Episode 27: Financial Aid Redux

Sylvia Robertson, Assistant Dean of Admissions & Financial Aid, joins us again to talk about timely financial aid issues and tips.

If you have questions for us, please send them to pritzkerquestions@gmail.com. Or, call or text (773) 336-2POD and leave us a message.

[Music: “The Area” used with permission from Eliot Lipp. “Shiggidy” used with permission from Greg Spero and GMG.]

Episode 27 Transcript

Ben Ferguson: Hey everybody. Welcome to another episode of the Pritzker Podcast. This is Episode 27. And we are talking about financial aid again today. Mary and I are joined again by Sylvia Robertson. Hey Sylvia.

Sylvia Robertson: Hey Ben and Mary.

BF: Sylvia, could you remind people of what your title in the OME is?

SR: I’m the Assistant Dean for Admissions & Financial Aid at the Pritzker School of Medicine. I’ve been in this position now for 12 years. And before that, was a pre-med advisor in the college here.

BF: So that could be summarized as big wig, I guess.

SR: No, I don’t think so. It’s just I’ve been honored to work with so many students over the years as they prepare to become physicians. It’s really been a wonderful career. And I’m not finished!

BF: Exactly. You’ll be here for many years to come. We should mention that you’ve been that you’ve been on the podcast before. I forgot what episode it was. But I think were talking about the first admission date or something like that. But anyway, welcome back to the show.

SR: Thank you!

BF: Since you have been here so long, you’ve dealt a lot with financial aid issues and so we are happy to have you on to talk about some of these things, some of these lingering questions that people seem to have. And you and Mary and I and Joni have come up with this list of questions that we suspect people still have–sort of a frequently-asked questions list about financial aid. So I think if you don’t mind, Mary and I will just go through this list of questions and we can talk about some of these issues. The first one that I think would be appropriate to talk about is for people who have been accepted to medical school, how do they go about getting money? We’ll start sort of with the big one.

SR: The basic one, right? I know that the issue of where you are going to get the money to attend medical school can seem a bit overwhelming. Any time you talked about money, there are many sensitive issues involved. Your personal history with money will impact the way that you plan for your future in terms of your finances and certainly when you’re looking at achieving a goal that’s as important to you as becoming a physician, the confusion around financing your medical education can be one that can bring some anxiety, and the important thing we want our students to know is that our office is absolutely dedicated to being a resource, that this is not something that students here–and I think at most med schools–do alone.

There are some great resources that we would encourage you to take advantage of even before you begin med school and I think that both of these can give you some good basic information about funding your medical education. And the first one is actually called FIRST. It stands for Financial Information Resources, Services, and Tools, and it’s a great program that’s produced by the AAMC, and that’s the same group that does the MCAT and AMCAS. So if you just go to www.aamc.org and type “FIRST” in the search box, you’ll get taken straight to that resource. It will be important to you now as an applicant, and it follows you all the way through your residency years in terms of financing your medical education and paying that money back. And then the other one is a book by Suzie Orman that I want to assure you Pritzker has no connection with it all. But it’s a book that our students have found to be very useful. And it’s called “Young, Broke and Fabulous”. So those two resources together, I think, can give you some good basic information.

I think it’s very important that you approach the issues of financing your medical education as an investment in yourself. And we think that you’re worth investing in. you would put together a combination of personal and family and institution and federal and private resources and borrowing that will allow you to achieve your goals. Does that help answer that? Do you have more questions that come out of that?

BF: No, I think that’s a good place for people to get resource and stuff like that. I think I should mention here that in Episode 10 if you want to go back and listen to all the specifics of applying for financial aid, David, and I think Mary, you were on that show as well, and I went through all the different FAFSA application specifics and where money comes from and lenders and stuff like that. But Sylvia, just as a follow up question, you mentioned that it’s rather unique for Pritzker to assist its students in finding money so intimately and I was surprised when I started medical school here that Pritzker did have such an important role in deciding what lenders are available and stuff like that. Is that something that is unique among medical schools or is that something that every medical school does?

SR: Well, I want to make it clear that I don’t think it’s unique. I think that there are other medical schools that provide great resources for their students in terms of financial education and helping them find ways to finance their medical education. I know we do a really great job of it here. But just as we do a great job of student support across the board–it’s not just in financial aid–but you would find Pritzker to be schools where students support, student’s services are a priority. And financial aid is one of those.

BF: I can say certainly when I started medical school, I was surprised at how much help you guys gave us because I was just expecting to sort of dive in by myself and have to learn everything and be sort of flailing, I guess. And that definitely was not the case, so we appreciate all the help you guys give everybody.

