Written by Joanna Hughes

A major New York medical school recently announced its plans to raise $600 million from private donors to wipe out tuition for all of its students, including those currently enrolled. But not everything thinks the move is a good idea. Here’s a closer look at the pros and cons of free med school.

Making the Case for Free Med School

The high cost of medical school can be a major deterrent for cash-strapped students looking to avoid burdening themselves with years of debt. Certainly, this news is exciting, starting with the fact that it promises to open up opportunities to more students at a time when the country is facing a shortage of healthcare professionals.

Medical school dean Dr. Robert Grossman said of the plan, “A population as diverse as ours is best served by doctors from all walks of life, we believe, and aspiring physicians and surgeons should not be prevented from pursuing a career in medicine because of the prospect of overwhelming financial debt.”

Not only will eliminating tuition get more students in the door of medical schools by eliminating the financial obstacles, but proponents hope that it will also encourage more future doctors to consider specializations in less lucrative areas of medicine, such as primary care, obstetrics and gynecology, and pediatrics.

Acknowledging the Downsides

In theory, free medical school sounds like an amazing prospect. But some expressed skepticism over the idea -- starting with the fact that pitching future doctors as charity cases does not go over well with everyone.

Health economist Craig Garthwaite told NPR, “As I start rank-ordering the various charities I want to give to, the people who can pay for medical school in cash aren’t at the top of my list.”

Pediatrician Aaron Carroll concurred, “If you had to find some cause to put tons of money behind, this strikes me as an odd one.”

Others suggest that while covering tuition makes sense in some cases, it’s not appropriate in every situation. ER doctor-turned-journalist Elisabeth Rosenthal proposed in a NY Times opinion piece, “Many doctors, and certainly most specialists, can pay off those medical school loans quite easily over time. After all, if you’re a doctor, you’re more likely to be a member of the top 1 percent than you would be with any other job.”

Conversely, doctors who work in poor areas struggle much more to pay off their debts. Therefore, suggests Rosenthal, medical schools should only consider waiving tuition fees for students willing to work where they are needed.

“How about all medical schools commit to forgiving or paying back the loans of young doctors who go into lower-paying fields or set up practice in underserved areas — and keep doing so as long as they stay there?...The real goal is not short-term payback but to enable and support young doctors who feel that treating patients is a calling, regardless of the patients’ ability to pay,” she proposes.

And then there’s the impact on other medical schools. After all, not every school has the ability to go tuition-free. So how can they keep their own costs low?

According to a Business Insider article, most medical schools are not only already grappling with how to cut costs in order to attract the best students, but they agree that eliminating tuition is a game-changer. Leading medical school vice dean for education and professor of medicine, Dr. Roy Ziegelstein, said, “I think it’s great. One could even say it’s like when Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile.”

Lastly, some say that while doing away with tuition is a start, it’s not nearly enough. In addition to delaying their earnings, students are still hit with significant expenses for room and board and other fees. These costs remain both a barrier to entry as well as a barrier to exploring lower-paying specialities. In other words, while the plan is well-meaning, it's unlikely to hold up.  

One thing everyone agrees on regardless of their position on this particular issue? The high cost of medical school is one of the biggest healthcare problems facing society today. Whether or not free medical school turns out to be a meaningful solution, a temporary stopgap, or a bandaid on a bullet wound remains to be seen.

Still wrestling with whether med school is right for you? Check out our guide, "Why Med School May Not Be the Right Fit (And Why It's OK)".

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Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.
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