Free Med School Tuition Still a "Pipe Dream" for Most: Survey

Ken Terry

December 10, 2019

In a recent poll by Kaplan Test Prep, nearly half of pre-med students said they favor free medical school tuition. But, despite the growing list of medical schools that provide free tuition to some or all of their students, only 4% of medical school admissions officers said in a separate Kaplan survey that their colleges were likely to offer free tuition in the next 10 years, likening it to a "pipe dream."

Of the nearly 350 pre-med students who were polled, 47% said medical schools should be tuition-free for all of their students, regardless of income. Nineteen percent favored free tuition, but only for students whose family income or ability to pay is below a certain level.

The survey also found that 80% of pre-med students think that the cost of medical schools is a major factor that prevents many talented people from pursuing a medical education.

The average cost (tuition and fees) of attending a private medical school in the United States is about $60,000 per year, according to the Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC). For in-state students at a public medical school, the cost averages $35,000 per year. Students graduate from medical school with a median debt of around $200,000, the AAMC has estimated.

No Change Year to Year

In the survey of admissions officers at 70 medical schools, only 4% of them said their school will go tuition-free over the next 5 to 10 years, as New York University did.

Another 4% of the admissions officers predicted that their school would eliminate tuition for students below a certain family income threshold, as Cornell University's medical school has done, as reported by Medscape Medical News.

Kaplan asked medical school admission officers the same questions in 2018, and the results were similar. This year, the idea of free tuition was, again, "largely a pipe dream," according to a Kaplan news release.

"While pre-med students understandably want to see fundamental changes in how medical school financial aid is awarded, medical schools are telling us that the days of taking out loans and accruing debt for their medical education are unfortunately far from over," said Jeff Koetje, director of pre-health programs for Kaplan Test Prep, in the new release.

Besides NYU and Cornell, several other medical schools provide free tuition to some or all of their students. The Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis last April committed to allowing up to half of future medical students to attend its classes for free.

Other schools that offer free tuition to some or all students include Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City, the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, and the University of Arizona Colleges of Medicine in Tucson and Phoenix.

The new University of Houston College of Medicine and the Kaiser Permanente School of Medicine in Pasadena, California, will provide free tuition when they open in 2020.

Rich and Poor Schools

Why haven't more medical schools joined this trend? Julie Fresne, senior director of student financial and career advisory services for the AAMC, told Medscape Medical News that "not all schools can afford to do that. NYU, Cornell, Columbia, and UCLA are all in the fortunate position of getting a very large donation."

However, she added, some schools are looking for ways to reduce tuition costs for students. Before Washington University School of Medicine committed to its new tuition-free program, for example, it guaranteed students that their tuition would not rise during their 4 years of medical school.

"Many medical schools have looked at doing that," Fresne said, "but I can't tell you how many have."

The University of Arizona Colleges of Medicine are offering free tuition starting next spring to students who agree to become primary care physicians and to practice in a federally designated underserved community in Arizona for at least 2 years after their residency. Fresne agreed that that makes sense for medical schools in rural states or in other areas where there are healthcare shortages.

Fresne concurred with the pre-med students that cost is a major barrier to many talented people who'd like to become doctors. An AAMC survey, she said, showed that cost and academic concerns were the two biggest factors in students' decision not to apply to medical school after they took the MCATs.

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