Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Drowning in Debt: The Hefty Bills That Students Incur While Attending Medical School Dissuade Many Blacks from Attending

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Drowning in Debt: The Hefty Bills That Students Incur While Attending Medical School Dissuade Many Blacks from Attending

Article excerpt

From the time he was a child, Dennis Brown always had dreams of someday becoming a surgeon. Back then, he would insist on being the neighborhood doctor, pretending to operate on his classmates during playtime at school.

"A lot of people say they want to be a doctor because it's almost the expected thing to say," he says. "But I really saw myself in the emergency room, wanting to help people. It's something that I used to think about all of the time."

But three years after graduating from college, Brown, 25, has made a decision that has baffled even his parents: he's opted to remain in the working world and not attend medical school, putting his plans of becoming a physician on hold--perhaps indefinitely.

"I have so many loans from my undergraduate years, and the cost of medical school is simply too much," Brown says matter-of-factly. "I'm not trying to be in debt for the rest of my life. I want to get married someday and not saddle my family with that kind of pressure."

The first in his Family to go to college, Brown is already burdened with nearly $40,000 in loans from his undergraduate years. Adding more debt on top of the interest that he already owes isn't something that the Cleveland native is able to stomach.

"If I had the money, I would have tons of other options," he says. "But I have to be sensible about my financial situation. I don't want to be in debt for the rest of my life." , Browns sentiments may partially explain why the percentage of African-American students enrolled in medical schools across the country has steadily fallen over the last decade while enrollment for Hispanic and Asian students has dramatically soared. In 2004, for example, African-American students represented about 7.4 percent of all of the students enrolled in medical schools, compared to just 7 percent in 2011.

The numbers are telling, according to a new report released by Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health and published in the journal PLOS. The report suggests that the reason for the decline in Black enrollment in medical schools can be attributed to the rising educational costs. While Asian students, according to the report, are overrepresented in medical schools by 75 percent, African-American students are underrepresented by 100 percent.

Disproportionate debt

Blacks--more so than their White, Asian and Latino counterparts--enter into the application process already anticipating shouldering more than $150,000 in debt once they graduate from medical school. As a result, many, like Brown, decide to reconsider their options, much to the chagrin of their most dedicated supporters.

"The finding that Black medical students had significantly higher anticipated debt than Asian students has implications for understanding differential enrollment among many groups in U.S. medical schools," notes Dr. Sandro Galea, the senior author of the study and the chairman of the Department of Epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia.

"Our work suggests that the burden of medical student debt is substantial and that the distribution of debt across race and ethnicity is disproportionate," says Galea. "With Black students reporting higher debt burdens than their counterparts from other racial and ethnic backgrounds, it is plausible that this disproportionate debt burden may play a role in the relative decline in medical school attendance among Black students."

Galea and co-researcher Dr. Abdulrahman El-Sayed analyzed data from a sample of more than 2 percent of students enrolled at 111 accredited medical schools in the country during the 2010-2011 academic school year. …

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