Priced out of a Medical School Education

by Lorien E. Menhennett

Above is a screenshot from HOMEROOM: The Official Blog of the U.S. Department of Education. Click on the screenshot to read the post in its entirety (the article will open in a new browser window). This article was also cross-posted on the White House Blog.

Higher education should be affordable for everyone who wants it badly enough. Who has worked for it. That’s the message I get from President Barack Obama’s words – and deeds – of the last several months. Years, even.

But guess what, President Obama? This year, I was priced out of a higher education. At Weill Cornell Medical College, an Ivy League medical school, no less. Why? Because I can’t get a federal Grad PLUS loan. I find this unacceptable. I think you should, too.

When the U.S economy fell to its quivering knees in 2008, my credit fell along with it. Why? I was laid off. So was my husband. Bills piled up. We lost our home to foreclosure. We got divorced. I got sick. More bills piled up. Bills I couldn’t pay because I couldn’t find a job.

Somewhere in the chaos, this former journalist found another passion and purpose: medicine. After completing my medical school pre-requisites, I took the MCAT and applied to medical school. I was accepted – not once, not twice, but three times. Finally, I decided on Cornell.

But even Cornell, a private institution with an enormous endowment, couldn’t offer me enough financial aid. I still need a credit-based PLUS loan. And with my credit history, the U.S. Department of Education says “no-go.” Federal Student Aid refuses to even process my appeal, having returned my substantial documentation to me – clearly unread – in 24 minutes. (Yes, that’s a denial-to-process in 24 minutes, not hours.) That documentation was evidence of my extenuating circumstances, which the Department of Education says it will consider in an appeal. But apparently, the Department of Education takes a very narrow view of what “extenuating circumstances” means. The worst economic crisis since the Great Depression? Nah, that doesn’t count. Try again. Only this time, with a co-signer. Except, both my parents are nearing retirement age. Both co-signed on loans for earlier college coursework. So taking on more debt, for them, is highly inadvisable.

I have been granted a one-year deferral from Cornell to resolve my loan situation. But I seem to have exhausted most of my options. So I am making noise. Banging what pots and pans I have left, trying to get someone to hear my plight and help my cause.

Previous to today, my efforts included contacting:

  • The U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions (all 22 senators)
  • The U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Higher Education & Workforce Training (all 21 representatives)
  • Elected officials from my home state of Illinois

To date, I have heard back from 3 politicians:

  • U.S. Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL), whose office is in the process of working with the U.S. Department of Education my behalf
  • U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), whose field representative told me that my issue is an important piece of the student loan puzzle
  • U.S. Congressman Lou Barletta (R-PA, 11th District), whose office staff told me that unfortunately he cannot help me because I am out of the Congressman’s district

Today, I sent 64 more e-mails. Recipients included:

  • The White House
  • Multiple contacts at the U.S. Department of Education
  • The American Medical Association (all 16 people on the Board of Trustees, 2 staff members from the Section on Medical Schools, and 6 staff members from the Medical Education Group)
  • The Association of American Medical Colleges (the Chief Academic Officer and 5 staff members from the FIRST for Medical Education group)
  • Reporters and blog writers (from more than a dozen different media outlets) who cover higher education or health/medicine

I was certainly not the only one who lost a job and a house and a marriage during the economic collapse. I  know I am not the only one dealing with this student loan denial, either.

Please, help me spread the word. Because I completely agree with President Obama – “no hardworking young person should be priced out of a higher education.”

Together, let’s make sure that happens.