Medical school is expensive in terms of both time and money. The decision to pursue a degree in medicine is a serious one, and those who make the commitment should be ready to focus on this goal for a decade or more. The dollar costs vary widely depending on where and how you earn your degrees. Beyond the question of costs, there is another question: Is medical school worth it? In this article, we’ll examine this question as well as break down some of the costs and rewards of a medical degree.
How Much Does Medical School Cost?
According to data published by the American Association of Medical Colleges, the average cost to attend a public medical school, including fees, tuition, and health insurance, was $58,740 for out-of-state students and $34,594 for in-state students for the 2016-17 academic year. At private medical schools, tuition and fees average over $50,000 per year regardless of whether the student is in-state or out-of-state. Overall, the average cost of medical school tuition for the 2016-17 school year was $55,629, which equates to $222,516 for tuition over the course of four years.
Additionally, these figures do not include expenses for such things as food, housing, books, and other costs of living. Even the most frugal medical student is going to incur some costs outside of his or her education. Cost of living varies widely in different parts of the country, so it’s best to build a budget specific to the area where you plan to live and study. For example, the University of Michigan M.D. program suggests that students budget $815 per month for rent while the University of Chicago recommends a budget of $1,400 per month for room and board. Other items students should have on their monthly budgets include electricity, phone, cable, internet, food, personal and recreational expenses, transportation, and clothing. Students should also account for such expenses as insurance, books, and required instruments and equipment.
Most and Least Expensive Medical Schools
The most expensive medical schools in the country, in terms of tuition, are:
- Tufts University: $61,436
- Columbia University: $61,145
- Dartmouth University: $60,468
- Case Western Reserve University: $57,050
- Northwestern University Feinberg: $56,212
- University of Southern California: $54,653
In contrast, the least expensive medical schools are:
- University of North Texas Health Science Center: $13,078
- Texas A&M College of Medicine: $13,790
- University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio: $14,500
- Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center School of Medicine: $15,016
- University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston: $15,525
- University of New Mexico School of Medicine: $15,798
The Costs Begin Before Medical School
People who are considering going to medical school will incur a number of costs before they ever pay tuition or attend a class. Application fees, MCAT costs, travel costs, administrative fees, and seat deposits really add up, especially for people who are not yet part of the workforce. For many students, a significant portion of the money they made while working during their undergrad studies goes to cover costs that arise even before medical school begins.
Just the costs of applying to medical schools can really add up. According to a medical school admissions expert, applicants can spend over $10,000 on application fees if they apply to 15 schools. During the application process, students sign up with the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS). AMCAS puts together information for the applicants and sends it to the relevant schools. There are fees associated with signing up with AMCAS, and applicants have to pay an AMCAS fee for each application.
It costs a few hundred dollars to sit for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), and students might spend hundreds or thousands of dollars more on practice tests and MCAT prep courses. Many medical schools require in-person interviews as part of the admissions process. It can cost between $500 and $1,000 to travel and interview at each prospective school, and these interviews might require an updated wardrobe. When the student is admitted, he or she might have to pay for a return trip for orientation or other student functions.
Finally, even before classes begin, many new medical students will be required to pay a deposit in order to hold their spot in the class. A student might spend up to $3,000 as a non-refundable deposit to accept their place in medical school.
How Long Does a Medical Degree Take?
The training and education requirements for doctors are rigorous. Typically, applicants to medical schools must have earned at least a bachelor’s degree, and many have already earned advanced degrees prior to applying. A bachelor’s degree takes four years to complete. Medical schools do not place requirements on the field of undergraduate study, but most people who plan to go to medical school major in math, English, or a hard science like chemistry, biology, or physics.
Once you secure your bachelor’s degree, you still have a long way to go before your education and training to be a doctor are complete. Medical school itself typically takes four years to finish. The first two years of medical school are focused on laboratory and classroom work. Students take courses in biochemistry, psychology, pharmacology, anatomy, medical law, and medical ethics.
During the final two years of medical school, students usually perform rotations in family practice, obstetrics and gynecology, psychiatry, pediatrics, surgery, and internal medicine. They work directly with patients while under the supervision of physicians with more experience.
After medical school, prospective doctors begin a residency program focused on their area of specialty. Residencies typically take place in hospitals. Depending on the area of medicine you want to practice, your residency might last between three and seven years.
How Long Is Medical Residency?
