The New York University School of Medicine sent shock waves throughout all of higher education in the summer of 2018 when they announced free tuition to all medical school students regardless of need. If the program achieves its stated goals, NYU could help the healthcare sector make significant strides in addressing the ongoing doctor shortage.
So, would free tuition motivate you to enter family medicine instead of a more lucrative specialty? NYU believes it will, at least for some med school students who would otherwise not have considered family medicine.
According to the New York Times, NYU’s thinking is that high debt loads drive graduate students into more lucrative specialties for the simple fact that they need more money to pay off student loans. The powers that be at NYU feel that it would be possible to funnel more students into family medicine jobs if they didn’t have those student loans to pay off.
A Lifetime of Debt Reduction
NYU makes a legitimate case for their decision, at least in terms of the amount of debt med school students accrue. For many of those students, embarking on a lifetime of debt reduction following graduation is the norm. Even six-figure salaries are not enough to pay down that debt quickly.
The enormous debt load of medical school is one of the factors that motivates new doctors to consider locum tenens immediately after finishing their residencies. Locum tenens clinicians earn more, on average, than their employed and private practice counterparts. Moreover, they enjoy additional financial benefits like paid medical malpractice insurance, and housing.
That combination of extra income and fewer expenses allows locums to pay down their debt faster. After a few years in the locum tenens field, they can choose to make locum work a career or start searching for a full-time position.
Getting back to the NYU decision to offer free tuition, their decision would make sense if student loan debt were the only thing pushing med students into more lucrative specialties. But to believe that is the case is to be somewhat naïve. There are other mitigating factors here.
First and foremost is the issue of income. Debt loads notwithstanding, it’s natural for people to want to make as much money as possible. And in medicine, we cannot escape the fact that some specialties pay a lot more than family medicine.
Another consideration is competition. No doubt some students get to the last couple semesters of med school and start wondering about the competition for jobs. Such thoughts would naturally motivate students to pursue specialties in which the competition is minimal. Less competition means an easier time finding a job.
Let’s not forget personal interests, either. One of the factors that goes into choosing a specialty is the student’s individual interests. Perhaps family medicine just doesn’t interest a large enough pool of students right now. We don’t know if that’s the case, but it’s certainly possible.
More Doctors Overall
NYU’s goal in offering free tuition is to get more medical school students to choose less lucrative specialties like family medicine. Whether or not they reach that goal will be revealed in time. But even if not, there is likely to be at least some increase in the number of doctors overall.
Free tuition will open the door to medical careers among students who would have otherwise been shut out by affordability. So just offering free tuition regardless of need expands the available pool of medical school students. That can only increase the number of doctors entering the healthcare field in coming years.