Washington University Med School Latest to Offer Free Tuition

Ken Terry

April 18, 2019

The Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis on Wednesday became the seventh US medical school to offer its students free tuition, as the national trend starts to build momentum, according to a school news release.

The St. Louis medical school said it has committed $100 million over the next decade to allow up to half of future medical students to attend its classes for free. Many other students will receive partial tuition support, the announcement said.

Unlike the tuition-free programs at some other schools, which are funded by wealthy donors, the one at Washington University will come "primarily" from the school of medicine via its departments and its affiliated training hospitals, Barnes-Jewish Hospital and St. Louis Children's Hospital, according to the news release.

The tuition grants will start with the incoming class of 2019-2020. Scholarships will be awarded on the basis of need, merit, or some combination of the two.

A portion of the $100 million will be spent on improving the medical school's curriculum. Among the goals of the revamp, the university wants to encourage more young doctors to become academic physicians.

Before announcing the scholarships, Washington University School of Medicine was already helping students graduate with as little debt as possible. The school's policy is to freeze the tuition of incoming students so that they pay the same amount each year for the 4 years of medical education.

Of the 120 students in each class, 20 already receive full scholarships, and 40 receive partial tuition. The annual cost of tuition for the 2018-2019 first-year class is about $65,000.

Partly as a result of these policies, the average debt of Washington University medical students when they graduate is $99,088, 40% less than the national average of $166,239. In 4 of the past 5 years, the institution has been ranked as the second lowest nationally in average medical school debt, according to the school.

"For most medical students, debt is a significant factor in selecting a school and a career path," Eva Aagaard, MD, senior associate dean for education and the Carol B. and Jerome T. Loeb Professor of Medical Education, said in the release. "We want to help alleviate that financial burden and instead focus on training the best and brightest students to become talented and compassionate physicians and future leaders in academic medicine."

Rapidly Growing Trend

The best-known free tuition program is the one at New York University School of Medicine, thanks to a recent segment on the television program, 60 Minutes. NYU announced last August that it would offer free medical school tuition to all current and future students, regardless of need or merit.

The cost of a year's tuition there is $55,000, but students have to cover their university-subsidized living costs and insurance, which amounts to about $28,000 a year. NYU is paying for the students' education through an endowment that is currently worth $450 million.

Although NYU is the largest and most highly ranked medical school to make this commitment, it was not the first. In December 2017, the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, in New York City, announced it would cover tuition for all students who qualified for financial aid and who received student loans. The scholarship, made possible by a gift from Columbia alumnus and former Merck CEO Roy Vagelos, replaces the student loan.

The David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, also offers full, merit-based free tuition, room and board, books, and supplies to about 20% of each class. The program is funded from the endowment that entertainment mogul Geffen bestowed on the university in 2012.

The Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine at Case Western Reserve University, in Ohio, has offered free tuition since 2008. Each year, about 2000 applicants vie for the 32 tuition-free slots in the medical school.

Two new medical schools are offering free tuition as well. In July 2018, the University of Houston's new College of Medicine announced that all 30 students in its inaugural class will receive their education gratis when the school opens in 2020.

Kaiser Permanente's School of Medicine, in Pasadena, California, which opens in summer 2020, will waive tuition for 4 years for its first five classes of students, it was recently announced.

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