Working as a pharmacist can be a great career. Not only are pharmacists in high demand, but it is a high-paying profession with stability and flexibility. It also comes with the satisfaction of making a difference in the lives of patients.
The median annual pay for a pharmacist was $124,170 in 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). However, with all of the benefits of this career comes a major expense – the education required to become a pharmacist.
The average student loan debt for pharmacists with a Doctorate in Pharmacology was $166,528 in 2018, according to the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy. This is on top of the average student loan debt for undergraduates.
Fortunately, there are options to lower the amount of total pharmacist student loan debt — from reducing the amount of loans you take out to pay for school to refinancing existing loans to exploring loan forgiveness.
On this page:
- Paying for Pharmacy School
- Student Loan Options
- Paying Back Student Loans
- Additional Student Loan Payoff Options for Pharmacists
Paying for Pharmacy School
To become a pharmacist, you must have a Doctor of Pharmacy, which is also known as a Pharm.D. Most students begin their pharmacy school program during their undergraduate program, after the first two or three years. These programs typically take six years to complete. For students who finish their bachelor’s degree before attending pharmacy school, obtaining a Pharm.D. will take an additional four years.
Paying for pharmacy school without going into significant debt can be challenging, as six to eight years of higher education can be expensive. There are ways to lower your total costs, starting with where you decide to go to school.
First, begin by researching the top pharmacy schools and their tuition costs. Explore financial aid packages for each college or university, and examine whether certain schools may make more sense for your financial situation. For example, while a public college or university may look less expensive on paper, a private college may actually offer greater financial aid to offset tuition. This may include grants, work-study, need-based aid, and other forms of financial aid.
Second, search and apply for scholarships to help offset the cost of your pharmacy school education. Many states, schools, and private organizations offer scholarships specifically designed for pharmacists and students in the medical field. Research your options thoroughly and apply to as many as possible to reduce your total pharmacist debt.
Third, if you are applying to a state school and are not currently a resident of that state, consider moving to that state before applying to reduce the total cost. While this may delay the start of your education, it could save you thousands — or even tens of thousands of dollars — in your pharmacist student loan debt. Just check the state’s residency requirements for in-state tuition, and be sure to comply with the guidelines.
Student Loan Options for Pharmacy School
As a general rule, federal student loans are considered to be more favorable for students, as they tend to have lower interest rates and the rates are always fixed. Eligibility for federal student loans is not based on creditworthiness, and students who demonstrate financial need may be eligible for subsidized student loans.
Private student loans are available from banks and other commercial lenders. Eligibility for these loans is based on the credit history of the borrower. For this reason, these loans often require a cosigner. Private student loans often have higher interest rates, and the rates may also be variable. The terms of private student loans tend to be less favorable to borrowers. However, unlike federal student loans, private student loans are available in amounts up to the cost of attending school.
Paying Back Student Loans for Pharmacists
Once you have graduated with a Pharm.D., you will typically have a six-month grace period during which you will not be responsible for paying your student loans. After this time, you will be required to start paying off your student loans. These monthly payments can often be quite expensive, as the interest that accrued on your loans while you were in school will be capitalized — added to the principal of your loan. Interest will continue to accrue on your loans as you make payments.
Fortunately, there are options to help with pharmacist student loan debt. There are a number of student loan forgiveness and repayment programs to assist with meeting these monthly obligations.
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- Rates start at 2.57% APR
- Refinance both federal and private student loans
- Skip one monthly payment each year if certain conditions are met
- 12-month forbearance period as well as academic and military deferment
The National Health Service Corps Loan Repayment Program (NHSC) offers tax-free loan repayment assistance to qualified medical professionals — including pharmacists — who work at an NHSC-approved site in a designated Health Professional Shortage Area (HPSA). The program also offers a State Loan Repayment Program (SLRP), which provides cost-sharing grants to states and terrorizes to operate their own loan repayment programs.
The National Institute of Health Program (NIH) also offers loan repayment for graduates with Pharm.D. degrees who are interested in medical research. Participants may either be employed by the NIH or employed by another institution and are eligible for up to $35,000 a year in loan repayment. To qualify, student loan debt must be at least 20 percent of your base salary when you receive the award.
