You might make the significant decision to attend medical school for a variety of reasons. Perhaps you’re passionate about helping people. Maybe you’re most interested in the academic acclaim or financial security the medical field has to offer. But no matter what the driving factor is behind your decision to attend medical school, there’s one thing you’re (probably) going to have to contend with: student debt. The best way you can prepare for this almost inevitable, often monolithic, obstacle is by learning about the average medical school debt, and by tackling this number in practical terms, well ahead of time.
Average Medical School Debt Creeps Higher
The most recent statistics by the American Medical Student Association estimate that over 86% of graduates in the medical field carry educational debt. Compare that with the overall 70% of all graduates who carry debt, and you’ll notice immediately that medical school is one of the heavy hitters in the debt department. To make matters worse, the debt burden for medical students seems to grow exponentially with each year.
In 2011, the average medical student debt was $173,000, with the same number, 86%, of graduates carrying debt. The average medical school debt rose to $178,000 in 2012, and by 2016, the average medical school debt was up to $190,000, with about 25% of graduates carrying debts higher than $200,000. While there are no official stats for the average medical school debt for 2017, the average is expected to be even higher.
The Debt Divide
While the average medical school debt is a good place to start if you’re considering entering medical school in the next several years, be careful with how much you base your plan on these figures. The average debt number represents just that: the average, but medical student debt has an especially large range compared to other degree programs. Some students graduate with $330,000 in debt, while others graduate with zero debt at all.
According to a study by STAT, the average student medical debt burden is rising with each year, while the percentage of students carrying debt is decreasing. In other words, medical student debt is falling heavier on some students, while an increasing number of students face zero debt at all upon graduating medical school. This student debt divide reflects today’s income gap, resulting in students from wealthy families entering the medical field without financial burden, while middle- and lower-class students face rising debt every year.
The Hidden Cost of Medical School
We tend to think of student debt as a single number that we are expected to pay off once the degree program ends. However, there is also another, often ignored, cost associated with attending medical school. Yes, the cost of medical school itself is high, but the opportunity cost of attending medical school can push that number even higher. This hidden cost of medical school is measured in years of your life, and the potential income you’ll forgo while you’re in school.
The average length of medical school is four to five years of pre-med, followed by another four years of medical school. Then, you’re looking at another three to seven years—depending on your specialty—of residency at a relatively lower salary than you can expect during the rest of your career. The average bachelor degree program takes only four years, after which the average graduate makes about $57,000 per year. When you take this into account, you’re losing an additional $57,000 per year, on top of your student debt, for every year you’re in school after the first four years. Depending on how much you’ll make during your residency—usually about $50,000 – $60,000—you could still be netting a yearly loss compared to your bachelor-degree-holding contemporaries.
If you’re considering attending medical school in the near future, make sure to take this hidden cost into account. While it won’t add to the real number you’re facing upon graduation, it does mean you’ll be starting your career about $228,000 behind in lifetime earnings.
Medical Student Debt and Demand
While the average medical school debt grows and grows, interestingly, so does the demand for new graduates. This is especially true in the practice of primary care. The correlation? As new medical school students graduate with higher and higher debt burdens, the likelihood that these new graduates will go into a field like family practice falls lower and lower. Degree-holders with overwhelming debt levels prefer higher-paying medical professions, such as certain high-paying specialist practices and surgical medicine.
Know Your Specialty
It’s unknown whether, overall, debt level influences students’ choice of specialty as much or more than other factors. However, if you’re concerned about student debt, it’s a great idea to compare medical graduate specialties and their relative debt burdens. For example, dermatology grads carried significantly lower levels of medical student debt in 2016 than did emergency medicine specialists. If you’re torn between these two specialties, the cost of earning each degree may just be the deciding factor you need.
Debt and the Decision to Attend Medical School
When all is said and done, the decision to attend medical school is likely more difficult for some than for others. For those who come from wealthy backgrounds, whose parents may be able to shoulder the entire burden—or most of the burden—of their medical school tuition and living expenses, the choice to attend medical school may be a no-brainer. You can attend medical school with no direct financial consequences, and come out with one of the highest-paid degrees in the country.
On the other hand, those who come from middle- or lower-class backgrounds have more to consider when it comes to applying to and attending medical school and whether the debt they will accumulate is too much. It isn’t impossible, but you’ll need to weigh the pros with the cons. For example, is it worth missing out on at least four years of potential income that you would have from a bachelor’s degree? Another question you might ask yourself is which specialty has the best income-to-debt ratio.
No matter what your background, the decision to attend medical school should be based on more than just financial factors. Whether you graduate with $300,000 in debt or no debt at all, those many years spent in pre-med, med school, and residency will have been a waste if you’re not passionate about what you do. In medicine more than any other field, money is just one consideration, while your overall happiness and satisfaction with your work are arguably far more important. If you decide that taking on the debt is worth it for you, just plan ahead and make sure you know ahead of time what’s the best plan to paying off your student loans fast.
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