SR: Right. Students come to med school with a wide range of experiences in terms of financial aid. Some of them have had years of a career in financial services and the FAFSA and the decisions about which loans are better decisions are easy for them. Others have never filled out a FAFSA in their lives and we’re able to help both people at both ends of those continuums and those who need us to sit down and fill out the forms with them, we are certainly here to do that for them.

BF: Awesome.

Mary Bister: So Sylvia, talk to me about scholarships. How does one know if you’re going to get a scholarship? When are those offers made? Who decides, and what is the decision based on?

SR: Well, Mary, I wish that we had the resources to give everyone coming to med school here a full scholarship.

MB: That would be nice.

SR: That would be nice. And I know that the leadership here wishes that as well. Failing that, although we hope that alum continue to be grateful and that we are able to continue to increase our scholarship dollars, we do have $10.5M a year that we’re able to allocate to students to each class in both need- and merit-based scholarships. They are awarded at different times of the year. The need-based scholarships are awarded after the FAFSA is completed and the Pritzker application is completed because the entire financial resource picture is needed to be able to award need-based scholarships. In terms of merit scholarships, they are awarded at two times during the year. Some are awarded at the time of acceptance. And others are awarded later in the year as we continue to build the class. Merit scholarships are offered to achieve the goals of the mission statement of the medical school.

MB: And for both of those types of awards, do those automatically continue throughout the student’s time at Pritzker?

SR: Yes, and that’s a very important point, Mary. When students are comparing financial aid awards they want to be certain they understand the commitment that the school is making to them. Is the scholarship they’ve been awarded for a one year time period and could change after that first year? Or is it a commitment for all four years of their medical education? Ours is a commitment for all four years.

MB: Interesting. Aside from scholarships that you could get through Pritzker, does your office provide any support as far as finding scholarships from other sources?

SR: Yes. We provide resources and information about websites that you can access. We gather personal information about you through the financial aid application so that if we become aware of a scholarship, we can search that information and find students who might match the terms of that scholarship. If anybody knows any student at this point from southeast Alaska, we’re searching to try and match a student to that scholarship. So we help students get matched to some small scholarships and also some larger scholarships that we over the years have been able to nominate students for successfully.

MB: Neat.

BF: Cool, I think if we can return to the financial aid question, I think one of the questions that people always have is how do they apply? And I think we’ve sort of beaten the FAFSA thing to death, both on this show and giving them some other resources–

SR: There are some exciting things happening with the FAFSA though and I know that lots of people don’t share the excitement that I have about the FAFSA.

MB: I think that’s an understatement.

SR: There are some wonderful new developments to make it more accessible for those who are not familiar with online forms. They’ve added skip logic so you don’t have to answer all the questions if they don’t apply to you and the possibility of your tax information downloading straight into the FAFSA and your future. So there are some exciting things about the FAFSA. Make the FAFSA your friend.

BF: So it should be slightly less painful now, I guess.

SR: Yes, still not easy though. And the Department of Education, at a recent conference, I was impressed with how they recognize how it can really be a barrier for some families, and I was impressed that they are working to improve that.

BF: Do you want to talk a bit about the timeline of applying the financial aid. We’ve talked about it a bit on this show. But I think people still have the question of whether they’ve been accepted or whether they’re waitlisted or they’re continued or whatever their status is, should that status affect when they are applying and when should they be applying in the first place?

SR: Well, I think it’s good to have everything in order and ready to go when you do get your first interviews, your first acceptance, really your first decision back from a school. So you want to get your taxes done as quickly as possible and ask your parents to do their taxes as early in the year as possible. Most schools are not able to provide an offer based on estimated taxes. So you want to get the taxes done and go ahead and got that FAFSA done. Then when you do get an offer from the school, most schools have an institutional financial aid form that you complete as well. Ours are very simple and straightforward. Some are much more complicated. But as soon as you get that. you want to send it back. The earlier you do that, the better position you give yourself.

BF: And is that upon acceptance or is that January 1 or when does that typically come?

SR: It comes after acceptance with us. If you’re in continued status with us, we would encourage you to go ahead and put us down as a school code on your FAFSA so that hopefully when you’re accepted that we would have access to that information right away. It’s important to know that no scholarship offer can be used to pressure you to make a decision about your medical school before the May 15th deadline or an April 15th or April 30th deadline if the school starts before the beginning of August. So just keep that in mind that the financial aid awards at this time of the year are for you to help to allow you to make the best decision in terms of finances. It shouldn’t be the only decision that drives your choice but it gives you more information to use in making your decision.

BF: Okay, and so basically to summarize, the people who have already been accepted, it’s just full steam ahead for them. They should be applying straight away. And for the people who are waitlisted or continued , they also should be roughly in the same boat except they just use sort of the codes for the school’s that they’re still waiting on? Is that accurate to say?

