By Joe Dyton, WCI Contributor
Higher education has become increasingly more expensive, and the price tag only gets higher the further up the education ladder you choose to climb. So, if you aspire to attend medical school, you can expect to pay a pretty penny. The median cost of four years for those who apply and are accepted at medical school in 2019-2020 was approximately $250,000 at public schools and $330,000 at private institutions, according to an Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) report.
Those costs are just for tuition, however. The true cost of medical school also includes application fees, tests, test preparation, and potential travel for out-of-area med school interviews, and that doesn't even include living costs like room and board.
Keep reading to get a better idea of how much you'll be paying to attend medical school—and how much it costs just to apply.
Medical School Application Costs
Before you write your first medical school tuition check, there are a few expenses you will have to deal with first.
The Actual Application Fees
Just like with undergraduate applications, you’ll have to pay a fee when you apply to medical school. A majority of med schools use AAMC’s American College Application Service to process prospective student applications. This service lets you send a set of applications to one location simultaneously, and they then will be submitted to the schools you wish to attend.
In 2023, the first school application will cost $173 and $43 for each additional school. The more schools you apply to, the more you can expect to pay in application fees. Not all schools use the American College Application Service, so be sure to check each institution’s application process first.
Preparing for and Taking the MCATs
Most medical schools require you to take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) as part of the application process. Exam registration costs $315 if you sign up at least 15 days prior to the test date. The cost increases to $370 if you sign up after that time, so the moment you know when you’ll take the MCAT, sign up so you can save some money on that registration fee.
Meanwhile, preparing for the MCATs can be the most expensive part of the medical school application process. Some students pay thousands of dollars for prep courses to get ready for the test. Kaplan’s live online course, for example, costs $2,499. Less expensive prep materials like review books and online courses are available as well.
Travel for Medical School Interviews
Planning to apply to any out-of-area med schools? If so, just remember you might have to pay for your travel expenses and lodging if you’re granted an interview at any of those schools. Keep that in mind when applying for various medical schools, as you could pay between $500-$1,000 just to travel to one interview.
If your heart is set on a particular medical school, you should not let the travel cost discourage you from applying, however. Just be sure to get a general idea of how much it will cost to get there in the event you’re called in for an interview so you can save and plan in advance.
Of course, applying for medical school is only a fraction of the cost of what the entire medical school experience will cost. Now that you have an idea of how much it can cost to apply to med school, let’s look at the price tag for actually attending. Your tuition costs will depend on several factors including what school you attended, if that school is public or private, and if you’ll be an in-state or out-of-state student.
The average yearly cost of medical school is $54,698, according to EducationData.org, and the average cost increases by $1,500 every year, leading the cost of the average four-year degree to rise by $6,000.
Due to the expense of med school tuition, many students take out student loans to pay for their education. The average medical school debt for the class of 2021 that attended a public school was $194,280, and 74% of public medical school students said they had education debt, according to the AAMC. Meanwhile, 14% of med school students said that their average student debt between medical school and pre-med education was $300,000 combined.
Students who attended private medical school in the same graduating class had even more education debt—$218,746 on average. Approximately 70% of private school students said they graduated with debt; 27 percent of AAMC’s survey respondents said they were leaving school with at least $300,000 of student loan debt.
Of course, it varies. As noted in the first edition of WCI's From Fourth Year to the Real World series, one student left medical school with $460,000 worth of debt, while another, thanks to her parent's help, had exactly zero debt when she began her first year of residency.
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How to Lower the Cost of Attending Medical School
Applying to medical school is expensive, and tuition costs leave many graduates with a significant amount of student loan debt after they’ve finished their education. Fortunately, there are a few solutions that prospective medical school students can take to potentially lower the attendance price tag.
Attend a Less Expensive School
The less you spend on medical school tuition, the less debt you’re likely to have when you graduate. With less student loan debt, you will finish school with less financial pressure, and your specialty and job choice won’t have to be 100% financially motivated.