The Indian Health Service Repayment Program (IHS) is an opportunity for pharmacists to pay off their student loan debt while providing service to a traditionally underserved community. Through the program, participants are eligible for up to $40,000 in loan repayment for two years of service with the IHS.
The U.S. Army Pharmacist Loan Repayment Program allows qualified candidates to receive up to $120,000 in loan repayment assistance. Eligible pharmacists may also be able to earn a lump sum $30,000 sign-on bonus.
In addition to these national programs, a number of states offer repayment programs designed to assist pharmacists in repaying their student loans. Typically, these are offered by states with a shortage of medical professionals who are trying to attract pharmacists to the area. These programs include:
- Alaska’s SHARP program, which offers $35,000 to $47,000 per year in loan repayment
- Arizona’s State Loan Repayment Program
- California’s State Loan Repayment Program, which offers up to $50,000 for a two-year service agreement, with the possibility of one-year extensions for an additional $60,000 in assistance
- Colorado’s Health Service Corps Program, which gives eligible pharmacists up to $50,000 in loan repayment assistance
- Idaho’s State Loan Repayment Program, which provides between $20,000 and $50,000 for a two-year commitment
- Kentucky’s State Loan Repayment Program, where pharmacists may be eligible for up to $80,000 in student loan repayment for a two-year service commitment
- Minnesota’s Rural Pharmacist Loan Forgiveness Program, which allows up to $80,000 in loan repayments for a four-year commitment
- Nebraska’s NHSC State Loan Repayment Program, which allows for $25,000 to $50,000 in student loan repayment for at least two years of service, or its Nebraska Loan Repayment for Rural Health Professionals, which provides up to $30,000 per year in loan repayment for up to three years
- New Mexico’s Health Professional Loan Repayment Program offers up to $25,000 per year for professionals that work for two years at an eligible site
- North Dakota’s Loan Repayment Program provides up to $50,000 per year for a two-year commitment
- The Oregon Partnership State Loan Repayment program gives pharmacists repayment assistance of up to 10 to 20 percent of their total debt
- Rhode Island offers the Rhode Island Health Professional Loan Repayment Program, which offers varying amounts for commitments of two to four years of service
- Virginia’s State Loan Repayment Program, which offers up to $140,000 for a four-year commitment
- Washington’s Health Professional Loan Repayment Program allows pharmacists to receive up to $75,000 in loan repayment assistance in exchange for a three-year commitment
Additional Student Loan Payoff Options for Pharmacists
If you do not qualify for a loan repayment program, there are alternatives for paying off your loans quickly — or even having your student loans forgiven. These programs are available through the federal government, and can only be used for federal student loans.
First, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program may be an option for pharmacists who work in the public sector, such as in the military, for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, or in another governmental capacity. To qualify, you must work full-time (at least 30 hours), and make 120 qualifying payments. After this time (typically 10 years), the remainder of your student loans will be forgiven.
For those with student loan debt who do not qualify for public service loan forgiveness, income-driven repayment plans might also be an option. These plans cap borrowers’ monthly student loan payments based on a percentage of their monthly discretionary income, with four program options. After 20 to 25 years of making payments under an income-based repayment plan, the remainder of the student loan is forgiven. However, borrowers should be aware that they will be liable for federal income taxes on any amount that is forgiven.
Finally, borrowers can refinance their pharmacist debt through a private loan. The refinancing process is relatively straightforward. It involves taking out a new loan, typically with a lower and/or fixed interest rate, to pay off other student loans.
The borrower then makes payments on the new loan. Generally, refinancing is done when the borrower has established himself or herself with a good job and a strong credit score in order to qualify for a good interest rate. In this way, refinancing can save the average borrower thousands of dollars in interest over the life of a loan. This is particularly true if a borrower chooses to shorten the term of the loan: monthly payments may go up, but more money will go toward the principal rather than just paying off interest.
However, borrowers should be careful to not refinance unless they can obtain a good interest rate. In addition, borrowers should be aware that if they choose to include their federal student loans in their refinanced private student loans, they will lose the protections of their federal loans, including the ability to participate in income-driven repayment plans and other options.
Author: Jeff Gitlen
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