Graduation Day Thoughts on Student Debt

Memorial Day and Mother’s Day are May’s official holidays, but for millions, graduation day is May’s biggest celebration—as momentous as a wedding or birth. Graduation creates memories of a proud family gathering, celebrations with classmates, and the inspiring message from a charismatic commencement speaker.
I’ve had my share of graduations—high school, college at Cornell University, medical school at GW, grad school at Hopkins. Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) President Jordan Cohen addressed my medical school graduation. I had no idea who he was. A decade later, I went to work for him, and the AAMC has been my professional home ever since.
Today, however, graduations bring to my mind two different thoughts: first, the massive amount of debt the vast majority of medical school grads carry, and second, the proposals of some policymakers that would make debt repayment harder. The AAMC is responding to both.
More than 30 million Americans carry some form of academic debt, totaling $1 trillion. That includes 84 percent of all medical school grads, whose median debt was about $180,000 in 2014. For many, graduation day signals the start of years of loan repayments.
Fortunately, this hasn’t yet deterred students from pursuing a career in medicine. Applicants to the nation’s medical schools are at all-time highs. And that’s good—we don’t want to lose all of the health care talent our nation desperately needs.
At a time when our population is growing older and more diverse—and requiring more frequent, specialized, and different kinds of care—we can’t afford to discourage the next generation of doctors, especially when new physician workforce projections foresee a 2025 shortfall of 46,000  to 91,000 physicians, with the largest gap among surgeons.
That’s why federal scholarship and loan forgiveness programs such as the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program and National Health Service Corps (NHSC), as well as those sponsored by the military, Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and others, are vital. They can dramatically reduce a borrower’s loan payments in exchange for a graduate’s commitment to care for underserved communities for a prescribed period of time. The AAMC commends Congress for its recent two-year extension of NHSC funding because the entire country benefits from this important program.
To ensure that medical students and physicians have access to the best possible borrowing and repayment options, the AAMC works in coalitions to support scholarship and loan repayment programs. At the same time, the association advocates for enhancing federal guaranteed loan programs that lower the cost of student debt and continuing programs, such as the Pay As You Earn (PAYE) program that caps payments at 10 percent of discretionary income.
It’s important for prospective medical students to know that as formidable as their debt is, it is, at least for now, manageable. A career in medicine remains an excellent investment. Deans at the nation’s medical schools are deeply concerned about student debt and are actively working to ease this burden.
As they celebrate their accomplishments at graduation, medical school graduates can look forward to one of the most rewarding careers possible. Thanks in part to multiple federal repayment options and programs, all medical school graduates—with any debt level, practicing any specialty—should be able to comfortably repay their student loans. That’s good news for patients in need of talented physicians.
Newly minted MDs have put in a great deal of time and effort to be able to realize their dreams and serve their communities. We need to make sure that Congress serves them by supporting programs that make student debt manageable.
Originally published the AAMC website on May 26, 2015.

About the Ads
Atul Grover, MD, PhD, is the AAMC Executive Vice President Atul Grover, MD, PhD, is the AAMC Executive Vice President