“Free Tuition” Isn’t a Primary Care Pipeline

This week, there were two types of discussions on my social media feeds: non-medical friends fascinated by New York University’s announcement of free tuition for all its medical students, and medical friends frustrated that their own schools weren’t so generous (gee, thanks, Vanderbilt!)

To be clear, it’s an impressive and laudable feat to cover tuition—at present, around $55,000 per year—for about 450 students in perpetuity. By the Association of American Medical Colleges’ numbers, 75% of the Class of 2017 graduated with education debt; on average, over $190,000 per student, between eight years of undergraduate and medical studies. NYU raised $600 million in donations to ensure that its graduates don’t have such financial considerations hanging over their early-career decisions.

NYU’s stated rationale here is twofold: to reduce the cost barriers that would prevent some students from pursuing careers in medicine, and to encourage students to choose less-lucrative specialties like primary care. “I don’t want people moving away from what they’re passionate about because of their fear of the money,” said Rafael Rivera, NYU’s Associate Dean for Admissions and Financial Aid.

I think those are pressing problems for medical education, and I applaud NYU for putting forth a bold, ambitious solution. I just don’t think it’s the best fix for either issue.

Free tuition is a definite game-changer for students from less-affluent backgrounds that otherwise might not have been able to afford medical education. As a society, we need these people to become doctors. They’re more likely to return to the communities and populations they’re from to practice. Moreover, seeing as there’s a wealth of literature on the implicit biases that shape our care of women, minorities, and socioeconomically disadvantaged patients, medicine could certainly benefit from the added diversity of represented backgrounds and viewpoints among its ranks.

That being said, NYU students will still have to take on $27-29,000 per year in costs of living and other expenses, which may continue to deter some of those cost-prohibited prospective physicians.

It’s also not clear how this improves access over less costly initiatives, like Columbia’s $250 million plan to eliminate medical student loans. From my own medical school experiences, many of my classmates (though certainly not all) came from well-off backgrounds. I’d estimate at least 30% were themselves children of doctors, myself included. Can’t a university like NYU find a better use for the extra $350 million its plan will take over Columbia’s than to give aid to some students like me who, ultimately, would likely be able to become doctors and attain well-off lifestyles without it? Its education or social work students, for whom a six-figure income at their ten-year reunion is less assured, probably have some ideas.

Free tuition is a start to medical education’s access problem. A real solution, though, needs to consider the myriad ways low-income students are shut out from medicine—like limited early exposure, fewer test-prep resources, and less resume-building opportunities, to name a few—and act broadly to make a substantial impact.

If free tuition is a suboptimal solution for improving access, it’s even worse for solving the shortage of primary care physicians.

A $220,000 four-year tuition relief makes primary care specialties more feasible for altruistic students who are deterred from lower-paying fields by the prospect of loan repayments. It doesn’t, by any measure, make such careers more financially attractive in the U.S.’ current payment structure, in which doctors are paid for doing things, and paid even more for invasive or interventional things than for time spent talking to people or thinking through complex diagnoses.

According to Doximity, the average Manhattan general pediatrician makes $181,000; for family physicians and internists, it’s $205,000 and $207,000, respectively. When an NYU medical student chooses primary care, they choose to forgo the salary of an orthopedic surgeon ($458,000), radiologist ($384,000), or cardiologist ($391,000) out of an intellectual interest or sense of social duty in preventive care or population health management. Against a lifetime of thirty to forty years’ worth of accumulated earnings, the cost of a medical degree—even considering the interest on loans a student might otherwise take—is a drop in the bucket.

Don’t get me wrong: primary care is muchmuch more important than the salary comparison suggests. It’s just not any better a financial decision with a free medical education than without it.

To add an even more cynical perspective, as NYU’s application pool undoubtedly draws even more competitive, talented applicants, it wouldn’t be surprising to see its match list tip even more toward selective specialties like derm., IR, ortho., or ENT.

So, if medical schools really want to cultivate primary care doctors, they can introduce tracks for primary care-specific training and exposure, like the ones at Duke and Johns Hopkins. They can offer accelerated training programs for primary care, as Mercer and Texas Tech do. If they go the scholarship route, like NYU, they can borrow from UC Riverside‘s playbook: it covers tuition, but only if the students stay and practice in underserved Inland Southern California.

What NYU and its donors have done is an incredible gift for its future graduates, one which will surely have an impact on its students’ bank accounts—not to mention, its upcoming years’ U.S. News rankings. It’s every bit as generous and impressive as it seems. It’s not, though, the moonshot strategy for improving access to medical education or promoting careers in primary care that some, like The Atlantic, NPR, or Fox News, suggest.

P.S.: If you’re from NYU Med and reading this, I’m totally not related to any other Utrankars you might see an application from in the next few years.