school ranks, but whether the medical school specializes in the type of physician they would like to be. Schools that specialize in dermatology or orthopedics would not be a good fit for someone looking at going into family practice. There are a number of websites that review medical schools, and all have different ranking criteria; the Princeton Review and U.S. News and World Report both have rankings based on reports from the colleges themselves, and those can be viewed on their respective websites. The American Medical Student Association also has rankings of medical schools, but theirs are submitted by medical students themselves.

Financial aid and financial aid advisers

Naturally, any student looking to go to medical school should fill out the Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA). It can either be filed electronically or submitted in paper form, although the electronic method is faster. Paper FAFSAs can be downloaded from fafsa.ed.gov or one can be requested by calling 1-800-4-FED-AID. Some medical schools also require that potential students fill out other forms besides the FAFSA, up to and including your tax returns. They also may require your parents to send their tax returns and income information even if you have been independent of your parents for some time. The good news is that depending on yours and your parents’ incomes, you may be eligible for more financial aid than normal; many private schools subsidize tuition to a certain point depending on income. The best thing to do is once you have been accepted, sit down with a financial aid adviser (or by electronic means, if a personal meeting is not possible) and discuss what financial aid you are eligible for. In all likelihood, you will still emerge from medical school with debt, but there are ways to deal with that as well with careful planning.

There are ways to cut down student debt

For those still concerned about the cost of medical school, there are a number of options for dealing with the question of debt. The first, naturally, is scholarships; students should look into scholarships at whichever school or schools they decide to apply to. Many private schools tend to have more scholarships available than public schools, but requirements vary. However, the National Health Service Corps offers scholarships that pay tuition, fees, other educational costs, and provides a stipend in return for a commitment to work at least 2 years at an approved outpatient facility in a medically underserved area. As another option, the military also offers scholarships as well. As an example, the U.S. Army offers a scholarship that will pay 100 percent of tuition for a graduate-level health care degree for anyone enrolled in an accredited medical, dental, veterinary, psychology or optometry program in the United States or Puerto Rico. Not only does it pay all tuition, but it also pays for books, equipment and certain fees as well as a monthly stipend; graduates then become active-duty Army officers with the rank of captain and are obligated for one year for each year of scholarships they received. There are additional obligations for residency and fellowship training.

There are options for dealing with debt even after graduation

What many students fail to realize is that the government will also pay off student loans provided the graduate meets a few requirements. The NHSC will help pay off medical school loans through its Students to Service Loan Repayment Program. In return for working in underserved rural or urban areas once they graduate, the federal government will pay off up to $120,000 of student loans if the person puts in three years of full-time service or six years of part-time service. To qualify, a student must be a U.S. citizen or national, be a full-time student in their last year at an accredited medical school, and be enrolled in a NHSC specialty: internal medicine, family practice, pediatrics, OB/GYN, geriatrics, or psychiatry. The Public Service Loan Forgiveness program (PSLF) is also an option. Anyone who works in a nonprofit, tax-exempt 501c(3) organization or for a federal, state, local, or tribal government entity (including the military and public schools and colleges), or AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps, is eligible. For those who are unable or choose not to enter such programs, the government also offers income-based repayment of loans. The federal loan repayment plan caps the required monthly payment at an affordable amount based on income and family size. Medical school can be stressful enough without worrying about paying for it. But with some careful research, planning and consultation with a school’s financial aid personnel, tuition debt can be drastically cut down to manageable levels.

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