Get Out From Under Educational Debt


photo of Milton HernandezWe are welcoming our first Rock Talk guest blogger this week, Dr. Milton Hernandez. Milton is director of NIH’s Loan Repayment Programs.

Last week, The New York Times published in a blog “The Hidden Costs of Medical Student Debt External Web Site Policy.” In this, Dr. Pauline W. Chen highlights that young doctors who graduated from medical school in 2010 had an average debt of $158,000 and notes that:

“for some young people, looming debts mean eschewing a calling to serve a particularly needy, less lucrative patient population or practice, and instead pursuing a well-compensated subspecialty that caters to the comfortably insured.”

This large debt is also a barrier for young doctors and scientists who want to pursue research careers, and it has been a hot topic in the scientific community for many years. We need to keep talented young scientists in research careers if we are to address our nation’s current and future health needs. In 2001, Congress established the NIH extramural Loan Repayment Programs (LRPs). These programs repay up to $35,000 of student loan debt annually for investigators who commit to at least two years of biomedical or behavioral research funded by a domestic nonprofit, university or government entity.

Each year, NIH Institutes and Centers fund about 1,600 LRP contracts for investigators who perform clinical, pediatric, health disparities, infertility or contraception research. The programs are open to M.D.s as well as Ph.D.s and will help repay graduate and undergraduate debts. After the initial award, recipients may apply for one or two-year competitive renewals as long as they have sufficient educational debt remaining and meet the other eligibility criteria. The success rate for new applicants is 42 percent, and the success rate for renewals is 70 percent.

As of 2011, nearly 8,000 researchers have benefited from LRPs, and an evaluation conducted in 2009 showed that program participants stay in research careers longer, apply for and receive more research grants, and are more likely to become independent investigators than peers who do not receive LRP funding. Our success stories illustrate that many of our alumni are running their own research labs, and some, like New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Nirav R. Shah, represent the next generation of public health leaders.

If you are a young researcher who has educational debt, I encourage you to apply for these programs. The next application cycle opens September 1, and the deadline is at 8 p.m. ET on November 15. As you prepare your application, be sure to check out my webinar for tips and advice. To learn more and/or apply, go to


  1. Hi, Dr Milton,
    I am a researcher of the university of Rome in Italy, i am busy for now to build a website that explain in easy mode and step by step italian loans, i am interested in your program in september but my job don’t allow me to be in the USA in this period. I checked however your webinar, what i can say… i found it very interesting. Fantastic.
    Keep up the good work.
    Sorry my english 🙂

  2. Educational debt is crushing our economy. We need to get a grip on education debt more than anything else!

  3. Dr. Milton. My son is going to medical school and I was researching how much it will cost him to get his MD program – I was surprised to find out these figures (very close to yours):

    According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, the median tuition in 2010-2011 was $28,685 at a public institution and $46,899 at a private institution. Note that tuition does not include books, lab fees, etc. In 2010-2011 the median total cost of attendance was $49,298 and $66,984 for public and private universities, respectively.

    In 2010, the median debt at graduation was $150,000 at public institutions, $180,000 at private, and $160,000 combined.

    Totally mind boggling!

  4. How about LRP programs beyond those currently funded? Academic researchers make far lower salaries (even after post-doctoral research, which is notoriously low salary based on education level) than most entry level MD’s. A LRP for people doing research in other area’s of research seems warranted. While the 5 areas of research that do have a LRP are worthwhile, they are rather limited in scope. Not to mention, most academic researchers are also involved in educating future MD’s and PhD’s.

    A general LRP for anyone doing a post-doc at an NIH institution or for early career researchers with an RO1 grant would be very enticing, in my opinion.

  5. I completely understand the justification for aiding doctors and clinicians on the repayment of their student dept. However, I want to highlight the fact that many academic professionals, who provide arguably as important a service to our country by conducting basic biomedical research and simultaneously educating the next generation of scientists, doctors and others, also have been heavily burdened with educational dept. These folks earn far less, while the investment of time can be even greater. I will use myself as an example. I am an Associate Professor at West Virginia University. I have spent a little more than 5 years working on advanced degrees, 5 years as a postdoctoral researcher. I have been supported by NIH funding to conduct my research during much of my career and have been independently funded through NIH for nearly a decade. While it has been about 13 years since I completed my education, I have only been able to pay down about 20% of my educational debt.
    People like me provide a great service to the people of the United States; we receive a relatively smaller financial reward for it. That is our debt to income ratio is in many cases far greater and represents a far greater strain on our families; I will still be paying off my student loans by the time my youngest son (now 11) graduates from college. Yet programs such as the LPR program have never been made available to folks like us. Why does this great program discriminate against people, such as myself, in favor of other disciplines that reap greater financial benefits?

  6. I have a simple question regarding the statement in this article “an evaluation conducted in 2009 showed that program participants stay in research careers longer, apply for and receive more research grants, and are more likely to become independent investigators than peers who do not receive LRP funding.” Are those that receive LRP funding more likely to be successful in their own right?

  7. Thank you for the recent comments. Scott and Dr. Daly — The Division of Loan Repayment at NIH is entrusted with the administration of the Loan Repayment Programs (LRPs) as they were enacted by legislation. The five categories of LRPs have very specific legislation. We are aware that there are other areas of need, but they are not covered by the current LRP legislation.

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