Document Type



Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Higher Education

First Advisor's Name

Daniel Saunders

First Advisor's Committee Title

Committee chair

Second Advisor's Name

Ethan Kolek

Second Advisor's Committee Title

Committee member

Third Advisor's Name

James Burns

Third Advisor's Committee Title

Committee member

Fourth Advisor's Name

Remy Dou

Fourth Advisor's Committee Title

Committee member


student loan debt, medical students, higher education, debt

Date of Defense



Today, 43.4 million Americans owe 1.7 trillion dollars in student loan debt (Hanson, 2022). The American Association of Medical Colleges (2021) reported that 73% of medical students graduate with educational debt, of which the average medical student borrowed $203,062 in student loans. The problem addressed through this study is that as the narrative about student loan debt grows, the hegemonic understanding of debt revolves around the undergraduate student's experience and their eminent struggles regarding repayment of student loans and employment. However, limited research exists on how medical students understand and experience debt.

Several researchers have discussed the lack of understanding about medical students and debt. For instance, Kahn et al. (2006) suggested that medical students make major life choices based on several complex factors, but further research is needed. Rohlfing et al. (2014) discussed the necessity of a study specifically looking at the impact of the cost of attendance on medical student debt and major life choices. Young et al. (2016) echoed for further research on understanding the complex ways and multiple dimensions in which in medical students and residents understand debt.

This qualitative study aimed to expand on how medical students experience and make meaning of debt. Two semi-structured interviews were conducted with 10 medical students during their final year of medical school. The following question guided this study: How do graduating medical students at Florida International University experience and understand debt? Three super-ordinate themes and 10 sub-themes were developed from participants’ interview transcripts utilizing an interpretative phenomenological analysis. The super-ordinate themes are: a) Debt (Re)Articulated, b) Emotions and Approaches to Debt, and c) The Temporality of Debt.

The study’s key findings revealed that participants’ articulations vary from the commonsensical understandings of debt as financial to non-financial obligations to family, institution, and God. Participants felt burdened and frustrated by the cost of obtaining a medical degree while also accepting their student loan debt as an investment that can be managed and paid off in the future. Participants expressed the influence of their student loan debt in their daily decisions and the expected influence it will have in delaying major life decisions and the foreclosing of opportunities in the future. The implications of this study call for reform in federal loan and medical education policies and action by medical colleges to reduce the debt burden placed on medical students.





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