Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Medically Necessary: Rising Fees for Graduate Programs at University of California Campuses Threaten to Undermine Growth of Underrepresented and Much-Needed Minorities in Health-Science and Other Professions

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Medically Necessary: Rising Fees for Graduate Programs at University of California Campuses Threaten to Undermine Growth of Underrepresented and Much-Needed Minorities in Health-Science and Other Professions

Article excerpt

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Dental student Hector Godoy easily relates to his patients fat a University of California, Los Angeles clinic. Like many of them, Godoy never went to a dentist as a child. His exposure to medical professionals was limited to community clinics when home remedies failed. "There weren't opportunities for check-ups or preventive medicine," he says.

When he graduates from UCLA next spring, he plans to work in an underserved area of Los Angeles. In the eyes of health care educators nationally, Godoy is a de facto role model, the kind of student sought for a pipeline of underrepresented minorities (URMs) whose career can improve access to health and wellness services among disadvantaged populations.

"Overwhelmingly, these individuals go back to their communities to work," says Dr. Michael Ellison, minority affairs committee chair for the National Association of Advisors for the Health Professions.

Yet, ever-climbing student fees at all UC campuses make it more challenging to attract individuals like Godoy, a first-generation college student, to health-science and related graduate-level programs. Along with a 32 percent systemwide fee increase UC regents approved less than a year ago in response to an ongoing state fiscal crisis, regents approved myriad wide-ranging spikes for professional degree programs that ran as high as 64 percent. Professional degree fees (PDFs) make up a portion of the total retail price for a graduate education.

A father to three children, Godoy figures to amass about $160,000 in debt, close to what the average UCLA dental student borrows nowadays. However, his fees of $36,794 for the next academic year, excluding housing and books, are about 16 percent higher than last year's bill.

Widespread public perception is that graduate school is a luxury rather than a necessity, although some professions--dentists, doctors and pharmacists, to name a few--mandate more than a bachelor's degree.

Furthermore, people living in underserved communities everywhere have come to rely on the clinical and field work of graduate-level, health-science programs. As an example, UCLA's student-staffed dental clinics record a total of 30,000 patient visits annually. Future professionals like Godoy get hands-on experience while patients are charged only about half of what a private dentist can command. Many patients are uninsured; some know limited English. A native Spanish speaker, Godoy translates for at least one patient daily. But beyond literal explanations about treatment and medication, "there's something to be said for being able to relate to a patient's life circumstances," he observes. One of six children, Godoy's father was a construction worker and his mother a seamstress.

A quick look around the country confirms how badly Godoy and other URMs are needed in health professions. Hispanics make up only 5 percent of dentists and 6 percent of doctors and surgeons, according to 2008 Bureau of Labor statistics. Blacks make up 3 percent of dentists and 6 percent of doctors and surgeons. Meanwhile, Hispanics make up 15 percent and Blacks 12 percent of the U.S. population in 2008, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey.

Graduate studies at UC, across many disciplines in and outside of health sciences, are among the most respected nationally. Their peers among public institutions include the University of North Carolina, the University of Michigan and the University of Washington. To be sure, rising costs are normal. For Californians, private school tuition and out-of-state costs at other public universities still run thousands of dollars higher than at UC. However, many public institutions limit their annual increases to 9 percent or less in health sciences, Ellison says, calling the double-digit increases at UC "unusual on the national map, and hopefully, will taper off sooner rather than later. …

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