ST. LOUIS • The idea of graduating with hundreds of thousands in debt has made medical school a less attractive choice for college students who may already be swimming in loans.
By adding $100 million to its scholarship fund over the next 10 years and revising the curriculum, Washington University School of Medicine hopes to attract a more diverse student body.
As many as half of the 120 incoming first-year medical students this fall will receive full tuition scholarships of more than $64,000 a year.
“We’ve been having this conversation for two years, about what should we be doing to help reduce student debt, and encourage students who might not traditionally think about coming to our school to come to our school,” said Dr. Eva Aagaard, senior associate dean for education.
Last year, the median debt among graduating medical school students nationwide was $200,000, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. At Washington U., the average debt among recent graduates is closer to $100,000, officials said.
Free tuition for inaugural classes is a recent trend among newly opened medical schools, including the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in 2017. Kaiser Permanente School of Medicine in California plans to offer free tuition for its first five classes when it opens in 2020.
Last year, New York University announced that medical school tuition would be free for all students thanks to private gifts and a $600 million endowment. A smaller school, Case Western Reserve University, has offered free medical school tuition through the Cleveland Clinic since 2008.
Other schools such as UCLA and Columbia University have scholarship programs that cover full tuition for about 20 percent of the medical students.
Officials at NYU said applications jumped by 47 percent in the first year after the free tuition announcement, and the number of African American applicants nearly tripled.
At Washington U., about 45 medical students currently qualify for full tuition scholarships based on merit or financial need. The additional funds — about $7.5 million per year — will provide the equivalent of about 21 full scholarships, Aagaard said.
The scholarship budget is funded by the medical school and its training hospitals, Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s.
“The majority of our students will have some amount of financial aid,” she said.
Washington U.’s medical school classes are typically more than 80 percent white or Asian American, officials said. The school hopes to attract students from more diverse backgrounds by reducing some of the financial worries, Aagaard said.
The medical school will also change its curriculum in 2020 to bring more clinical experience as early as the first year, as well as an increased focus on social and economic influences on health care, she said.
“This investment really allows us to create doctors who are not only invested in being outstanding physicians, but invested in training the next generation and doing research to move medicine forward and lastly being engaged in the community to improve health,” Aagaard said.