2,700 apply for Florida medical school's tuition-free offer
■ Those accepted for the school's first class will get $20,000 for tuition and $20,000 for expenses each year.
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The offer of free medical school has attracted thousands of hopefuls vying for 40 slots in the University of Central Florida College of Medicine's inaugural class.
With medical school costs averaging $140,000, physicians often begin medical careers with crippling debt. So a chance at a $40,000 scholarship per year for four years is drawing waves of applicants.
"We expected a huge response," said Robert Larkin, director of admissions at UCF, near Orlando. "Today, we are at 2,726 [applications], and I anticipate that at the current pace, we will have more total applications than any other single public medical program in the state."
The Liaison Committee on Medical Education, the accreditation body that sets medical school standards, expects medical schools to offer help to minimize student financial burdens. But UCF, preliminarily accredited this year, is the first to offer full scholarships for an entire class.
"Everybody in medical education is concerned, and in some cases appalled, at the amount of student debt," said Dan Hunt, MD, a senior director at the Assn. of American Medical Colleges and secretary of the LCME. "Anything any one of us can do to minimize that debt is all in our best interest."
Projections show that UCF will accept one of every 67.5 applicants. Last year, Harvard Medical School accepted one in 40.2 applicants, Yale University School of Medicine accepted one in 50.2, and Duke University School of Medicine took one in 53, according to the AAMC's 2009-10 Medical School Admission Requirements guide.
In 2007, overall academic credentials of medical school applicants were the highest on record, according to the AAMC. Mean scores for the Medical College Admission Test were 27.8, but that was well below that of this year's UCF applicant pool.
"I've been doing this for eight years, and I am seeing things I've not seen in a pool of applicants," said Larkin, referring to extremely high MCAT scores and GPAs. "There are many 4.0 GPAs, which is somewhat common; but we have one 45 MCAT and several other 40s."
For UCF applicants, scores are just part of the equation. Applicants making the final cut must demonstrate a dedication to others, said Deborah German, MD, dean of the UCF College of Medicine.
"We are looking for students with more than high numbers," she said. "We want to make sure they have a heart for medicine. ... We want students who have lived what they say they are in an essay."
A plan to attract students
About 19 months ago, Dr. German was the college's only employee. She quickly realized that without a track record it might be difficult to attract the type of student she wanted. Thus, the scholarship idea.
"I received a full scholarship at Harvard, and I know the difference that makes," she said.
One small meeting at a time, Dr. German garnered 40 fully funded scholarships.
"I always thought we would do it, but I heard some thought I was a bit crazy. I wanted to receive all the money before accepting applications so we could offer 40 paid slots."
The $7 million in scholarship funds came from the community, including physician practices, law firms, women's groups, banks and individuals.
"When I first met Dean German, she was such an energetic person, and I wanted to help her realize her goals," said Michael Minton, whose Orlando law firm offered the first scholarship. "I got us involved for the first class, but when I told my partners, they wanted us to endow it in perpetuity. We want to ensure the UCF medical school is a success."
Applications will be accepted until Dec. 1. The school will open Aug. 3, 2009, with a class of 40 students, but it eventually will generate about 120 medical graduates a year. It will be located on the 50-acre UCF Health Sciences Campus at Lake Nona.
Each student in the first class will get $20,000 for tuition and $20,000 for expenses for all four years in the program. But, Dr. German said, the privilege of this gift comes with great responsibility.
"On day one I'm going to tell them, if all they do is do well, I will see it as a failure," she said. "We want students who will make a difference in the lives of their patients and in the community and who will make the discoveries of this century. I am hoping they will leave their footprint."