The trouble with financial aid isn’t really the debt.

Okay, that’s a lie. The trouble with financial aid is all about the debt. But the complexity of the debt just adds insult to injury.

My first real experience with financial aid was for the postbac program. I had a teeny tiny government loan from

Pictured: Me for the foreseeable future (source: The Medical Student Blog)

massage school, but my undergraduate school was paid off free and clear (thanks mom and dad.)

The thing about student loans is that you can’t just get one lump sum to take care of things. You fill out FAFSA (the Free Application for Federal Student Aid aka Taxes II: This Time It’s Personal) and the government comes back with a smattering of limited options that may or may not cover the cost of tuition and living expenses. All of these are offered on a gradually increasing scale of soul possession.

Subsidized loans are the best; they mean that you have a low interest rate that doesn’t start accruing until after you graduate. Of course the government recently got rid of these (or cut them back drastically) because they don’t want us to have nice things.  (Bitter? Me? You must be joking.)  Next up are unsubsidized loans (higher interest rate that accrues during school) and then grad plus loans, which have the highest interest rate. They don’t offer these to postbac students because technically they aren’t graduate students.

If your collection of federal loans don’t quite cover tuition and living expenses (for example, if you’re attending a program that doesn’t count you as a graduate student), you can always take out private student loans.

I am relatively confident that financial aid officers are forbidden from knowing anything actually useful regarding private loans. At least every time I emailed any of the schools I was planning to apply to for postbac I was immediately referred to their website. Seeing as I, being an intrepid young internet user, had already perused their website at length, I would email back politely restating my question and pointing out that their website fell short. After that I usually received an email that basically equaled, “I dunno…ask the bank? Just check with our website to make sure you get the right bank.”

Sigh.

If you do get a private loan, it goes through the school. They extract their tuition from you and send you a check for the remainder if you’re taking out loans for living expenses. They do this on a semester basis.

In postbac, over the summer they divided my loan disbursals between the two summer sessions (Chem 1 and Chem 2). Only they also decided not to divide the tuition payments in half. So for the first month and a half, the school had paid itself the majority of the entire summer’s tuition but was hanging onto the money I needed to buy food and pay rent…just because? When I pointed out that I kind of needed that money for important living purposes they offered to lend me (with interest, of course) an extra $2,000 to tide me over. No financial aid, I don’t need more loans. I just need the ones I already signed my soul over for.

Fortunately, because medical school is such an extreme financial burden, they hire financial aid officials who actually know their shit and they actually put together a package for you rather than sending you out into the wilds on your own. You still have to fill out FAFSA, and most of them want tax records from you and your parents, but at the end of it all you get a bunch of numbers tied up with a bow matching the cost of attendance (which includes living expenses.) They also have advice on how to limit your loans and information on a the many different payment plans you can use in residency and beyond.

That doesn’t mean everything is all set, though. Even though most medical students are well past the drinking age, financial aid still takes their parent’s income into account. I am finally (at almost 27) considered old enough that I had no EFC (expected family contribution) to contend with, but younger students either have to count on mom and dad to fill in the gap or tackle the grad plus or private loans.

Do you have a headache yet? Because to top this all off, every school is different. They all want FAFSA (no problem) but different schools have different extra forms they want you to fill out. They also have different need-based loans and scholarships as well as merit-based scholarships. And keep in mind that every loan coming from a different source (school, bank, government) is a separate organization that you’re going to need to keep track of as you move through medical school, residency, and beyond.

All of this so that I can spend the next four years of my life studying harder than I have ever studied before and then spend the next ten to twenty five years paying monthly payments four times my current rent.

Screw it, maybe I’ll just give up and join the military.*

source: Le Regard Cretois

*Please look to future entries as to why the military and the National Health Scholars Program are not part of my medical school payment plan.

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