The overwhelming likelihood of six-figure medical school debt is a sobering prospect for the nation's aspiring physicians. In 2019, The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) reported a median debt of $200,000 for U.S. medical school graduates, with average annual tuition ranging from roughly $32,000 for in-state resident students at public institutions to nearly $57,000 for out-of-state, nonresident, students at private institutions and the cost of the most expensive schools topping out at just under $100,000 annually. Although scholarship opportunities exist along with loan repayment and forgiveness programs, most students' chances of obtaining a medical degree without acquiring substantial debt are slim. But one notable exception is through the F. Edward Hébert Armed Forces Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP), which pays 100 percent of tuition—plus additional financial incentives—for a graduate-level health care degree at any accredited school in the United States or Puerto Rico.
Since 2016, Penn State students interested in careers in health professions have benefitted from a strategic partnership between the Eberly College of Science's Prehealth Advising Center and the local Army medical recruiting station, which has placed Penn State among the top feeder schools nationwide for the Army HPSP. In that time, Eberly's Prehealth Advising Center director Dr. Ron Markle and Maj. Matt Plouffe, commander of the Army's Pittsburgh Medical Recruiting Company, have established a collegial rapport that has been mutually beneficial to the college's students and the Army scholarship program—providing the Army with top-quality applicants who, in turn, are eligible to receive a top-quality education debt-free through their commitment to serve.
“It's a really good relationship,” Markle says, and Plouffe agrees: “It's a home run for us,” he says. “The partnership has just been great.”
Plouffe explains that applicants to the scholarship program, typically juniors or rising seniors, must clear a high academic bar—a minimum grade-point average of 3.2 and an MCAT score of 500 or better—as well as be physically and legally cleared for military service. “Once that happens,” he says, “as soon as they graduate, we'll get their degree-conferred transcript, and we can then administer the oath of office, swearing them into the Army Reserve.” Now ranking as second lieutenants, these newly commissioned officers are then off to medical school without any further obligations to the Army for the remainder of their first year. “We try to minimize any touch points with them,” Plouffe adds, “because we want them to focus on their academics.” To that end, the Army pays a monthly stiped—currently around $2,400—in addition to a $20,000 signing bonus and, of course, the full cost of tuition. The Army also pays for books, equipment, and other fees associated with their education. During school breaks, scholarship awardees receive officers' pay.
In the summer between their first and second year of medical school, awardees attend the Basic Officer Leader Course. And in the summers following their second and third years of schooling, they attend and complete their rotations. Upon graduation, they advance to the rank of captain and begin their residency training—typically paid more than their civilian counterparts and with full benefits. Following successful completion of the residency, they begin their active service. “It's important to note,” Plouffe says, “that the minimum is a four-year active duty commitment, but really it all depends on the length of the residency program. For instance, general surgery is a five-year residency program, so you would then have a five-year active duty commitment post residency. For most Army medical students, though, it's a four-year academic scholarship and a four-year active duty payback.”
For Eberly alumna Kelsey Crow ‘19, now at the University of Minnesota Medical School, joining the Army through the Health Professions Scholarship Program was a step toward fulfilling a lifelong dream. “I chose HPSP because I have always held a strong desire to join the military from a young age,” she says. “As I was embarking on my journey to apply to medical school, I knew it was the path for me. The HPSP has benefited my ability to remain focused on my studies. I do not spare a second thought to loans or the stress of paying for medical school. I receive a monthly stipend, as well, to use for living costs. More importantly, the HPSP program has given me a network of mentors and future colleagues who I can collaborate and communicate with and learn from.”
Likewise for Eberly alumnus Nicholas Gilbert ‘18, currently at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, the choice to pursue a medical degree through HPSP was driven by a desire to serve. “I joined HPSP and the Army for a sense of pride, dedication, and commitment to serving my country and its brave soldiers,” he says. “The financial freedom is a fantastic incentive; but personally, I place the experience of being in the Army above that.”
It is a common thread connecting these Eberly graduates and other Penn State alumni in the Health Professions Scholarship Program—they share, in Markle’s words, “a deep commitment to a career that serves others.”
“Being financially motivated is all well and good,” says Thomas Fetherston ‘17, “but it can't be your only motivation for HPSP. There has to somewhere be a vested interest and desire to serve in the military, treating service members and their families.” A prior service medic and graduate of Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences, Fetherston is now studying at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, in New York.
Another Penn State alumnus, Eric Fellin ‘18, a graduate of the College of Health and Human Development, says, “With the increasing cost of attending medical school, the HPSP provides an opportunity for me to obtain a medical degree without the burden of overwhelming student debt. On top of that, I will receive world-class training and have the honor of treating the men and women of the United States Armed Forces. Joining the Army is my way of giving back to a country that has afforded me the opportunity to live safely and freely. Without those two things, I may not have been able to pursue my medical degree. What better way to show my gratitude than to serve as an Army physician?”
While some officers will serve their entire careers as military physicians, not all who are accepted into the Health Professions Scholarship Program will remain in the Armed Forces once they've fulfilled their active duty commitment. But whether they are treating service members or civilians, their top-notch training through HPSP will serve those in need.
“The folks that you've got matriculating into Penn State—they're top-tier,” Plouffe says, “and they go on to fantastic, top-tier medical programs. We've got soldiers in medical schools all over the U.S. that really have done well for themselves, and it just goes to show the caliber of education that they get out of Penn State.”
Find out more about the F. Edward Hébert Armed Forces Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP) and the Eberly College of Science's Prehealth Advising Center.