Texas Tech University

Medical Student Debt Acquisition, Repayment Focus of Doctoral Student's Research

Amanda Bowman

January 4, 2021

Kaplan Sanders is researching the impact of medical student debt on the next generation of physicians.

Kaplan Sanders
Kaplan Sanders

Medical school is expensive. The average yearly tuition ranges from $37,000 (in-state, public school) to $62,000 (out-of-state, private school). Kaplan Sanders, a doctoral student majoring in personal financial planning in Texas Tech University's College of Human Sciences, is researching if there is a bigger debt burden placed on students who are underrepresented in medicine – those who are not Caucasian or Asian.

"Those underrepresented in medicine tend to take on much more debt and pay off that debt much more slowly than their Caucasian and Asian peers," Sanders said. "The implication from that perspective is that maybe this burden of debt is being felt more heavily by those underrepresented in medicine, and that could be yet another reason there's still a barrier to entry.

"From a gender perspective, there's much more of an even representation in the field of medicine. But from a race perspective, there's still a wide disparity. The physician workforce is still not representative of the population it serves."

$1 million income not enough?

Before Sanders applied for Texas Tech's personal financial planning doctoral program, he was working for a financial planning firm. Several of his clients were physicians who had large incomes yet hardly any money saved for retirement. That made the gears in his head turn.

"I thought, 'What if we can take a look at understanding the debt and savings behaviors specific to these really large numbers?'" Sanders said. "We're talking about a debt of about $200,000 for the average physician coming out of medical school. But I'm also hearing examples of people taking on a half a million dollars of debt in their studies, then turning around and getting somewhere in the high hundreds of thousands, all the way up to the millions, in annual income.

"In some cases, those physicians are spending all of that income. I wanted to see if we could find some associations that would help us improve the advice we give as financial planners."

A large income doesn't equal wealth

Some people may assume if someone makes a lot of money in income, that person is wealthy. Sanders says there is a huge difference between a large income and wealth accumulation.

"Income has everything to do with our daily decisions like what to buy and how much to save," he said. "Wealth accumulation is about taking care of bigger expenses and having financial safety. Are you accumulating enough money that, when you eventually want to retire, you can do what you want? Or when you want to go on that vacation, you actually have the money to go? Or if you want to send your kids to school, you have the money to do that? Most people can't do those kinds of big things on income alone. They have to save for it.

"Wealth accumulation really is about getting ready for your future needs. Are you enjoying and taking care of your present and also saving some of that income to enjoy life in 30 years?"

Three Minute Thesis (3MT™) competition

Every year, Texas Tech's Graduate School hosts the Three Minute Thesis (3MT™) competition. Developed by The University of Queensland in 2008, the competition cultivates graduate students' academic, presentation and research communication skills.

Sanders used this static PowerPoint slide for the 3MT™ competition.
Sanders used this static PowerPoint slide for the 3MT™ competition.

The competition supports the capacity of graduate students to effectively explain research in three minutes or less, in language appropriate to a non-specialist audience while using just one static PowerPoint slide.

Sanders chose to compete in 3MT™ because it allowed him to condense his research. He ultimately finished third.

"Competing in the 3MT™ forced me to think, if I was basically on a three-minute elevator ride with somebody, how would I describe my research?" he said. "I feel like it forced me to boil down the essence of what I studied and helped me communicate in a way I think will be meaningful as I go back out on the job market and pursue a role in academia."

Conducting his research and entering the 3MT™ competition also made Sanders more aware of the lack of representation in medicine.

"The ongoing concern is, how are we helping to bring representation to the workforce and, in my case, the physician workforce," Sanders said. "If the cost of attending is one of the barriers, then we need to start thinking through the solutions to that."