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Less Common Ways to Decrease Medical School Costs

Students who like to volunteer may join the Peace Corps to reduce medical student debt.

Group of doctors.

Committing to a career in primary care medicine can make medical students eligible for scholarships or loan repayment programs.

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Becoming a doctor is an expensive career path.

Among 2012 medical school graduates, 86 percent had debt. The median debt for indebted graduates was $170,000, according to a 2013 report from the Association of American Medical Colleges.

“Debt levels for indebted medical school graduates and medical school cost of attendance have both increased faster than inflation over the last 20 years,” the report states.

For prospective students who want an M.D. but don't want the student loans that often come with it, there's hope. There are a number of ways to offset the cost of medical education during and after school.

1. Plan to specialize in primary care: To lure prospective medical students into primary care – an area of medicine that often comes with long hours and a less-competitive salary – a number of schools offer scholarships for students who agree to go into the field, especially in certain regions.

The University of California—Riverside welcomed its inaugural medical school class this school year and has a handsome reward for hopeful M.D.s with an interest in primary care.

[Stay financially healthy during medical school.]

Students can receive a four-year scholarship that covers all tuition and fees if they agree to practice primary care in the Inland Empire region of California for five years after graduation.

Ohio residents in medical school can take advantage of a similar opportunity. Funded through the Choose Ohio First Program, medical students can receive $30,000 per year for four years to decrease tuition if they agree to practice primary care in the state for at least three years and serve a high-need population.

In Massachusetts, students who go on to specialize in primary care may be eligible to use the state’s loan repayment program to receive up to $50,000 for a two-year contract once they become practicing physicians in federally designated Health Professional Shortage Areas.

2. Volunteer with the Peace Corps: The volunteer service organization has multiple options for former medical students to decrease their debt – their Global Health Service Partnership is one of them. Launched in 2013 through a partnership with SEED Global Health, an organization that aims to improve health conditions globally, and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, this program awards doctors up to $30,000 to reduce educational debt and other kinds of debt.

"Volunteers primarily function as physician or nursing educators and also participate in direct clinical care as appropriate to their teaching roles," says the Peace Corps’ website.

In 2013, about 30 physicians and nurses participated in the program, which sent participants to Tanzania, Malawi and Uganda. Doctors and nurses are required to serve for one year, but can apply for a second term.

[See the best medical schools for research.]

Students who volunteer with the Peace Corps outside of the Global Health Service Partnership may also slash much of their debt.

Those who volunteer after medical school may be eligible to have some of their Perkins loan forgiven if they contribute service and don’t consolidate the loan with a non-Perkins loan. A graduate who volunteers for four years can be eligible to have as much as 70 percent of a Perkins loan forgiven.

Students should know that the U.S. Department of Education sets the guidelines for partial Perkins loan cancellations, not the Peace Corps. Because this option is not exclusive to medical students, premed students may consider it for undergraduate debt.

[Explore the best medical schools for primary care.]

3. Seek out merit scholarships: In a few instances, medical students may find themselves eligible for a high-dollar scholarship while in the midst of their studies. At the Howard University College of Medicine, students can receive the Board of Trustees Scholarship, which is available to top performing medical students, says Rozanna Aitcheson, the college’s financial aid manager.

“Approximately 10 students in each class receive Board of Trustees Scholarships,” she says – a sizable number at a school where medical school classes usually consist of 110 students. Of the 10 scholarship recipients, two students receive scholarships that cover the entire tuition.

The school offers a number of other scholarships as well, Aitcheson says, to minimize the likelihood of cost preventing someone from pursuing their medical education. Howard also offers a number of workshops to inform students about the benefits of learning how to manage their finances during and after school.

Searching for a medical school? Get our complete rankings of Best Medical Schools.