This year on August 16, New York University School of Medicine announced its decision to make tuition free for all students. According to the AAMC, 75% of medical students in the class of 2017 carry an average debt of $192,000, which plays a significant role in the students’ career choices. By eliminating tuition, NYU is hoping to encourage more students to enter the medical field and hopefully compensate for the current physician shortage in the U.S.
For current and prospective medical students, this is thrilling news. However, while pre-med students celebrate this reduction of financial burdens, we also need to recognize its economic nature. The AAMC reported in April that the U.S. will face a shortage of 120,000 physicians by 2030, especially in primary care. Though NYU is the first top 10 medical school to make tuition free, it is not the first and will not be the only school to grant scholarships to address this shortage. The question is: will these strategies be effective?
The research conducted by The Annals of Family Medicine shows a correlation between students’ debts and students’ chosen medical specialties. Students who carry more debt are more likely to choose higher-paid specialties. While the analysis suggests a reduction in tuition for medical students of selected specialties, NYU chose to make tuition free for all. Many doctors hence express their skepticism toward the effectiveness of NYU’s generous gift since students are still unlikely to choose a lower-paid specialty like primary care over more lucrative specialties like plastic surgery or cardiology. Also, the new tuition policy doesn’t effectively address the imbalance of physician supply between urban areas and rural, underserved areas.
To maximize the effect of NYU’s huge investment, Elisabeth Rosenthal, a previous emergency room doctor, proposes a more plausible solution. Rosenthal said that NYU Medical School could mirror the Root Tilden program at NYU Law School. In the Root Tilden program, students who study public interest law and public service do not need to pay tuition; similarly, the tuition for medical students in primary care and other lower-paid specialties should be waived.
We can almost assure that NYU’s decision will benefit medical school students in general. By cutting tuition, medical schools incentivize more talented students to become physicians and increase the diversity of the student body. Hopefully, more medical schools will follow NYU’s example. However, it still remains unclear whether the university’s decision to waive medical school tuition can alter the macro trend of primary care physician shortage. Perhaps Rosenthal’s alternate solution would better alter the trend, or perhaps it is time to change the unequal rates of payment for physicians in different specialties and solve the problem fundamentally.