Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis has committed $100 million over the next decade to provide scholarships allowing as many as half of its future medical students to attend tuition-free and many other students to receive partial tuition support. The funding also will support current efforts to enhance and modernize the school’s medical education program.
The scholarship program will begin with the 2019-20 entering class.
The investment aims to reduce concerns about medical school debt, while attracting highly qualified students from diverse backgrounds.
“For most medical students, debt is a significant factor in selecting a school and a career path,” said Eva Aagaard, MD, senior associate dean for education and the Carol B. and Jerome T. Loeb Professor of Medical Education. “We want to help alleviate that financial burden and instead focus on training the best and brightest students to become talented and compassionate physicians and future leaders in academic medicine. There, they will teach and inspire future medical trainees to reimagine health through scientific discovery and innovation, and work to help improve the health of people everywhere.
“This is an investment in our students and in our institution, as well as in the health of St. Louis and the greater global community,” she added.
Leader Eva Aagaard’s focus on eliminating health disparities
The funding for the scholarship program and revised curriculum comes primarily from the School of Medicine, through new funding from its departments and the university’s affiliated training hospitals, Barnes-Jewish Hospital and St. Louis Children’s Hospital, Aagaard said.
It has long been a priority of the School of Medicine to send its graduates into the field with as little debt as possible. The average debt of Washington University School of Medicine graduates over the past five years was $99,088, versus a national median of $166,239. And in four of the past five years, the School of Medicine has ranked second lowest nationally in average medical school debt. Further, each year the school’s tuition is frozen for the entering class, meaning the cost for each student is the same each year for all four years of medical school.
The new scholarship funding expands upon existing efforts to help ease the financial burden for the university’s four-year MD training program. Each incoming class has about 120 medical students. Currently, about 20 medical students in each class receive full tuition scholarships, and some 40 more receive partial tuition scholarships. (Of each class, about 25 of the 120 students are MD/PhD candidates. These students receive full tuition and stipends for living expenses that are covered by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the School of Medicine. That program will continue unchanged.)
“As a top 10 medical school, we have a responsibility not only to our students, but to the future of medicine,” said David H. Perlmutter, MD, executive vice chancellor for medical affairs, the George and Carol Bauer Dean of the School of Medicine, and the Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin Distinguished Professor. “Driven by our focus on excellence in research, education, patient care and community advocacy, we are making investments to ensure that we train tomorrow’s physician leaders who will transform medicine.”
The new scholarship program will determine the number of scholarships awarded and level of support on an individual basis by an admissions scholarship committee. Some scholarships will cover the entire tuition; others will provide partial tuition.
“Some scholarships will be based on financial need and some on merit or even a combination of the two,” Aagaard explained. “Ultimately, the scholarships will help us build a class that reflects our school’s values and allows us to educate the very best future physicians so that they will go on to have an indelible impact on health and society. We intentionally have not earmarked a certain amount to financial need or educational merit because our goal is to recruit high-caliber students who are passionate about — or who show great potential for — improving health care in the community and across the world.”
Aagaard explained that easing concerns about high medical school debt may encourage more students to select academic medicine as a career path. “This is a clear goal of our school,” she said.
It also may attract students from more diverse ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, she said. “We want deeply committed students who may not have considered our school because of cost concerns,” Aagaard said. “We want to channel their enthusiasm and brilliance into medical and scientific excellence.”
In recent years, some medical schools have instituted steep tuition-reduction programs, including New York University School of Medicine, Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and Kaiser Permanente School of Medicine in Pasadena, Calif., the latter of which is scheduled to admit its first class of students in 2020. Some of these programs were meant to offset the high cost of living in New York and California; by comparison, cost of living in the St. Louis region is below the national average.
A significant portion of the $100 million investment in medical education at Washington University will focus on revising the medical school curriculum. The funding will help envision and implement new programs that provide training and support to faculty in how best to teach medical students and trainees. For the students, the new curriculum is expected to provide more integrated clinical, basic and social sciences content, and experiences throughout the four years of medical school, as well as an emphasis on addressing the social and economic factors that influence individual health. The medical field refers to such circumstances as “social determinants of health.”
A critical component of the investment is the commitment to training medical students to one day become academic physicians. “The term ‘academic physician’ doesn’t have meaning for a lot of entering students because it’s not something most have been exposed to,” Aagaard said. “Academic physicians — meaning those who care for patients while also teaching medical students and residents, conducting research, or leading health system change — often tend to the sickest and most disadvantaged populations battling complex illnesses such as cancer, multi-organ failure and rare pediatric diseases.
“Our new curriculum will make continuous learning and excellent teaching a priority on the Washington University Medical Campus,” Aagaard added. “It’s imperative that academic hospitals are staffed by the world’s finest physicians, who can help improve the diagnosis and treatment of diseases through high-quality clinical care, groundbreaking research and teaching the next generation of physicians and health-care providers.”
The new curriculum is expected to be implemented at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year.
“By increasing our financial aid for incoming classes, Washington University joins a select group of peer medical institutions in actively working to solve the widespread problem of student debt,” Aagaard said. “With greater financial aid and a new, innovative curriculum, we’ll prepare our students for the evolving medical landscape and ensure we remain at the forefront of training tomorrow’s leaders in biomedicine. Together, these initiatives and the other critical investments we are making in research, clinical care and education will advance health in the U.S. and abroad.”