Campus & Community

Medical School to reduce student debt burden with new financing plan

4 min read

Harvard Medical School (HMS) Dean Jeffrey Flier announced March 21 that the School is taking steps to reduce the cost of a four-year medical education by up to $50,000 for families with incomes of $120,000 or less.

“The issue of student debt is of great concern to me, which is why I feel particular satisfaction with this first step toward making HMS more affordable,” Flier wrote in a letter to the HMS community. “It is important that the School not be out of reach to a broad segment of undergraduate students and their families. It is equally imperative to avoid burdening families with a new round of debt shortly after a child has finished college.”

At the same time, Flier announced that the School will be making major improvements in the physical learning environment by extensively renovating the interior of the Tosteson Medical Education Center, which was built 23 years ago.

The new policy, benefiting just over one-third of current HMS students, comes at a time when starting salaries in medicine are lagging behind increases in student debt. “Minimizing debt is also essential for eliminating a potential barrier for students in making career choices,” said Jules Dienstag, HMS dean for medical education. “This way students will not have to take debt into account or feel pressured to enter into higher-paying specialties after graduation. They can go into whatever field it is that inspired them to study medicine in the first place.”

Flier’s announcement follows by days an announcement by Harvard Law School that it will eliminate third-year tuition for students who commit to working in public service for five years following graduation, and is part of Harvard’s commitment to make the University’s education affordable for students who may previously have seen it as out of reach.

“We continue to pursue ways to make sure Harvard’s doors are open to students of talent and promise, whatever their financial means, and to moderate students’ debt levels so that financial worries don’t constrain their choice of career,” said Harvard President Drew Faust. “This initiative by the Medical School is a strong step forward down that path, and the long-term beneficiaries will include not only our future medical students but the many people these future physicians will serve.”

Under the current tuition structure, families with incomes of $120,000 and assets typical for that income level are expected to contribute about $12,500 toward the tuition, fees, and living expenses that make up the approximately $65,000 cost of a year at Harvard Medical School. The new plan will eliminate from the family income calculation typical before-tax retirement savings.

Students who demonstrate financial need are offered a package of subsidized federal and institutional loans — called the Unit Loan — of $24,500. Students may then be offered institutional scholarships to make up the difference between the Unit Loan, the family contribution, and the cost.

Under the new financing plan, HMS will increase to almost $11 million annually the amount provided in scholarships to make up for the reduction in parental contributions. In his letter to the School’s community, Flier said HMS leadership is “currently studying the feasibility of reducing the Unit Loan and replacing that portion with scholarships to further decrease the debt burden on our students and their families.”

This effort to reduce the student debt burden grows out of an ongoing Strategic Planning Process begun by Flier, and is the work of the Strategic Advisory Group on Education, chaired by HMS Professors Thomas Michel and Orah Platt; the HMS Program in Medical Education, headed by Dienstag and Jane Neill, associate dean for medical education planning and administration; and their team, headed by Robert Coughlin, HMS director of financial aid.

Flier said he expects that the Tosteson Education Center renovation “will have a striking impact on the overall experience of those who spend time in the building.” The effort — which is anticipated to cost more than $20 million — will include refurbishing the building’s atrium, amphitheaters, classrooms, teaching labs, hallways, and bathrooms.

“Equally important, we are simultaneously beginning to look at options for a long-range renovation that encompasses the entire Harvard Longwood campus,” Flier wrote in his letter. “Some possibilities may include conversions of building use and wholesale renewal of buildings to accommodate new directions for science. In addition, we will need to consider how best to begin integrating the Allston campus into the research and teaching activities of the Medical School.”