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New York University’s free medical school tuition’s impact on career choices



Medical illustratorTaylor Wiedman/Getty Images

  • New York University said last Thursday that it would
    offer free tuition to its current and future medical
  • NYU hopes that this move will help with the shortage of
    doctors in the US and encourage more students to go into
    primary care.
  • Many physicians voiced their skepticism about this goal
    via Twitter, claiming that free tuition alone won’t alleviate
    the financial barriers of pursuing a career in

New York University made a bold move on Thursday when
it said it would offer free tuition to current and future medical

The university hopes this will alleviate the financial
barriers that discourage many promising high school and college
students from considering a career in medicine due to concerns
with high medical school costs. Ideally, without looming medical
student debt, students will choose to go into less high-earning
areas of medicine such as primary care. 

“Saddled with staggering student loans, many medical school
graduates choose higher-paying specialties, drawing talent away
from less lucrative fields like primary care, pediatrics, and
obstetrics and gynecology,” NYU said in a news release. There’s
been a shortage of primary care physicians in the US, in part
because of
how much less they’re paid
compared to doctors in more
specialized areas of medicine. 

The funding will draw from the university’s $600 million
endowment, which it built up over the past 11 years for this very
purpose. While the new plan waives tuition which is around
$55,000 per student at NYU, it doesn’t not cover room and board
or fees, which together are an additional $27,000, on

But many doctors are skeptical that the free ride will lead
to more medical students opting into primary care. On Twitter,
they argued that just covering the tuition alone, won’t be
enough. Many experts believe that without altering the selective
medical school application process or finding a way to
incentivize students to go into lower-paid specialties like
primary care in underserved or poor regions, not much will change
in the field.

Even with the tuition break, students are still more likely
to choose the option to go into more lucrative specialties like
plastic surgery or cardiology. 


“If six-figure debt were enough to motivate, I’d be surprised,”
Mark Friedberg, senior physician policy researcher at the RAND
Corporation told Business Insider.

That’s because of the
pay gap in lifetime earnings
between primary care doctors and
doctors that go into specialties. Over a lifetime, primary care
doctors can make as much as $3 million less than their
counterparts in other specialties, Friedberg said. 

Getting a free medical school education

According to a
2018 report
by the Association of American Medical Colleges,
there will be a shortage of anywhere from 42,600 to 121,300
doctors by 2030. This is due in some part to the potential for
staggering medical school debt that discourages some students
from pursuing medicine. S
everal of the nation’s top
medical schools, in response, already offer scholarships that
cover some or all of the costs of attendance based on either need
or merit. 

  • UCLA’s David Geffen
    School of Medicine
    , for example, has a $100
    million fund that pays for the entire cost of medical school
    for all four years, including tuition, fees, books and living
    expenses for its high-merit students, which are approximately
    20% of those enrolled.  
  • The Cleveland Clinic’s Lerner College of Medicine in 2008
    announced that it would cover tuition for all students admitted
    to their highly selective five
    year program
    , with one required research year tacked on at
    the end of the medical education. The class size for this
    program is capped at 32 students. 

Other programs cover tuition — with a catch.

  • The National
    Institutes of Health
    ‘s Medical Scientists Training Program
    covers the cost of attendance for 970 students across 49
    schools, but students have to dedicate eight continuous years
    to get a MD and PhD, which means their medical education will
    be extremely research-oriented.
  • And students completing the Health Professions
    Scholarship Program (HPSP) or the Uniformed Services University
    of the Health Sciences (USUHS) can have their tuition waived on
    the condition of
    military service
  • With a focus on motivating doctors to get into primary
    care, the
    National Health Service Corps
     covers tuition for
    students who agree to work for four to six years in an
    under-served area. These areas — geographic or population-based
    — tend to have shortages
    of primary care doctors. 

in-state tuition
for many public medical schools in states
like Texas are becoming affordable, costing around
$15,000-$20,000 a year. 

Other factors at play 

Skeptics of NYU’s free tuition plan say it glosses over
other issues that are creating a physician shortage. 

One is the increasing difficulty of getting into medical
school. From 2006 to 2016, the volume of medical school
applicants has increased by 36%, but
acceptance rates
have either steadily decreased or stayed the
same. This means medical programs are becoming increasingly
selective about who they admit. NYU’s average GPA and MCAT scores
for its current first year class are both in the 99th

NYU’s current freshman class is 93 students, a decrease from the
class sizes of previous years, which were in the 120-130

According to the Association
of American Medical Colleges
, in 2017, of the 51,680
applicants who applied to medical schools, only 21,338 students
matriculated. That means from the total populations of students
who wanted to become doctors post-undergraduate, only 41% make it
to medical school. 

And even before pre-med students step into the doors of a medical
school, there are a lot of costs. 

The MCATs, standardized medical school admission tests,
costs $315 dollars to take and is a grueling seven hours long.
The application fee for each medical school is around $100, and
on average, each student applies to about 16 schools each
application cycle. That’s about a $2,000 investment up front. And
not every applicant is successful.  

After medical school, each student is matched to a
residency program, where they’ll spend another four years at, and
more if they choose to specialize. During residency, students
make around $40,000-$60,000 a year, mostly to cover living

It remains to be seen whether current NYU students alter their
career paths and disproportionately get into lower-paying areas
like primary care and pediatrics. And even if they do, Friedberg
said, it might not do much if those doctors decide to practice in
areas of the country that don’t have a shortage. 

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