SR: Sure, if they’re on 25 waitlists, then they don’t want to put in 25 codes. But the schools that are of most interest to them, I think it would be good to include them on FAFSA so that once they’re accepted it’s just a matter of overnight schools being able to get the ISIR [Institutional Student Information Record] so that they can start making financial aid decisions. It takes us about 10 days from the time we have a completed application and a completed application for awarding for us is simply the FAFSA in our Pritzker application.

BF: If people are a little surprised by the numbers in the financial aid award, is there any way to appeal that or add information to that that might change those figures, or is that sort of set in stone for that year?

SR: No, we do want to hear from students that they’re concerned, and we want to talk with them about the role that money is going to play in their decision for med school. I know that all schools are finding themselves in a position of more limited funds than in previous years. Our scholarship commitment has remained very strong–the leadership has not waivered in that–but we as all schools do not have as much flexibility as we’ve had in some years.

BF: Right. Understandable.

MB: You mentioned something there that I think is an issue that’s going to apply to some applicants–certainly not all–but talking about filing your own taxes then getting your parents to file theirs. I think it can be very confusing especially if you’ve been out of school for a few years and living on your own. What are the rules about when you have to report your parents’ income, when you don’t, and how that all works?

SR: I understand that and it is an area that confuses applicants and it’s simply a matter of us not being able to adopt everybody. We wish we could but we need to allocate our need-based financial aid resources in a way that allows those who otherwise would not be able to go to med school to go to med school. And so the safety net that you have in your family is the way that almost all schools make decisions about need-based aid. And so that’s why we require the parental information unless you’re 30 years old. If you’re 30 years old, we don’t require parental information. There are times when students have appealed the use of the parental information and I think we have a very open and sensitive response to students who find themselves in situations where parents are available to provide the information. And we only require that students submit information from the custodial parent. We’re not asking for information from step-parents or when parents have separated from the parent who is the non-custodial parent. I hope that makes sense.

BF: That’s for any school, right? That’s not specific for Pritzker?

SR: No, that policy varies widely.

BF: Oh really?

SR: I would think that most schools do require information from both parents and step-parents.

BF: Oh I see, but what about the age limit?

SR: Oh, again that is not common among schools.

BF: I see, so it’s not sort of a FAFSA thing. It’s a Pritzker-specific thing.

SR: Exactly

BF: Interesting.

SR: Then again, I wish that we didn’t have to do that for anybody, but until you two graduate and gives us lots of money, then…

MB: I’m working on it.

BF: I’ll give you all of my two dollars. Interesting, interesting. Another question is frequently people obviously get into multiple schools and they might receive financial aid awards from multiple schools. And so how, Sylvia, would you recommend that people sit down with these and start to go through and compare them? Should they be looking at the different lenders? Should they just be looking at the numbers? Should they be looking at any sort of repayment discrepancies? How should people sort of start to analyze these?

SR: Sure, I think it’s very important that you put yourself into a position where you compare apples to apples and not apples to oranges. So you do want to get beneath the award and really understand what it means. You want to begin by comparing the cost, to look at the anticipated increase in tuition from year to year. We have students who–we charge tuition for 14 quarters–so that you want to be certain you understand what the full cost here is and you want to be certain what the tuition-charging policy is at other schools so that you understand what the full cost is there. You also want to look at the cost of living and is it a generous enough budget in terms of personal expenses? You want to talk to students who are currently enrolled to see if they’re able to live on the budget that’s provided in the school’s cost of attendance budget, or do they find themselves charging personal expenses every year? And for absolutely certain, you do not want to be going into credit card debt during your med school years. And then you want to compare the cost of any borrowing that you’re going to need to do. Subsidized loans are certainly better than unsubsidized loans. You want to be sure that you understand what the interest rate would be on any of the institutional loans particularly. And then you want to be sure you are comparing the institutional aid and that you really understand what those terms are. As I said before, if you’re getting the scholarship, will it last for all four years? Again, the FIRST website gives you some good information about comparing offers and how to make a decision about which offer financially might be best for you.

I want to go back to your mention of lenders and I also want you to go back and also tell you that we see our job as helping you get the information that applicants need to make good decisions. And so we are happy to answer your questions about how to get adequate and accurate information about packages that you’re examining. You mentioned about differences in lenders and that’s an important issue here now because the University of Chicago has decided to participate in the Direct Lending Program. And so that will allow our incoming students to be able to use the advantages of the Department of Education’s Direct Loan Program and not have the challenge of looking for lenders in this very difficult environment now. The choice is still available with students who want to participate in the FFEL [Federal Family Education Loan] program–the ones that you and Mary both used with the lenders you chose. But we will be participating in the Direct Lending Program in the coming years and expect that most of our students will choose that option.

BF: And so the benefit of that is just that you don’t have to compare between lenders? There’s just sort of one blanket organization?

