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It is unlikely that the Perelman School of Medicine will offer free tuition in the near future.

Credit: Kylie Cooper

New York University became the first top United States medical school to cover tuition for all students over two years ago. But according to a recent national survey, it is unlikely this model will come to Penn – or any other medical school in the country – in the near future.

According to the survey, which was run by Kaplan Test Prep, admission officers at 70 U.S. medical schools said free tuition is not possible and “largely a pipedream." Penn's Perelman School of Medicine declined to comment on whether they were currently considering such a model.

NYU's model offers free tuition to all medical students, regardless of need. Cornell University announced in September 2019 it will provide free tuition, as well as books, housing, and food – to all medical students who are eligible for financial aid. 

Currently, 86% of Penn Medicine's student body receive some form of need-based or merit scholarship, a Penn Medicine spokesperson said in an email to The Daily Pennsylvanian. The spokesperson also wrote that Penn medical students who are pursuing a dual MD/Ph.D. receive full scholarships to cover the cost of tuition and fees, as well as a stipend for living expenses. 

"Student Scholarship is one of the three focuses for the University’s current Capital Campaign," a Penn Medicine spokesperson wrote in the email. "We are working to raise additional funds to support our MD and 'MD+' program for students working toward dual degrees, such as an MBA."

The Kaplan survey found 66% of pre-med students favor some form of a free tuition financial aid model. However, only 4% of the admission officers surveyed said they are looking to adopt the NYU or Cornell’s free tuition scholarship plan in the next decade. 

Kaplan’s Director of pre-health programs Jeff Koetje said medical school tuition is a significant portion of the financial support that a medical school receives and needs to function.

“It's a really complex issue,” Koetje said. “Even as [medical schools] express an interest in taking different approaches to making medical school more affordable, it becomes very hard for them to implement in a quick way because of how complex the overall financial model of medical schools are.”

The Smilow Research Center is part of the NYU School of Medicine. (Photo by Jim Henderson | CC0 1.0)

Association of American Medical Colleges Senior Director of Student Financial and Career Advising Services Julie Fresne said there is a growing number of medical schools across the country “that are looking for creative ways to help reduce the financial burden on students”.

“While I think a lot of schools would like to be in the position to be able to provide free tuition, they're just not,” Fresne said. “They just don't have the same level of funding and the same resources.”

Cornell's free tuition plans were established by monetary gifts of $160 million from its donors, while NYU was able to implement their plan after Kenneth Langone, chair of the NYU School of Medicine board of trustees, donated $100 million to the medical school.

The new financial aid plan can help students pursue their medical education without financial burden and “focus their careers on their interests and talents, rather than the requisite future salaries to repay their loans,” a Weill Cornell Medicine spokesperson wrote in an email to the DP. 

NYU School of Medicine Associate Dean for Admissions and Financial Aid Rafael Rivera said middle class students are often left out in the traditional need-based financial aid system, but NYU's plan eliminates this issue.

“[Medical schools] have been doing need-based aid for years and yet the problem of medical debt just seems to increase year in and year out,” Rivera said. “I don't think that the need-based models are necessarily going to be a good solution for tackling that.”

Rivera added that the goal of the free tuition scholarship is not to “redistribute income or money,” but to keep the “best students on the path to medicine” and allow them to “go into fields in which they feel they can make the most positive impact of the health of our society.”

First-year medical student Ali Farooqi and second-year medical student Brian Chu both received full tuition merit scholarships from Penn.

Farooqi said his scholarship helps alleviate pressure to choose a speciality based on expected salary. 

“I wouldn’t feel as pressured to go into specialties that are high-paying to pay off the med school debts,” Farooqi added.

Chu, however, said he does not think full tuition scholarships will significantly impact medical accessibility.

Chu said the scholarships are “too late in the process,” and medical schools should focus on the barriers students face prior to the actual application, such as being able to pursue unpaid extracurricular opportunities that often give medical students an edge in their application. 

“There are expectations for students to have volunteer experience, but not everyone can afford to volunteer,” Chu added. “When you have expectations like these to get to those goals, you're already canceling out people who couldn't afford to volunteer.”