The Cost of an M.D.

Applying to medical school is prohibitively expensive

Applying to medical school this fall? Well, it’s not too hard—you’ll just need good grades, a decent MCAT score, favorable recommendations, and oh yeah, a few extra thousand dollars to spare.

The cost of applying to medical school is simply outrageous. A typical Harvard undergraduate, for example, can pay over six thousand dollars during the application process, shelling out money for test prep courses, application fees, and travel expenses for interviews. Applying to a single school costs at least $200, since the American Medical College Application Service (AMCAS) charges a $160 processing fee for the first application (and $30 dollars for each subsequent application), while most colleges’ secondary applications require additional processing fees of $50 to $100 dollars each.

Add to that the fact that most students apply to multiple schools—the average Harvard pre-med student applies to 18—and it becomes immediately clear that the whole process is tantamount to highway robbery.

These costs, unfortunately, aren’t just a minor inconvenience—they’re a significant barrier to entry. These exorbitant fees effectively discourage students from low-income backgrounds from becoming doctors, reducing both the diversity and size of the applicant pool. This is a problem that disproportionately affects blacks and Hispanics—minorities that are already grossly underrepresented in health care.

Fortunately, steps have been taken in the right direction. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) does have a Fee Assistance Program (FAP) that reduces the MCAT registration fee from $210 to $85 and waives the AMCAS application fee for up to 12 medical schools. Moreover, after gathering data that showed the high cost deters students from applying to medical school, the AAMC broadened eligibility requirements for FAP this year; now, students with annual family incomes of up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level may qualify.

Nevertheless, the system is still far from being just. Many students who need financial support still do not qualify for basic FAP funding—after all, $6,000 is still a sizable chunk of a family’s income, especially if that family is just barely making over three times the poverty level.

Furthermore, with admission rates to top medical schools hovering at a discouragingly low 5 to 10 percent, students often have good reason to apply to more than the FAP maximum of 12 medical schools. Some students, who evidently have the cash to spare, apply to as many as 40. But even if 12 were enough, the FAP does not cover secondary application fees, which by themselves can total thousands of dollars, or the hefty travel expenses for interviews, which include the cost of airline tickets, ground transportation, and hotel stays.

Students from low-income backgrounds may also seek financial assistance from their respective colleges—the Harvard Financial Aid Office, for example, provides aid in the form of loans. There’s no reason that students should have to take out additional loans, however, when medical schools could simply lower their application fees, or, at the very least, be more generous in giving waivers.

If medical schools have the money to provide financial assistance to students once they are enrolled, they should also be able to reduce or eliminate the so-called “processing fee” that students have to pay simply to apply. The first school to get rid of these fees would surely benefit from the publicity and a more diverse applicant pool that would also include a greater number of talented low-income students. Harvard Medical School, perhaps, should take charge and set an example for other schools to emulate.

With all the academic challenges that face pre-med students, the last thing they should have to worry about is money. Let pre-meds focus on their classes, not on their checkbooks.

Jimmy Y. Li ’09, a Crimson editorial editor, is a neurobiology concentrator in Leverett House.

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