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Wash U Announces Free Tuition For Up To Half Of New Med Students

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The Washington University School of Medicine will more than double the number of students receiving full tuition each year thanks to $100 million in scholarship funding.

Officials from the medical program on Tuesday announced the boost in scholarships, which will be provided throughout the next 10 years. The scholarships are aimed at recruiting more low-income students and people of color and reducing the massive amount of medical school debt students incur.

“They look at our tuition and they don’t even consider applying because of concern they would accumulate very large amounts of debt,” said Eva Aagaard, the school’s senior associate dean for education. “This might change their mind, and we might see a really different population applying and being accepted into Wash U.”

The money will make it possible for up to half of the school’s approximately 100 incoming students pursuing an M.D. degree each year to receive full-tuition scholarships to the medical school, ranked among the nation's best. Others will receive partial support. About 20 current students per class have a full scholarship, and another 40 receive some kind of scholarship. Students pursuing a combined medical and doctoral degree already get a full ride, Aagaard said.

The median educational debt for medical school students is $190,000, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.

“People have basically bought a house before they have gone into their residency training, which is another three to seven years,” Aagaard said.

Studies show debt can affect which specialties graduates decide to practice, although to what extent is debated. Saddled with tremendous debt, many choose more lucrative fields such as cardiology while forgoing areas of crucial need such as family-practice medicine and geriatrics, Aagaard said.

“This debt is actually altering people’s choices of what they go into after completing their training rather than choosing things that make more money rather than things the world needs more of,” Aagaard said.

Graduating with less or no debt might encourage some students to choose understaffed specialties, she said.

With the announcement, Washington University joins a handful of the country’s elite medical schools that have drastically decreased or done away altogether with medical school tuition. Last year, New York University’s medical school made headlines when it announced it was waiving tuition for all students thanks to a massive donation. Other schools such as Columbia University have followed suit.

Critics say such programs are offering support to students who don’t need money. Students accepted to NYU or Columbia are already bound to have many opportunities other students don’t have.

Unlike other schools, Washington University isn’t offering full rides to everyone. The medical school will determine who receives scholarships based on a combination of merit, interest in studying academic medicine and financial need, Aagaard said.

Wash U had been planning the scholarship program before NYU and other schools announced their tuition changes, Aagaard said. But the school took what those schools were doing — and criticism of such changes — into account when creating their own program.

For example, Aagaard doesn’t think it’s necessary or beneficial to waive tuition for every student.

“A lot of the students who go into medicine are from fairly wealthy families,” she said. “There are a certain number of families that can afford to pay for medical school — should those families have a free ride to medical school … who would we be benefitting?”

Unlike other schools, Wash U’s program isn’t made possible through a single large donation. The money for the scholarships comes from school of medicine funds and money from the university’s training hospitals, Barnes-Jewish Hospital and St. Louis Children’s Hospital.

The school’s intentions are admirable, said Sandy Baum, a nonresident fellow at the Urban Institute who studies higher education. She agrees with Aagaard that offering the scholarships based on a spectrum of need is wise. But waiving tuition fees at elite universities such as NYU or Wash U doesn’t address many underlying systemic issues that keep low-income students out, Baum said.

Schools should be investing first in recruiting and educating students in undergraduate levels, she said.

“If you had more low-income students graduating from Wash U with a bachelor’s degree, you would have more low-income students prepared to enroll in medical school and able to get in,” she said.

Only the richest schools can afford to offer these kinds of reduced tuition programs, she said. That has the effect of making an already competitive school even more difficult to access.

“It’s important to remember that the vast majority of medical students, one, come from affluent backgrounds, and, two, they’re going to make very good salaries later in their lives,” she said. “So making sure they don’t have to pay is far from the top priority for generating access to high-quality educational experiences.”

The $100 million will also enable the university to start putting its new medical school curriculum program in place. Instead of starkly dividing the four years into “book” learning in the first half and practical learning in the second, the new plan combines medical learning with practical science throughout the entire program.

The new curriculum will also further emphasize social sciences and community needs, Aagaard said.

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Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.