So, which medical schools are the least expensive? The AAMC publishes an annual list of medical schools that you can sort by tuition, required fees, and health insurance. When you sort them, you’ll find a handful of schools where your all-in required costs (not including living expenses) are less than $30,000 per year. Many of these schools require you to be a Texas, Puerto Rico, New Mexico, Nebraska, or North Carolina resident to take advantage of these less expensive tuitions, however. If you live outside of these states, it might be harder to find a medical school with similar tuition costs.
Attend a Tuition-Free Medical School
Tuition-free? Yes, there are certain medical schools and programs that offer tuition-free education. While tuition is covered, students still have to pay for any administrative costs and living expenses.
Here are some medical schools that offer tuition-free education or partial tuition waivers based on financial need or academic merit, according to EducationData.org:
- New York University Grossman School of Medication (covers full tuition—$58,226)
- Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine (covers full tuition and administration fees)
- Columbia University Irving Medical Center: Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons (offers the Vagelos Scholarship Program which meets 100% of a student’s demonstrated financial need)
- Cornell University: Weill Cornell Medicine (offers debt-free, need-based financial aid under a financial program that offers full-ride grants rather than loans)
- Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis (offers merit-based and need-based scholarships, making it one of the least expensive med schools, per U.S. News & World Report)
- Kaiser Permanente Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine (covers full tuition for the first five cohorts of the program at $54,719)
Receive Non-Student Loan Financial Aid
It’s also possible to receive a free, or at least less expensive, medical education without attending a tuition-free med school. If you have excellent test scores and grades, you could pay your tuition by winning funding. Such funding does not come easily. But students who have interests that align with their medical school’s central concerns have a better chance of receiving it, Michelle Schmude—associate dean for admissions, enrollment management, and financial aid at the Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine—told US News & World Report.
For example, Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine in Scranton, Pennsylvania, offers the Abigail Geisinger Scholars Program, which provides tuition support plus a $2,000-per-month stipend to participants. Med students in this program have to specialize in family medicine, internal medicine, medicine-pediatrics, or psychiatry, and they have to work as doctors for Geisinger for the number of years for which their medical education was funded.
Conditions like these are not unusual for med school students who want to receive funding. Recipients are often expected to do something specific in exchange for receiving financial aid.
Meanwhile, the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences offers a variety of scholarships that have different eligibility requirements. Some of that could cover the cost of med school. Harvard Medical School offers four years of funding to selected applications who need financial aid through its Dean’s REACH Scholarship Award Program, and new Stanford University School of Medicine students are eligible for the school’s Knight-Hennessy Scholars program, which provides students with three years of funding and access to a leadership development program and special community events.
If you’re looking to help fund your med school education, don’t forget about scholarships close to home. You might face less competition than you will for national scholarships. Also, as you put together your list of potential medical schools, check to see which ones offer merit scholarships to help pay for your education.
And don't forget about The White Coat Investor Medical School Scholarship, which has given away hundreds of thousands of dollars to medical students since 2015. Typically, medical students can apply for the scholarship between June 1-August 31.
Is Becoming a Physician Worth It?
A lot has been said here about how expensive medical school can be from the application process, tuition, and the potential mountain of student debt that comes after graduation. Despite these initial costs, they could be worth it when you consider the salary you'll earn once you become a physician. The current medial annual physician’s salary is $208,000, which is the highest among all occupations, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Of course, some doctors can earn seven figures per year.
Given that the average medical school student loan is within the same vicinity of a physician’s medial annual salary, there can be a peace of mind that you'll earn enough to make repaying your loans manageable over time, especially if you live like a resident for 2-5 years after you become an attending.
Now if you’re thinking of becoming a physician solely for the potentially high salary, you might want to reconsider. Four years and upward of $200,000 is a lot of time and money to pay/borrow to wind up with a job you might not end up liking very much. But, if you consider the salary, job security, and the fulfillment you can get from helping others, becoming a physician can very much be worth the cost of medical school. Most physicians who make it through would likely say the same.
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