The median four-year cost to attend medical school — which includes outlays like living expenses and books — for the class of 2013 is $278,455 at private schools and $207,868 at public ones, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges, a nonprofit group of U.S. schools.
Record numbers of students still want to become doctors. First-time applicants to U.S. medical schools rose to 33,772 in 2012 from 24,884 a decade earlier, according to AAMC. New enrollment at U.S. medical schools grew 1.5 percent to 19,517 students, the highest ever.
The U.S. faces a shortage of more than 130,000 physicians by 2025 as the population ages and 32 million more Americans obtain insurance under health-care reform, the AAMC estimates.
Medical school is still worth the cost, said Cornell University President David Skorton, a cardiologist who took two decades to pay off his debt from college and medical school.
"The best investment I ever made was to borrow that money," Skorton said in an interview. He received his medical degree from Northwestern University in 1974.
The majority of medical scholars — like most graduate students — finance their educations with loans. The interest rate on federal loans for graduate students is 6.8 percent for Stafford or 7.9 percent for Grad Plus, far higher than the benchmark U.S. 10-year Treasury note, which was 1.78 percent at one point last week. Congress sets student-loan interest rates, which are typically higher than mortgages and car loans because they don't require collateral and are given to borrowers who have no credit histories.
Interest on most medical-school loans continues to accrue on at least a portion of the balance during the multiyear residency period that students undergo after graduation if they don't make full interest payments. That means a higher balance at the end of training, said Paul Garrard, president of PGPresents, an independent student-loan consulting company that specializes in medical debt.