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Weill Cornell makes medical school free for qualifying students

Aarthi Swaminathan

Weill Cornell Medicine has officially made medical school free for more than half of its students.

“I am extraordinarily proud to announce Weill Cornell will offer debt free financial education for students with demonstrated financial need,” Dr. Augustine MK Choi, the Stephen and Suzanne Weiss Dean of Weill Cornell Medicine and provost for medical affairs at Cornell University, announced on Monday. “From now on no more student debt.”

He added: “This is truly a momentous day. ... this program ensures that all qualifying students ... will have the ability to pursue their medical education... without financial burden.”

The New York-based college made the announcement to its students in a bid to ease debt pressures and encourage more applicants. The move was made possible through donations totaling $160 million.

“The burden of financial debt is a real issue for potential medical students and graduates ... and we feel that eliminating student debt, for those who qualify, will go a long way to enhance and to mitigate the student stress going forward,” Choi told Yahoo Finance.

A look of the crowd at the announcement. (Photo: Aarthi Swaminathan/Yahoo Finance)
A look of the crowd at the announcement. (Photo: Aarthi Swaminathan/Yahoo Finance)

‘Long-term and short-term benefits’

The average medical student graduates with around $200,000 in debt, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). Upon graduation, they spend five to ten years in residencies — or fellowships — where they are paid around $56,000, according to Glassdoor.

“And it’s during those first 10 years, they really [are really stressed],” Dr. Choi said. “This impacts well-being, it contributes to physician burnout, and they may even get a moonlighting job in the evening — which is very common to pay off the debt.”

On top of that, “when you have burned out physicians, the quality of care that you will [give] to your patients will certainly be compromised,” added Dr. Choi. “So it's not good for the patients as well. So we believe that this will have long-term and short-term benefits to providing the best care for our patients.”

Weill Cornell isn’t the only medical school in New York that’s offering a full ride. New York University also has a similar program for all students, which offers a full ride regardless of income. Up north, Columbia University also offers a tuition-free program, but it’s similar in design to Weill Cornell’s, which is based on financial need.

Scholarship covers all students who qualify for financial aid

Weill Cornell said that 52% of its students will be impacted by this new financial program.

The program — or scholarship — the school explained is available to all medical students with demonstrated financial need, beginning with the current batch of students.

“By replacing student loans with scholarships that cover tuition, housing and other living expenses, the program ensures that all students, including those from economically diverse backgrounds, can pursue their medical education without financial burden,” the school stated in a press release.

The cost of attendance at Weill Cornell has been on average $90,000 a year. The average need-based grant for the 2018-9 year was only around $38,000. Students have been left to take out loans to cover the remainder.

“I feel so very blessed to be here right now,” one student told Yahoo Finance. “One of my biggest hesitations from coming to medical school was the financial costs... Knowing that I would have to take out hundreds of thousand dollars, that was really looming over my head. But now... my medical education is a bit more bearable.”

Funded by donations

The idea of a debt-free education is a contentious one, which has been proposed by many politicians including Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. But the fact that Weill Cornell was using donations — not taxpayer money — was an important one, Bankrate Senior Economic Analyst Mark Hamrick told Yahoo Finance.

Weill Cornell said that it used donations from various parties — such as The Starr Foundation, Sanford I. Weill and the Weill Family Foundation — which came up to $160 million, which funded the scholarships.

"It's a balance of whether taxpayer money is best used to help students avoid debt,” Hamrick told Yahoo Finance. “And if philanthropists decide that that's where that they would prefer to make a contribution, then, there can obviously be no harm from that.”

General views of NewYork-Presbyterian/ Weill Cornell Medical Center on February 21, 2014 in New York City. (Photo: Alessio Botticelli/GC Images)
General views of NewYork-Presbyterian/ Weill Cornell Medical Center on February 21, 2014 in New York City. (Photo: Alessio Botticelli/GC Images)

Helping underrepresented communities

Experts agreed that the main effect of making medical school debt-free was encouraging minority students to pursue a career in the field. That’s because six-figure debt isn’t necessarily an unmanageable burden for certain physicians.

The AAMC’s Senior Director for Student Financial and Career Advising Services Julie Fresne told Yahoo Finance said that the data shows that “not only are students able to pay their loans back, they're paying them back on time, many times early default rates are extremely low for medical school graduates.”

But “it’s great that these schools are able to provide financial assistance for these students,” she added. “We are predicting a physician shortage. The baby boomers are all hitting the age of Medicare, retirement.”

“This is a big win for minority students that perhaps wouldn’t have otherwise been able to afford a career pathway that could drastically change their socioeconomic status,” Andrew Pentis, a student loan expert at Student Loan Hero told Yahoo Finance.

Fresne also stressed the point.

NYU’s effort to make medical school free was “to actually increase the number of applicants that they have, particularly for historically underrepresented backgrounds,” she explained. “And that's in fact what happened. Not only get their applications go up, but their applications from students that are historically underrepresented one up as well.”

Aarthi is a writer for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @aarthiswami.

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