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Should I join the military to pay for medical school?


I read an entry in the “The White Coat Investor” regarding the decision to join the military to pay for medical school.  It was an intriguing read.  If you are not aware of what I am talking about, it is the Armed Forces Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP).  The HPSP pays the medical student to attend medical school and train with a military residency in return for the medical student’s commitment to practice medicine in the military.  The benefits include a $20,000 sign on bonus received during the medical student’s first year of medical school in addition to paying the medical student’s medical school tuition, health insurance and monthly living stipend of more than $2,300 monthly (based on 2018-2019 information).  At IU School of Medicine, we have approximately 50 medical students who have opted for the HPSP, mostly Army and Navy.  The Air Force continues to be the more competitive branch.  Additionally, the Army and Navy have recruiting commands locally while the HPSP recruitment for the Air Force is in Dayton, OH.

Of course, as a financial aid professional, I believe in making students aware of opportunities such as the HPSP and if there is interest, I suggest they meet with a military recruiter to learn more about the opportunity.  I have found that military recruiters can be very good or very bad, depending on their background.  If they come from a medical corps background, they can be very informative and insightful on expectations; otherwise, they can be more of a used car salesman approach.  Fortunately, many of the recruiters I have had the pleasure of assisting, have been the former.

The White Coat Investor makes a great point, which I will repeat here: “I would never recommend someone join the military for the financial benefits.  The unique hassles of the military such as going through the military match, dealing with military bureaucracy and hospital rank structure, not having control over where you live, and potential deployments cannot be compensated for with money.  Only a true desire to serve your country and those who put their lives on the line for you and your loved ones each day can compensate you for that.  In the end, this decision should be made based on the prospective medical student’s desire to be in the military and not the financial ramifications.”

If money is the only motivator, is it worth the investment?  Well, let’s see.  If I add up the compensation while in medical school as a resident medical student, I come up with an approximate value of $260,000 or $360,000 for a non-resident student.  This is compared to borrowing these amounts as an investment and paying back the loans with interest at a ballpark of $458,945 or $560,000 respectively.  This is assuming it will take 10 years to pay back the amounts after a 4-year residency program.  So, it is easy to see where an HPSP would be worth its value financially during medical school.  Now, if you look at it from a career standpoint, then the position may change depending on what type of career you go into.  It is still a great deal financially while in residency since the resident income for an HPSP Resident is near $75,000 annually while the civilian residency salary is near $56,000.

The military physician makes approximately $150,000 per year while in their active duty service (this includes military housing allowances).  Based on a resident (versus non-resident) medical student, after four years of medical school, three years of residency, and four years of post-residency practice, the military physician has received benefits of approximately $1.125 million and the civilian physician has received benefits of $1.083 million (based on average civilian physician compensation), essentially a draw.  The balance is tilted in favor of the civilian route for a cheaper medical school, cheaper loans, a higher-paying specialty, or a more lucrative private partnership type position.  Conversely, the balance is tilted in favor of the military route for a more expensive medical school, a lower paying specialty, or prior military service.

The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.

Jose Espada

Jose Rivera Espada is the director of financial aid at IU School of Medicine, a nine-campus allopathic medical school in Indiana. Jose’s experience includes working as an assistant director of financial aid at Butler University and a financial aid coun...