Becoming a doctor can not only be emotionally rewarding, but it can also offer financial rewards in the form of a higher annual salary.
According to Medscape's 2019 Physician Compensation Report, the average physician salary is $313,000. Specialists earn an average of $341,000 per year, while primary care doctors earn $237,000 on average.
Pursuing a career in medicine requires discipline and multiple years of higher education—which could add up to a substantial cost. Calculating the average cost of medical school is an important step for both students and parents as it helps them gauge the affordability of earning a medical degree.
What Is the Average Cost of Medical School?
According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the average first-year medical student paid $37,556 for tuition, fees, and health insurance to attend a public medical school during the 2019-20 academic year. The average first-year student attending a private medical school paid even more, at $60,665.
These figures apply to students with resident status at their respective schools. For non-residents, the totals increased to $61,858 and $62,230 respectively. The maximum per-year cost for tuition, fees, and health insurance was $99,622, paid by non-resident students attending public medical schools.
If you use just the average figures, the average cost of medical school (assuming a four-year stint) can range from $150,224 to $248,920. At the highest end, the cost reaches $398,488. These numbers do not include annual increases in tuition rates, nor do they factor in the cost of living while attending medical school.
The cost of living—housing, utilities, food, and transportation expenses—can vary greatly depending on the location of your school. Typical household spending totaled $63,036 as of 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Living in a cheaper city while attending medical school could bring your cost of living below average, but this may involve a trade-off if it means you're not able to attend your dream school.
Paying for Medical School
There are several options to pay for medical school. In an ideal scenario, you and your parents would be able to pay using savings, either from a tax-advantaged 529 college savings plan, Coverdell Education Savings Account, savings bonds, high-yield savings account, or CD account.
But that can be a tall order to fill. When you can't pay out of pocket, your next logical choice might be student loans, an option many medical students pursue.
According to the AAMC, the median medical school debt was $201,490 in 2018, suggesting that med students (and possibly their parents) may be financing their education with loans more so than college savings plans or other means. Overall, 73% of medical school grads leave school with student debt in tow.
If you're considering student loans to pay for medical school, start with your federal loan options. You could use a combination of direct unsubsidized loans and direct PLUS loans. Neither type of loan is based on financial need, but direct PLUS loans do require a credit check.
In February 2021, the maximum borrowing limits for these loans are as follows:
- Direct unsubsidized loans: Up to $20,500
- Direct PLUS loans: Up to the remainder of college costs not covered by other financial aid
Private student loans may be necessary to fill any gaps in federal student loan funding. Private loans may offer fixed or variable interest rates, and rather than being need-based, your ability to qualify hinges largely on factors such as your income and credit score.
Aside from that, another key difference to note with private student loans is that they lack many of the protections federal student loans offer. That includes the option to enroll in an income-dependent repayment plan, seek public service loan forgiveness, or take a deferment or forbearance during times of financial hardship.
How to Make Medical School More Affordable
Loans are one way to pay for medical school, but there are some alternatives worth considering to make the cost easier to manage. For example, think about the following options.
Choose a Medical School That Offers Free Tuition
While these schools are the exception rather than the rule, tuition-free programs are becoming more common. These programs offer eligible students the opportunity to earn a medical degree, with no out-of-pocket costs for tuition.
Military Service in Exchange for Tuition
The Health Professions Scholarship Program pays full tuition for up to four years, also covering books, fees, and equipment. Scholarship recipients also receive a monthly stipend and a $20,000 sign-on bonus, all in exchange for one year of active duty service for each year that they receive the scholarship.
Practice in an Underserved Area
The National Health Service Corps Scholarship Program provides funding to medical school students, as well as dentists, nurse practitioners, and other health care professionals in training. In addition to covering tuition and fees, the scholarship also pays a monthly stipend.
As a condition of the scholarship, you have to work in an area with a health professional shortage for a set number of years, based on the duration you received the scholarship.
Cast a Wide Net for Scholarships and Grants
In addition to federal scholarships, you should be looking high and low for scholarships and grants to pay your way through medical school. Consider both larger national scholarships and grants as well as the smallest ones that may be offered by your school of choice or by local organizations in your community. If you're not sure where to start, a free scholarship listing website can get you headed in the right direction.
The average cost of medical school can be daunting, but it may be a small price to pay if becoming a physician is your dream. Weighing the costs for different schools carefully and exploring every option to help pay for those costs is a step you can't afford to skip.