Tuition Free Medical School: a New Trend?


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The U.S. is on the brink of a national student loan crisis, with Forbes reporting that this collective debt reached $1.52 trillion in 2018 and impacted 44.2 million Americans. With the upcoming presidential election in 2020, many candidates such as Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are homing in on younger voters with promises of eliminating student debt. Due to a majority of high-paying jobs requiring applicants to have at least a bachelor’s degree, the scope of debt relief proposals are typically tailored to undergraduate studies. Yet, this narrowness of attention has left out a significant portion of students whom also bear what has become extremely burdensome debt: graduate students. Specifically, the path to becoming a doctor requires rigorous schooling that accumulates large sums of debt not only from undergraduate studies but also from the high price tag attached to medical schools. As a result, programs such as Cornell’s Weill Medical College are beginning to offer lowered costs and tuition-free options for students (2). To medical school applicants across the country, this development raises concerns as to whether they are eligible for the benefits of these newly implemented policies.

The first institution to begin shifting debt relief efforts towards medical school was Columbia University who in 2017 implemented a loan-free policy for all medical students (3). To address the notoriously high cost-of-living in New York City, Columbia also designated need-based aid to students for housing purposes. Columbia’s neighboring medical school at New York University announced a similar policy the following year, planning to cover tuition costs for all of its students. A different route has been taken at universities such as UCLA, which has introduced merit-based scholarships to ease the costs of attending their medical program. Following in the footsteps of these institutions, Cornell’s Weill program has expanded this approach by beginning to cover all costs for students deemed needy. For students looking to apply to medical schools in this upcoming cycle, the varied information per school can be overwhelming. For colleges such as Weill, applying can be nerve-wracking for prospective students who are even unsure of their own need status. Where do institutions draw the line between who qualifies for need and who doesn’t? How do they ensure the determining factors of qualification are not decided arbitrarily? To aid in answering some of these questions, below is a summary of information for medical school applicants looking to better understand the growing debt-relief trend and how it applies to some of the country’s most popular medical schools.


Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons (4)

The program received $150 million in initial donations from Roy and Diana Vagelos and aims to receive more funding in the upcoming years. Their aid functions by replacing all loans that would have been taken out with grants, meaning that approximately 20% of students will receive entirely free tuition.

New York University (5)

This initiative provides a $56,272 scholarship to each student covering the entirety of tuition. In order to continue receiving this grant, students must maintain good academic standing by NYU board standards which have not been specified as of late The dean stated that NYU hopes to encourage students to pursue lower paying specialties in high demand, such as family medicine.

Cornell University (6) (7)

Weill received $160 million in donations from the Starr Foundation and Sanford in order to offer need-based free tuition to those who qualify, which turns out to be about 52% of students per year.

Washington University (8)

WashU’s program utilizes over $100 million of donations to lower costs and cover full tuition for approximately half of the students attending. Similar to New York University’s Medical School, a committee determines if a student will receive a grant based on a combination of merit and need.

Merit Based:

UCLA (9)

UCLA provides an entirely merit-based scholarship to students who show dedication to community leadership, as decided by the UCLA admissions committee.

University of Pennsylvania (10) (11)

UPenn awarded approximately 30 full-tuition scholarships in a class of 150 (~20%) to students demonstrating academic performance, leadership, relevant life experiences, and other unspecified factors.


At first glance, it appeared that some of these efforts were not entirely ambitious or beneficial. As a college student myself, I went through the process of taking out loans because the “expected parent contribution” was too high and the work-study expectation was infeasible, I wondered if these efforts to reduce student debt were actually effective and fair, or if they were a ploy for increasing university prestige, especially given the language in some of the offerings. However, based on the list of medical schools providing need-based aid, it appears that they are not allocating a portion of their already existing budget towards these programs. Instead, they are receiving millions of dollars from donations specifically directed towards aid, resulting in less pressure for these schools to cut funding from their own endowment. In particular, New York University is attempting to push students towards lower-paying but highly necessary specialties through these grants. These specialties include fields such as family medicine, which has seen a shortage of students pursuing this branch of medicine with primary-care physicians hovering between 14,900 and 35,600 (12) in the United States. NYU is an admirable example of a medical school attempting to create a positive societal change by ensuring that students are specializing in their passion as opposed to a paycheck.