doc w/ pen

a journalist becomes a doctor before your eyes

Category: Student Loans

Bright future? Or dark cloud?

You have a bright future in front of you
But a dark cloud over you

So stated a New York City subway ad for a student loan refinancing company. (My paraphrase, but that was the gist.)

I smiled as I read the words, sitting there on an orange plastic seat, the train clattering along. Smiled, because I could relate to the feeling. Smiled genuinely though, not in a sad, resigned way. Because while I could relate to that feeling, I no longer felt that way.

Medical school in the United States is insanely expensive. Each year at Weill Cornell Medical College, I borrow about $90,000 from the government for tuition, living expenses, health insurance, and so on. I also have loans from the two-year pre-medical program I completed — more government loans, and some private bank loans too. At the end of it all, I will owe the equivalent of a hefty mortgage. Heck, depending on where you live, I could’ve bought two houses with all these loans.

Residency is when you start having to pay things back. You’re a doctor, but not making a doctor’s salary. For the government loans, there are income-based repayment plans. But not for the private loans. I’ve had many moments of middle-of-the-night panic about this. How in the world could I afford to start paying back all this money, potentially three loan payments at once, while making around $50,000 a year?

“It will work out. It always does,” I’ve whispered to myself on more than one occasion, to still the panic.

And now I have a better idea of how it will work out.

The fact that I’m graduating in a year has forced the issue. As I’ve scrolled through psychiatry program websites and pondered my personal statement, residency — and the accompanying loan repayment — has shifted from the realm of fantasy to reality.

But I’m no financial expert. And the world of student loans is a quagmire. I’ve felt completely unprepared to figure this out on my own. So I turned to the Internet. I don’t remember my Google search terms. They were probably something desperate like this:

How do you afford medical school loans as a resident?

Bank websites came up, of course, promising special repayment deals for medical residents. I investigated, discovered that it’s possible to refinance private and/or government loans to drastically reduce monthly payments during residency. Interest continues to accumulate, of course. But you can now afford to buy groceries, pay your rent, and avoid default. Seems like a good compromise to me.

I even called one of these refinancing companies, heard their spiel, and learned that there’s really nothing for me to do until after I graduate. I can’t refinance until then, or even apply, until I have my diploma. I was glad to know about the option though, and now have it tucked away for next year.

I kept poking around the Internet though, in search of advice on how to create a more comprehensive repayment plan for myself. Or for the name of someone who could help me do that.

A website called The White Coat Investor popped up. The person who runs the site is an emergency medicine doctor who got sick of “financial professionals ripping me off.” This seemed promising. Specifically, I landed on a page titled Student Loan Advice. The page gave me some information I already knew — how complicated student loan management is. It also gave me information I didn’t have — the names of people who specialize in helping medical residents manage their student loans.

I scheduled a free consultation. A specialized financial advisor and I discussed my options (in broad strokes), what his company could do to help me, and how much they charged for their services.

After the call was over, I felt a sense of relief. More than that: pure peace.

The exact details of my plan are yet to be determined (and can’t be, not fully, until after I graduate next May). But there are doable plans, and people who can help me map them out at a price I can afford.

Rather than that dark cloud, I can now focus on my bright future.

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“This Case Is Closed”

Dear LORIEN MENHENNETT,

This email is in reference to your inquiry regarding your credit appeal. Your case number is #XXXX-XXXX. Retain this number for your reference.

Your Credit Appeal has been processed and this case is closed. Your case has been <APPROVED >.

Those words came in an e-mail this morning from the U.S. Department of Education Federal Student Aid office. My struggle to finance medical school has been so tumultuous. So when I read such nonchalant words, sent by a customer service rep named Maria at 9:14 a.m. EST, I had to reread the words several times before this realization sunk in: I’m going to medical school. Not “if my loan gets approved.” The loan just got approved. There is nothing left standing in my way. What a feeling.

Priced out of a Medical School Education

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.