By T.J. Porter, WCI Contributor
It’s no secret that becoming a doctor isn’t easy. On top of spending about a decade of your time on your education, you also have to spend a huge amount of money (and then pay it back with student loans). You’ll probably earn a strong salary once you finish medical school and get your first job or open a practice, but you still have to figure out how to afford to get to that point. That's why you need to determine the best way to pay for medical school.
Let's explore some of the ways that you can pay, so you can decide whether spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for medical school is worth it to your future bottom line.
Average Cost of Medical School
According to U.S. News and World Report, the median cost of four years of medical school in 2019-2020 was $250,222 at public schools and more than $330,000 at private ones. This is no small number, so it’s not surprising that the average graduate from the class of 2020 left school with $207,000 in debt. Of course, some leave with no debt, and other students owe $500,000.
Worst of all, this doesn’t account for debt incurred during your undergraduate studies. Finding a good way to pay for these large costs is essential if you want to finish medical school.
How to Pay for Medical School
Paid for all the medical school application fees and now you're in? Congrats! If you’re trying to figure out how to pay for medical school, consider these options.
The most obvious, and yet most difficult, way to pay for your education is with savings. If you or your family have a few hundred thousand dollars available to spare, you can put that money toward tuition and fees.
However, the reality is that few people can afford to pay for medical school out of pocket. If you can manage to pay some of the costs, that can make it easier to pay for the rest of the tuition from other sources of funding.
Scholarships and Financial Aid
Just as with your undergraduate education, the best way to pay for medical school is through scholarships and financial aid. Scholarships and grants are free money that you can put toward tuition and that you don’t have to pay back.
There are many organizations that award scholarships to medical students. They often focus on things like academic excellence, research, or underrepresented backgrounds, so look for programs that might apply to you.
The White Coat Investor even offers a scholarship award of its own that has given away hundreds of thousands of dollars since it was established in 2015. Your medical school might also offer scholarships of its own, so check with your school’s financial aid office.
Student loans are another popular source of funds to pay for medical school.
In general, it’s best to turn to federal student loans whenever possible. These loans have lower interest rates than private student loans, and they offer benefits like loan forgiveness and income-based repayment which can make them easier to pay off (even though it still might take you several years to be free of them).
You’ll be eligible for federal loans and scholarship or grant aid based on the info in your FAFSA, so make sure to fill it out each year.
There are also private student lenders that you can use to fund your education. Just pay close attention to things like interest rates and when you’re expected to begin making payments. Though the world of student loans can be confusing, make sure to look at refinancing options (our friends over at Student Loan Advice can help you there).
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If you’re interested in joining the military, you might be able to get the branch of your choice to pay for your education. However, keep in mind that if Uncle Sam pays for your degree, you’ll have to work for him in exchange.
For example, the US Army will offer a full-tuition scholarship, a monthly stipend, and a $20,000 signing bonus, to people attending accredited medical, dental, psychology, or optometry programs via its Health Professions Scholarship Program. You’ll be expected to serve for as many years as you received the scholarship. So, if you got the scholarship for four years, you’ll have to serve for four years. You likely won't make as much money as a military doctor as your counterparts in the civilian world, but you also probably won't have hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans to pay back.
The Air Force offers a program for residents, paying them $45,000 per year and $2,000 per month for living expenses. In exchange, you must commit to serving for as many years as you received the benefit, plus one additional year.
There are also options to get the National Guard or Army Reserve to pay for medical school. If you’ve already served in the military, you can also use GI Bill benefits to cover medical school expenses (or keep that money for your children's education).
If you're interested in getting your medical degree while also training to be a scientist, there are more than 100 MD/Ph.D. programs that are affiliated with medical schools in the US. Although the decision to pursue both an MD and a Ph.D. at the same time could extend your education by three or four years, making it a medical school path that could take 7-8 years total, most programs will offer tuition waivers for medical school and graduate school, stipends for living expenses, and/or health insurance.
Tuition-Free Medical Schools
One unusual option is to go to a medical school where you don’t have to pay at all. There are some tuition-free medical schools around the United States, but each has its own unique requirements and restrictions.
Some only accept top students, making them incredibly hard to get into. Others only focus on less popular specialties, or they expect you to work in low-income areas or for specific nonprofits for a period of time after graduating.
There are multiple service programs out there that will help you pay for medical school or get out of debt, as long as you’re willing to meet the service requirements.
For example, the National Health Service Corps Scholarship pays for up to four years of tuition and living expenses as long as you agree to work for two years in an underserved community. Some state governments also offer similar programs. Indian Health Services has a similar program, as do many other states.
While it doesn’t help pay for school upfront, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program is also a useful program to know about. This program forgives your remaining debt after you’ve made 120 monthly payments. However, you’re only eligible if you work for a nonprofit or the government. Still, getting PSLF forgiveness can save you hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Medical school is expensive, but the investment can be well worth it. Think about how you plan to pay for medical school and don’t forget to consider options that can help you reduce your costs. Many programs expect you to commit to a few years of public service, but it can be well worth it to avoid spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on your education. And, of course, you should remember: if you get through medical school and residency, you will become one of the highest earners in the land.
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