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NYU Plans To Give Every Medical Student A Free Scholarship

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It has become so expensive to become a doctor. Medical school graduates start their careers with nearly $200,000 in loans. And that's just the average. Some are worried that this is pushing young doctors into higher-paying specialties and away from areas that really need more doctors, like family medicine. Some schools have come up with ways to reduce the financial burden. And yesterday, New York University's medical school announced it would offer full-tuition scholarships to all current and future medical students. We've reached Dr. Rafael Rivera. He's the associate dean of admissions and financial aid at NYU School of Medicine. Dr. Rivera, welcome.

RAFAEL RIVERA: Thank you. Happy to be on the show.

GREENE: Yeah, we appreciate your time. So let me ask - tuition - $55,000 a year. And certainly, I can understand helping someone who can't afford that. But why fully fund the medical education of someone, you know, whose family has that money to pay?

RIVERA: Well, because the thing is that, technically - what we're trying to do is get the best physicians that society needs. And the qualities that make a best physician aren't limited to any one socioeconomic status. So we want to make sure that we have the entire applicant pool to choose from. But nevertheless, when you see that the debt has risen so tremendously, and you also see that there are more and more people graduating each year with zero debt, you start realizing that the bulk of that debt starts getting concentrated in the lower and the middle-income groups. So what we want to do is to level the playing field by taking tuition completely off the table.

GREENE: Well, let me just do some math here. I mean, $55,000 is the tuition. It costs something like $90,000 to actually attend your medical school because of all the living costs. What if you get a great student who can't afford all of that? Is there a way to make more money available to that student and, you know, maybe less to someone who can afford it, if you're trying to level the playing field?

RIVERA: Absolutely. The cost of attendance is actually a little closer to $83,000.

GREENE: OK.

RIVERA: And so we've got financial aid for students who need it for the remaining part of that. And our goal - this is a first step - our goal, eventually, is to be a cost-free school. So we like to think big. And this is one big step in an even bigger direction.

GREENE: Tell me how serious this problem is, the notion that you have young doctors who are going into the highest-paying specialties and not really necessarily going into the specialties that they might want to go into, like family medicine.

RIVERA: Yeah, I think it's actually two problems, really. The first is, who are we scaring away from medicine in the first place who, as a child, is considering medicine but sees that 21 percent of private medical school graduates, for example, graduate with over $300,000 in debt? Might that person have been the person who goes on to discover a cure for breast cancer? We don't know who we're missing. And as our job is to get the very best patients for - very, very best doctors for patients, that's a loss to society.

The other part is, yeah, there are people who want to go into lower-paying fields, like research and pediatrics, for example. And yet when they have this specter of $300,000 debt that's going to be looming over them, it has to give them pause. So while I'm not saying that it is the only factor that causes resident decisions, it is definitely one of the factors and arguably one of the most important factors. And honestly, it's the lowest-hanging fruit of all those factors. So why would we not address that?

GREENE: Let me finish in just a few seconds we have left. If I, say, graduated last year with $190,000 in loans to pay off and just missed this great offer, what would you say to me?

RIVERA: (Laughter) I would say that I wish we could have brought this to market sooner, but we honestly brought it as soon as we physically had the endowment to be able to support it.

GREENE: Rafael Rivera is associate dean for admissions and financial aid at NYU's medical school. Dr. Rivera, thanks a lot.

RIVERA: David, thank you. It was a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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