Medical school debt impacts students, industry

DOTHAN, Ala. (AP) — Andrew Glickman is looking at some scary numbers when he leaves medical school.

Glickman, a medical student at the Alabama College of Osteopathic Medicine, estimates he will leave medical school with about $250,000 in debt. Some of it comes from his undergraduate and master’s degree work in Florida, while the lion’s share will come from tuition and living expenses from ACOM.

Nevertheless, the Tampa native remains optimistic about the future.

“I don’t plan to be rich, but if I’m successful in what I do the money will come,” he said. “The ultimate goal is to help people. If you help people, you’ll get paid.”

Numbers from medical groups paint a less cheerful picture of the high debt many med school students take on to complete their education. Research suggests the debt level can be a barrier for qualified minority and low-income students and can also impact the areas of medicine young doctors choose to pursue, leading to shortages in some less remunerative fields of practice.

According to the American Medical Association, the average educational debt of med school students financing their education for loans is $166,750 for the class of 2012. AMA numbers show that 79 percent of indebted graduates have debt of at least $100,000. Sixty-two percent of indebted graduates have debt of at least $150,000.

The Association of American Medical Colleges says the debt issue keeps many qualified students from attending medical school, particularly minorities. Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans make up about a quarter of the nation’s population, but only 12 percent of its medical students. A recent survey found that the cost of medical school is the number one reason why qualified minority students choose not to attend.

At ACOM, about 13 students out of the entire student body of 162 receive scholarships. The rest are financing their education with student loans. Travis Cobb, director of financial aid, said this is not too far out of step with other medical schools, where about 85 percent of students fund their education with loans.

Cobb said the school is working through the SAMC Foundation and other avenues to increase financial aid opportunities for students. Cobb also said the school works with students through exit counseling to help them get a better handle on their debt burden and their options for repayment, including programs that take students’ income into account when establishing monthly payments.

Kayla Benton is one of the ACOM students funding her education through a scholarship opportunity. Benton is getting a National Health Service Corporation scholarship to attend ACOM. The scholarship pays her tuition in exchange for her service in an underserved rural area after she finishes medical school. Benton, whose husband works here, hopes to stay in the Dothan area, as 61 of 67 Alabama counties are designated as areas underserved by primary care physicians.

“It’s a big burden lifted off my shoulders and I really appreciate the scholarship,” she said.

Garrett Phipps and Skyler Brown joined the military to pay for medical school. Phipps signed on with the Air Force, while Brown joined the Army. Both are receiving scholarships that pay full tuition, cover costs associated with books and fees and provide a living stipend. Brown got a $20,000 sign-on bonus.

Phipps, a native of Dothan, said that the price of ACOM compared to a public medical school was a concern, but the Air Force program enabled him to attend medical school in his hometown without having to worry about his debt burden after he graduates. Phipps said not having a large debt hanging over his head helps him better focus on his studies.

“It’s tough enough studying for a test and worrying that you’ll do bad on it without having to think, ‘I’m going into $70,000 in debt per year to do bad on this test,’” Phipps said.

Brown said the Army presented him with the most cost-effective way to finance his education. After a few years of service to the Army, Brown’s medical school education will be cleared. By taking out loans, Brown would have been in debt for years for medical school.

“You can’t pay it back in four years,” he said.

Brown said one benefit of having a full medical scholarship is that it gives him more freedom to pursue the medical career he wants, rather than the one he needs to repay med school debt. Brown said a lot of medical students feel they have to pursue the more lucrative specialties rather than become family practice doctors or work in rural areas because of financial reasons.

AMMA studies support Brown’s statement. Research by AMMA says that debt burden may be pushing doctors out of primary care and into more lucrative specialty fields.

The issue of large debt for medical school students isn’t likely to be going away any time soon. According to the American Medical Association, medical education debt is driven by rising tuition. Association of American Medical Colleges data show that median private medical school tuition and fees increased by 50 percent in the 20 years between 1984 and 2004. Median public medical school tuition and fees increased by 133 percent over the same time period, according to AAMC numbers.

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