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8 reasons medical school debt won’t control my life

SMS ("Stanford Medical School") Unplugged was recently launched as a forum for students to chronicle their experiences in medical school. The student-penned entries appear on Scope once a week; the entire blog series can be found in the SMS Unplugged category.

debtAfter my recent post about choosing to start a family while in school, a friend and student at another med school responded:

At least for me, another thing that comes into play is the debt load… I myself will be carrying a debt load akin to a mortgage by the time I graduate (not by choice; my tuition and fees alone work out to $55k/yr) and as someone who will most likely [be] in his mid 30s… before he starts making real money, this has really hit close to home.

Fair point. According to this nightmare-inspiring AAMC fact sheet (.pdf), the median graduating debt for U.S. med students is $175,000. That debt undoubtedly looms large in major career and life decisions such as specialty choice, where to live, and when to start a family.

Thankfully, my debt will be nowhere near that figure, and I’d like to share the reasons why. I hope this will encourage those of you applying to medical school to think broadly about factors that will impact your debt at each school on your list. When I began the application process I never would have guessed that Stanford, with a “sticker price” of $65K per year in tuition, would be my most affordable option.

Of course, everyone’s situation is different, and I can only speak from my own experience. However, it is telling that our average debt is consistently among the lowest in the country, despite our location in a region known for its sky-high cost of living.

So here’s a few of the reasons why my household of two med students and a baby will graduate with a very manageable debt burden:

1. A solid need-based financial aid package
The packages Stanford offered to my husband and me were comparable to those offered by peer institutions. That means tens of thousands in grants, plus loans that don’t accrue interest during training.

2. Teaching assistantships
The TA program is one of my favorite things about Stanford Med! The opportunity for students to teach is integrated into our curriculum and encouraged in a way that, as far as I know, doesn’t exist at any other school. We serve as very well-paid TAs (regardless of financial need) for both core preclinical courses and fun electives. As an aspiring educator, this is a dream come true. I develop my teaching skills, reinforce my knowledge of important material, get to know the students in the classes below me, and work with faculty mentors who are passionate about education - all while dramatically lowering my debt.

3. Med Scholars program
Med Scholars supports student scholarly projects (anything from working in a lab to writing a novel), by granting tuition support and a living stipend. Assuming we write a solid proposal, there's enough funding for every student regardless of financial need, so we're not left scrambling for scarce outside research funding.

4. Outside scholarships
My husband and I have both benefited from generous outside donors, to whom we are immensely grateful.

5. Never having to buy my lunch
In the preclinical years, rarely a day went by that I didn’t get free lunch (and sometimes dinner) through seminar series, elective courses, or student group meetings. During clinical rotations, the feast continued: Many departments have daily seminars with lunch provided. For the rare day when I don’t get fed, I can always pack my own simple but nutritious lunch for about $1.50. So there is really no reason to spend my student loan money on expensive cafeteria food.

6.“Odd jobs”
Our flexible school schedule gives me time to earn extra income through jobs like babysitting and tutoring.

7. Biking everywhere
Stanford and its surroundings are super bike-friendly, making me healthier, happier, and blissfully unaware of fluctuating gas prices.

8. Groceries from The Milk Pail Market
At this quirky little store within biking distance of campus, I can fill up my cart with enough veggies, fruits, beans, and grains to feed us for a week – all for less than $20. My medical advice is to skip their unpasteurized milk, though!

Jennifer DeCoste-Lopez entered medical school at Stanford in 2010. She was born and raised in Kentucky and went to college at Harvard before heading to the West Coast for medical school. She currently splits her time between clinical rotations, a medical education project in end-of-life care, and caring for her daughter, who was born in 2013.

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