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Extreme Student Debt Indentures Young Doctors and Lawyers to the Highest Bidder

An important component to the student debt crisis involves law and medical school enrollees. Many of the students preparing to enter these professions are looking at six figures worth of loans, according to a study by Finaid.orgs's Mark Kantrowitz.

Medical school grads have, on average, a staggering $162,000 in debt. Graduates of private law schools have $125,000 in debt. These are averages; the numbers are in some cases even more extreme.

Stories abound of med school grads with up to $300,000 in debt. According to Kantrowitz, such high-levels of debt—let's call it extreme student loan debt—is growing fast: "Almost half (49 percent) of medical students and more than a third (36 percent) of law students graduated with six-figure debt."

Extreme debt shape the career choices of young doctors and lawyers in perverse ways. 

Reports from both sectors indicate that legal and medical professionals tend to lose their inclination to serve the public interest when Sallie Mae gets a hold of them. They turn instead to higher paying positions that provide them a better shot at paying down their debts -- in effect, becoming indentured servants to the highest bidder.

The American Bar Association says that when they take on large amounts of debt, "fewer law school graduates can afford to take the comparatively low paying public service legal positions that are available in federal, state and local government agencies in legal services and the public defender offices that service the poor." Even the staunchest humanitarians among the ranks of law students “shrink from the prospect that a third or more of their monthly income will be taken up in debt payments if they take a public service position."

The health care sector’s predicament is virtually identical. Like private practice versus public defense, specialized care (ophthalmology, for example) pays more but benefits the general population less than primary care.

The Association of American Medical Colleges worries that while the growing projected deficit in primary care practitioners hurts everyone, consequences such as "higher mortality from heart disease and cancer—are projected to become even more evident among already vulnerable populations." In a separate article, AAMC explains that consequence of "rising medical debt is the potential financial disincentive it places on students considering careers in primary care."

According to a report from the Robert Graham Center, “the United States does not manage or actively regulate the number, type, or geographic distribution of its physician workforce." The result is that, unlike many countries, "medical trainees choose how and where to work" in the U.S.; the same holds true for attorneys.

No one can legally twist the arm of a lawyer or a doctor and force them into public service. What we can do, however, is strengthen support for public universities to slow tuition hikes at professional schools and also bolster existing debt relief programs so that serving public interest resembles something other than a financial noose.