Even after they’ve earned medical degrees, doctors have more education coming. It’s a profession that requires what could be considered an apprenticeship period, during which young doctors learn on the job. The length of the required residency varies based on the area of medicine a doctor focuses on. Doctors going into family practice, internal medicine, pediatrics, or preventative medicine typically have residencies of three years. Here are some of the other specialties and their lengths of residency:
- Allergy and immunology: Five years
- Child and adolescent psychiatry: Six years
- Colon and rectal surgery: Five years
- Neurological surgery: Six years
- Thoracic surgery: Seven years
Students typically take the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) as they make their way through medical school. The USMLE is an exam administered in three steps that each break down further into four parts: Step 1, Step 2 CK, Step 2 CS, and Step 3. Doctors must complete the exam, which is sponsored by the National Board of Medical Examiners and the Federation of State Medical Boards, as part of the medical licensing process.
The fees for the USMLE are significant, and you should build them into your budget and plan for them as you move toward graduation from medical school. The 2018 USMLE fees for students at accredited schools in Canada or the U.S. are:
- Step 1: $610
- Step 2 CK: $610
- Step 2 CS: $1,285
- Step 3: $850
Opportunity Cost of Medical School
The Bureau of Labor Statistics has published data indicating that an American with a bachelor’s degree earns an average of $1,102 per week. This means that people who choose to go to medical school are forgoing better than $60,000 on average every year by staying in school instead of working. Over four years of medical school, the average student will miss out on almost $230,000 in income.
That doesn’t quite tell the whole story, though. Because medical students are working so much, packing 13 years’ worth of working hours into only seven years, and because they are likely to command more in compensation than the average person with a bachelor’s degree, they might earn $800,000 during that time if they were getting paid for all of the hours they worked.
The opportunity cost of attending medical school, however, goes beyond just money. Doctors spend years and years studying and practicing their profession. This is time that they could spend doing something else. People who go through medical school are giving up on other careers they might have pursued. They are missing occasions to socialize or missing important moments with their families. For those who enjoy their work and who are passionate about medicine, this may not seem like too heavy a sacrifice, but for people who got into the career rashly or haphazardly, and who later learn that they don’t like the work, these sacrifices can be tremendously difficult.
In terms of money, most practicing physicians will very quickly earn the money they missed out on while they were studying. Even if it’s assumed that doctors miss out on $800,000, with a physician median salary of more than $208,000 per year, they will recoup their money within a few years.
Student Debt and Medical School
The majority of medical students borrow at least part of the money they need to pay for medical school. According to the American Association of Medical Colleges, medical students in the class of 2017 graduated with an average of $192,000 in debt. The median four-year price of attending medical school for 2018 is $243,902 for public school and $322,767 for private school.
Many medical students enter medical school with student debt carried over from their bachelor’s degrees. According to data published by the Pew Research Center, people with bachelor’s degrees in 2016 owed a median amount of $25,000 in loans from their undergrad studies. Of those who had earned postgraduate degrees and had student loan debts outstanding, 23 percent owed at least $100,000. Thanks to large salaries and very good job security, the majority of doctors will successfully pay off the loans they took out to pay for medical school.
How Much Money Do Doctors Make?
Depending on the area of focus and the region of the country in which they practice, doctors might earn annual salaries that range anywhere from the high five figures to the high six figures. Specialization in the medical industry means doctors’ practices are more and more narrowly focused, but specialists earn exponentially more than their general-practitioner counterparts in some cases. The average salary of a doctor practicing family medicine, for example, is $211,083 after seven years in graduate and post-graduate school. A pediatric thoracic surgeon, by contrast, earns a salary of $762,846 after twelve years of graduate and post-graduate studies.
Doctors earn good salaries. A first-year, post-residency doctor practicing internal medicine earned an average of $190,000 in 2016. The starting salaries for doctors are high, so most can expect to pay off loans for medical school faster than those in other professions.
What About Lifestyle?
Ultimately, the choice that a person makes regarding his or her career is more than a financial decision. People who earn medical degrees are likely to make more money than other people, and the costs of medical school will be quickly recouped by most doctors who go on to practice medicine in some capacity. It is also a very rewarding career, according to many practicing doctors.
But doctors spend a lot of time working. They spend a long time in school, and they spend a long time at the office or in the hospital. A medical degree, like a medical career, is a thing that requires focus and commitment. Many surgeons and physicians work irregular and long hours. Many work overnight hours or have to travel between offices and hospitals to provide patient care. Most doctors are on call at least some of the time during their careers. While they are on call, doctors might have to communicate with patients over the phone or travel to a hospital or other healthcare facility to meet with patients at odd hours.
Overall, doctors are among the best paid and most respected members of a community. They earn enough money to pay for medical school, and they can pay off their student loans within a reasonable period of time. If you’re passionate about medicine, it might be the career for you despite the costs associated with entering the profession.
Updated September 17, 2018
Chris Fuller went to the University of South Florida and has worked in the financial sector for over 20 years. He has extensive experience in all aspects of personal and small business lending, from personal loans, equipment finance to cash flow based solutions for small mom and pop businesses, and large corporations.