If you have a graduate degree in a medical field, there's a good chance that along with a drawer full of scrubs and the ability to name every bone in the body, you're in possession of a significant student loan balance.
Medical professionals have the highest average student debt load among individuals who earn graduate degrees: $161,772. And if you put your loans into forbearance during your residency, that number might be even higher.
Paying off your student loans before you're retired may feel like a pipe dream. So what can you do about it?
If you weren't thinking about loan forgiveness when you entered school, you might be thinking about it now.
Most forgiveness programs require something in exchange — usually two or three years working in a geographic area of significant need. If you're carrying that hefty debt load, you may be willing to make some sacrifices to breathe a little easier when you check your bank account.
Fortunately, there are a lot of options out there.
The Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program is not specific to doctors or medical professionals, but you can take advantage of the program if you meet certain eligibility criteria.
PSLF is available to borrowers with Direct Loans who are not in default and who have made 120 full, on-time payments while employed full-time by a qualified employer.
The trickiest part of PSLF is determining whether a particular employer is qualified for the purposes of the program. 501(c)(3) non-profit and government organizations qualify, as well as some other types of public service organizations, like the Peace Corps or organizations focused on public health or public safety.
The best way to know whether your employer (or potential employer) is considered a qualified employer is to ask. Learn more about Public Service Loan Forgiveness.
If you have Perkins Loans and are a nurse or medical technician, you may be eligible for forgiveness of up to 100% of those student loans. To qualify for the full cancellation of your Perkins Loans, you must work full-time for five years as a nurse or medical technician.
If you're thinking ahead about how to deal with your student loans and you're still in medical or dental school, you may be able to take advantage of the National Health Service Corps' (NHSC) Students to Service Program.
If you're in your final year of either medical or dental school, you may be able to get up to $120,000 of your student loans repaid by committing to three years at an NHSC site in an area with a shortage of healthcare professionals. Making a sacrifice at the beginning of your medical career could be a good way to get a big chunk — if not all — of your student loans paid off.
The NHSC provides a comprehensive guide on eligibility requirements and how to apply.
If you've ever considered entering the armed forces, doing so now may give you extra benefits. To maintain an adequate number of qualified healthcare professionals, all branches of the military offer loan repayment programs for doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals.
Like the Students to Service Program, military service could result in up to $120,000 forgiven, or $40,000 per year for three years.
Check with the specific military branch you're interested in to find out more about their programs.
Many states create forgiveness programs to address regional health professional shortages.
For instance, doctors willing to work in certain communities in rural Arkansas could receive up to $80,000 in loan repayment assistance over four years. If a tropical climate sounds good to you, then you may be interested in Hawaii's loan repayment program, which is available to a variety of health professionals, including nurse-midwives and counselors. In Pennsylvania, doctors can receive up to $100,000 of loan repayment assistance for two years in a health-professional shortage area.
Wherever you're planning to practice, there's a good chance your state has a program incentivitizing medical professionals to work in high need areas.
If you're a registered nurse or nurse faculty, you may be eligible to have up to 85% of your unpaid loan balance paid off. As with many loan forgiveness or repayment programs, you are required to work in a high-need setting for a specific period of time.
To get repayment under the NURSE Corps program, you must work full-time in a Critical Shortage Facility in a high-need area or as faculty in an accredited school of nursing. After two years of work, you'll receive 60% of your loans repaid. You can extend to a third year for an additional 25%.
Apply for the NURSE Corps Loan Repayment Program.
You may be eligible to receive up to $50,000 toward your student loans for two years of healthcare work in a high-need, underserved area at an approved National Health Service Corps site.
Not everyone who applies will be accepted into the repayment program. Acceptance is prioritized for individuals who come from disadvantaged backgrounds and those working at the sites with the highest need.
Apply for the NHSC Repayment Program.
The NIH Loan Repayment Program encourages health professionals to enter into research careers. By making at least a two-year committment, a graduate can receive payment toward up to a quarter of their loan balance or $35,000 per year, whichever is lower.
To qualify you'll need:
The research must be supported by a government agency, a university, a professional association, or a nonprofit.
Apply for the NIH Loan Repayment Program.
You don't have to spend years struggling under the weight of student loans. There are numerous programs that can help doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals reduce your student loan balance with a brief commitment to practicing in an area that needs your skills.
If working in a critical shortage or high-need area isn't in your career plan, you can still lower your monthly payments. Learn about student loan refinancing.
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