It’s not uncommon for medical school graduates to leave school with hundreds of thousands in student loan debt. Last year, among U.S. medical school graduates who borrowed, the median debt burden was $190,000, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.
While the idea of graduating medical school debt-free may seem impossible, a few medical students have the privilege of receiving a free medical education, either because they attend a tuition-free medical school or because they receive a hefty sum of scholarship money.
Dr. Jennifer Haley, an Arizona-based dermatologist, knows from experience that attending medical school without acquiring debt can bring peace of mind.
Haley earned her tuition-free medical degree at the F. Edward Hébert School of Medicine, a federally funded medical school at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland.
The university’s medical school doesn’t charge tuition; rather, its students are commissioned officers in the U.S. Public Health Service, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Army or U.S. Navy, and they earn an annual salary. According to the school’s website, its students earn more than $60,000 per year during their four years of medical school, and in return, they commit to at least seven years of active-duty service after graduation.
Tuition-free medical schools are rare, but there are other options besides the Hébert School. For example, Case Western Reserve University’s highly selective Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine, a medical school that specializes in training physician scientists, provides a full-tuition scholarship to all students.
Haley says she has no regrets about her military service commitment and the financial freedom she gained as a result of attending military medical school. But attending a tuition-free medical school is not the only route to a free medical education.
Medical school applicants with excellent test scores, grades and extracurricular activities may be able to pay for their entire medical school education by winning scholarship money, experts say, though getting that financial windfall won’t come easily.
Here are three ways experts say prospective medical students can fund medical school through scholarships.
1. Look for local scholarship opportunities: Experts say medical school applicants often forget to apply for small, local scholarships, which is a big mistake, because those tend to be less competitive than national scholarships. If you combine multiple small scholarships, that can add up to a big payoff.
“What I usually recommend to students when they’re looking for scholarships is start local,” says John Gracey, assistant director of student financial services at the University of Central Florida College of Medicine. He says local rotary clubs, women’s professional organizations, hospitals and nonprofits frequently offer medical school scholarships.
2. Consider federally funded scholarships: The U.S. federal government offers full scholarships to medical students who promise to become primary care doctors in areas of the country with a health care shortage or who commit to working as active-duty military physicians.
Experts say these are exceptional opportunities for students who know for sure what kind of doctor they want to become but are inappropriate for those who lack a clear career path.
Dr. Luis Padilla, director of the National Health Service Corps Program, says the NHSC’s highly competitive full scholarship is designed for medical students who are passionate about providing primary care to underprivileged communities with doctor shortages. The scholarship requires one year of work as a primary care doctor in an underserved region for every year of scholarship funding that is granted, with a minimum of two years of service.
“It is very expensive for those sites to replace a clinician, and so the federal government invests a lot of money into these scholars, and we would like to see them make a career in primary care and in underserved medicine,” says Padilla, who is also the associate administrator of the Bureau of Health Workforce at the Health Resources and Services Administration.
Similarly, experts say prospective medical students should evaluate whether a military career is appropriate for them. If so, they could apply for a spot in the exclusive, military-sponsored Health Professions Scholarship Program, which provides a full scholarship to medical school in exchange for an obligation to serve as a military physician. Scholarship recipients must perform one year of active-duty service per year that they receive the scholarship, with a minimum of three years of service.
3. Apply to medical schools with merit scholarships: A select group of medical schools offer full merit scholarships, including highly ranked schools, such as the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California—Los Angeles.
But experts say these merit scholarships are rare opportunities reserved for the most promising medical school applicants.