Medical schools see 18 percent jump in applicants

A record number of people applied to medical school this year, many inspired by the health care providers and public health officials working on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to The Hechinger Report, medical schools are calling it “the Fauci Effect,” referring to the high-profile director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

The 18 percent year-over-year increase in medical school applicants comes amid an overall decline in college enrollment. “It’s unprecedented,” Geoffrey Young, the Association of American Medical Colleges’ senior director for student affairs and programs, said, comparing the surge to the increased interest in military enrollment after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Several factors driving up interest

“I think…that people look at Anthony Fauci, look at the doctors in their community and say, ‘You know, that is amazing. This is a way for me to make a difference,’,” Kristen Goodell, associate dean of admissions at the school of medicine at Boston University (BU), said. BU’s medical school saw a 27 percent jump in applications this year, receiving 12,024 for nearly 110 spots.  

Applicants may be seeking to help address the inequities in health care access and outcomes that have been laid bare by the coronavirus pandemic. They also may just have had more free time to apply as other postgrad plans evaporated amid the pandemic, according to Sahil Mehta, founder of MedSchoolCoach, which prepares students for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT).

Some medical schools loosened their MCAT application requirements after COVID-19-related testing cancellations, removing a key application hurdle. The Stanford University School of Medicine went MCAT-optional this year and recorded a 50 percent increase in applications, receiving 11,000 for 90 spots; 5 percent of those applications came in without an MCAT score.

Access limitations, debt concerns likely to limit end result

Without improvements in medical education access and affordability, however, the application surge is unlikely to make a significant dent in the looming physician shortage, experts say. Thousands of communities around the U.S. are struggling to recruit enough primary care providers, and one AAMC estimate projects that the nation will have a shortage of as many as 139,000 physicians by 2033. 

The nation’s 155 medical schools have a fixed number of spots in their classes, and rapid expansion is unlikely, especially given that Medicare payments for residency training have been nearly flat since 1997. The high level of student loan debt incurred by many medical students also can be a deterrent, especially for underrepresented students. 

Related: Medical schools, advocates pushing to enroll more students of color >

According to an October report from the Association of American Medical Colleges, 73 percent of last year’s medical school graduates said they had debt from their medical and premedical education. While that represents a decrease from 2012, when 86 percent reported having debt, the median amount of debt at graduation remains staggering at $200,000.        

Moreover, Inside Higher Ed reports that non-Hispanic Black medical school graduates were disproportionately likely to have student debt—more than 90 percent did—with a median of $230,000. Eighty-four percent of Hispanic medical school graduates said they have educational debt, with a median amount of $190,000, compared with three-quarters of white medical school graduates, who have a median amount of $200,000.

Related: Medical schools taking steps to curb student debt >

“Medical education has become increasingly expensive, and many students will face the challenges of assuming significant debt during their education,” said David Skorton, AAMC’s president and CEO. “The prospect of debt at this level is daunting and may deter some students and families from even considering a medical education.”

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