‘A moral imperative’: With free tuition plan, NYU School of Medicine hopes to diversify applicant pool, encourage pursuit of less lucrative specialties

At the white coat ceremony for incoming medical students last Thursday, New York University School of Medicine announced that it will provide full-tuition scholarships to all current and future students through a philanthropic fund expected to reach $600 million.

The free-tuition plan has been in the works for about a decade, according to The Chronicle for Higher Education, and “recognizes a moral imperative that must be addressed, as institutions place an increasing debt burden on young people who aspire to become physicians,” Robert Grossman, the school’s dean, said in the school’s statement. Grossman added that a diverse population needs physicians from a wide range of backgrounds and that “aspiring physicians and surgeons should not be prevented from pursuing a career in medicine because of the prospect of overwhelming financial debt.”

Opening career possibilities

NYU School of Medicine expects that removing the prospect of student loan repayments will increase the socioeconomic, racial, and gender diversity of applicants, and allow physicians the freedom to choose less lucrative specialties like primary care, pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology, as well as pursue careers in underserved areas. The National Rural Health Association estimates a shortage of 45,000 doctors by 2020, and already more than 70 rural hospitals have closed since 2010, emergency medicine physician Farzon A Nahvi, M.D., notes in an opinion piece for The New York Times.

The scholarship does not extend to housing, food, or child care for students, The Atlantic reports. Still, removing a $55,018 yearly burden in a typically four year degree will significantly reduce the debt faced by most graduates of NYU School of Medicine. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), 75 percent of medical students graduated with debt because of their degree. The average medical student accrues $181,179 of debt upon graduation from a public medical school, and $206,204 of debt upon graduation from a private school, USA Today reports.

Funding the pledge

NYU School of Medicine has raised $450 million of the $600 million required to support the tuition-free pledge, including a $100 million gift from Kenneth G. and Elaine Langone, for whom the NYU health system is named, The New York Times reports. The Chronicle adds that providing free tuition to all medical students will cost $24 million each year.

Setting a new standard

NYU’s announcement follows news last December that New York’s Columbia University College of Physician and Surgeons will provide full-tuition scholarships to students demonstrating the greatest need, as well as grants rather than loans for other students, funded by a $150 million endowment by Dr. P. Roy and Diana Vagelos.

Meanwhile, UCLA’s Geffen School of Medicine covers the full cost of medical school for approximately 20 percent of its students, selected based on merit rather than need. And students in Case Western Reserve University’s five-year research program at the Cleveland Clinic receive full coverage of tuition and fees, according to the Times.

But NYU is the first medical school to cover tuition for all medical students, regardless of need or merit, and observers hope that its status as a top-10 medical school will influence other schools to follow suit.

Perry Tsai, president of the American Medical Student Association, told The Chronicle that NYU’s move is a “wonderful development,” but noted that major challenges remain throughout higher education. “This is one school, and I’m really happy for that school and its students,” Tsai said. “But it’s only one small dent in the larger problem.”

Added Rafael Rivera, NYU School of Medicine’s associate dean for admissions and financial aid, “This isn’t an NYU-specific issue by any stretch.”

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