SR: Right. And I hesitate to say that one is better than the other. But certainly the Department of Education has a more stable program than we’ve seen in the last few years with some of the lenders our students have chosen who found themselves not able to continue with a lender because that lender stopped providing student loans. So it certainly will be a more stable option and I think that students will find that it’s a more straightforward process.

MB: Okay, next question? Are we there yet? This is a question sort of near and dear to my heart because it’s where I’m at right now. So you have all these loans. And all this debt you’ve accumulated to spend four fabulous years at Pritzker and then you’re done. What’s next? How do you pay it off?

SR: Well, Mary, you know we’re not just going to leave you out there by yourself trying to solve this.

MB: I know. I had my exit interview so I know. But I’m asking for everyone else.

SR: Right. I’m glad you took advantage of that. I want you to know first that our graduating students are reporting back to us that they are able to manage the debt that they’ve taken on. The only students who are having trouble are students who made some difficult–well, I’ll just say unfortunate choices during med school and did take on huge amounts of credit card debt, and then early in their residency years took on large amounts of additional debt. I think if you are willing to postpone the living at the salary of a physician until you actually finish your residency and then you can easily manage the repayment options that are available to you. And there are some exciting new options available through the income-based repayment programs that I would encourage you to explore at that FIRST website. Through the direct loan program, you can consolidate your loans and take advantage of that repayment program that has some wonderful possibilities for loan forgiveness for students who particularly decide to continue in non-profit work settings, which includes academic settings generally too, so I’d encourage you to check that out. Does that help?

MB: Absolutely, absolutely. I think that’s very reassuring.

BF: Mary, you mentioned the exit interview. Do you want to tell the people what that is?

MB: Sure. So if you take out Stafford loans or–many people I think are familiar with this process from undergrad; you sign a little thing, agreeing that you will go through an exit interview before you leave school–and so the universities financial aid office sets that up and it’s a very–I found it very painless actually. You know, you go to a meeting. They pull up all your loans. They tell you how much you owe. This is who you owe it to. This is when your repayment will begin. These are your options for deciding how you want to pay it back.

BF: Sounds like a really uplifting meeting.

MB: Yeah, yeah. It wasn’t as bad as I was a little bit afraid that it was going to be because everything was very clear, and clearly they do this with a hundred students a year, so they’re very good at educating you on the process. And you get a whole stack of papers with posted notes saying “okay, this form is due on this day and this form is due on this day” and I find it really helpful actually. I’m less anxious about figuring out all the loan repayment stuff after having that meeting.

SR: Mary, I think you’ve said something that’s critically important that the whole thing about the financial aid process is just getting the information. So many people because of anxiety just don’t engage in the process. But once they do, this whole layer of concern is gone because then they have a plan and they know that they’re going to be able to manage it.

MB: Yeah. I mean, I will fully admit I’m one of those head-in-the-sand sort of people. I looked when I initially decided to come to Pritzker. It was a decision that was kind of heavily based on the financial aid I received. And so I sat down and I said “Okay, my four years at Pritzker are probably going to cause me this much” and then I never looked at it again. So it was kind of interesting to walk into the meeting and see how close my estimate was to the actual final dollar amount that I saw in that form. And it was actually pretty close, you know, considering that tuition goes often and stuff like that. I was like “Okay, wow, I did kind of a good job” when I looked at it the first time.

SR: That’s one of the reasons that our leadership is so committed to giving you the scholarship for all four years. If you don’t have that commitment, then how can you figure out what it’s going to cost you to go somewhere? You have a right we think to that information, to know what it’s going to cost you to go to a school.

BF: Well, unless we have any other specific questions. I think we’ve talked about some time line issues. We’ve talked about some tax info. We’ve talked about some initial resources that people can use. Sylvia, do you have any other final thoughts for people who are entering into the medical profession about what they should be thinking or doing in terms of their financial aid?

SR: I just want to stress the importance of learning about your credit score and learning to live on a budget. I think the sooner you learn to manage your credit score that that’s a very powerful tool in ensuring that you’re going to have a good financial future, and you can find out all about that on that FIRST website–some great resources and links there for you to where you can get a free credit report and developing an understanding of what goes in to your credit score. And then I know the word “budget” isn’t one that excites people anymore than “FAFSA” does. But it really is just about providing yourself a structure so that you can have an information base about the way you’re spending money. And if you learn to do that, you really will just see many benefits during your med school years. You will find that money is not such a concern as it is to people who are just continually surprised that they’ve run out of money in the eighth week of the quarter.

BF: That’s great advice. Anything else, Mary?

MB: I think that’s great. I think we’re very good here.

SR: Oh, thank you both!

BF: This was very helpful.

MB: I think it was great.

SR: Goodbye everybody!

BF: Talk to you soon.

SR: Bye bye!

Posted on March 8, 2010 to: