Tuition-free medical schools are popping up across the U.S., including at some of the country’s most prestigious universities. In 2019, Cornell became the seventh such program to waive tuition for future physicians.
While the list of free medical schools continues to grow, however, it’s crucial to consider that the so-called “full ride” might only get you part of the way there. You may still need to apply for med school scholarships and student loans to meet uncovered costs.
Here’s what you should know about tuition-free medical schools:
7 tuition-free medical schools to consider Why tuition-free medical school isn’t completely free How to access financial aid for medical schools (tuition-free or not) 7 tuition-free medical schools to consider
If free medical school sounds like pie in the sky, that’s because for most students, it is.
Even if you enroll in one of the following tuition-free medical schools, you might not qualify for a true full ride. Washington University in St. Louis announced, for example, that its program would wipe away tuition for just half of its students, based on financial need and academic merit. And even those students have to cover secondary expenses like room and board.
But with that caveat in mind, here’s a look at seven medical schools offering to waive tuition for at least some students.
Financial need or academic merit
*For first-year students enrolled in a four-year M.D. program, current as of Jan. 9, 2020
1. New York University (NYU)
NYU’s School of Medicine was a pioneer among medical schools to offer tuition-free initiatives. It announced in August 2018 that it would become the first nationally-ranked program to waive tuition and fees for all students, regardless of their financial situation or academic record.
Although there are no requirements for free tuition at NYU’s medical school, there is a catch: The funds, made possible by endowment, won’t cover a student’s average living and administrative expenses, upward of $31,000.
Still, Julie Fresne, a senior director at the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), said the program’s early returns are encouraging. “It will take time to see the true impact, but NYU has reported a significant uptick not only in applications, but applications from populations that are traditionally underrepresented in medicine,” Fresne said.
First-year cost of attendance without aid: $88,163
2. Columbia University
Columbia medical school students were the first to receive a completely free education when the Vagelos Scholarship program was unveiled in 2017. It promises to meet 100% of financial need for lower-income students — that includes tuition, fees, study materials and room and board.
To qualify, your family must earn a household income of less than $125,000, at least as of the 2019-2020 school year.
While the Vagelos program provides truly free education for some students — 20%, according to the school’s newspaper — sticker-price tuition for other students was $62,980 in 2020, not including other expenses.
First-year cost of attendance without aid: $94,012
3. Cornell University
The Weill Cornell Medicine program is the latest addition to the tuition-free medical school list. It announced in September 2019 that it would replace student loans with scholarships for students who qualified for financial aid.
In addition, Cornell students pursuing dual M.D. and Ph.D. degrees could receive full tuition as well as living expenses stipends from the school and the National Institutes of Health.
Students who don’t qualify for need-based financial aid could still decrease their cost of attendance through school-offered extracurriculars, such as community service.
First-year cost of attendance without aid: $90,000
4. Washington University in St. Louis
Washington University Medical School joined the tuition-free movement in April 2019, promising to discount tuition to zero for as much as half of its student body. Previously, just 1 out of 6 students in the program received a full ride to medical school.
Unlike similar scholarships for medical schools, Washington’s weighs both financial need and academic merit when making aid decisions.
The school’s program stops short of covering awarded students’ secondary costs, but on the plus side, it does award partial-tuition scholarships for not-so-needy students.
First-year cost of attendance without aid: $87,578
Roughly 1 out of 4 students attending UCLA med school won’t need to worry about tuition — or any other cost included in the program’s cost of attendance. Those students aren’t necessarily the neediest, however, and are admitted based entirely on merit.
To maintain this David Geffen Medical Scholarship assistance, they need only to remain in good standing during their four years on campus.
Awarded students won’t face a UCLA tuition charge, plus they receive a monthly stipend of $2,792 to cover essentials like rent and transportation, not to mention books and supplies.
If you attend UCLA med school but don’t receive the full-ride financial aid award, you might still qualify for the institution’s partial scholarship opportunities, which are a mix of merit- and need-based.
First-year cost of attendance without aid: $76,136
6. Cleveland Clinic
Cleveland Clinic’s medical school tuition is waived for each of its 32 enrollees each year. More formally known as the Lerner College of Medicine of Case Western University, it has waived tuition since 2008, predating its competitors.
The tuition-free award is earned in this case: Cleveland Clinic medical school expects students to spend a fifth year in the program conducting research.
Cleveland Clinic students who need financial aid to meet their full cost of attendance (minus tuition, of course) would also complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, just like their peers at typical medical schools.
First-year cost of attendance without aid: $94,010
7. Kaiser Permanente School of Medicine
If you’re seeking information about Kaiser’s free medical school, hopefully you’re close to stepping on campus. The Kaiser Permanente School of Medicine announced in February 2019 it would cover tuition and fees only for its first five classes of students, from 2020 to 2024.
Unfortunately, even those 48 students admitted annually will have to finance an estimated $34,500 in living expenses for the Pasadena, Calif., campus.
But on the plus side, studying at Kaiser could give you access to hands-on learning at the health care company’s array of hospitals and clinics.
First-year cost of attendance without aid: $95,857
Why tuition-free medical school isn’t completely free
While the seven programs above are certainly bringing medical school prices down, they’re not erasing all costs for all students:
Four programs leave students with $20,000-plus of non-tuition expenses to manage. Three programs cover 100% of costs, but for only 20%-52% of their students.
So even at these tuition-free schools, students who gain a true full ride to medical school are in the minority. Peers will need to bridge the gap in their cost of attendance with scholarships, grants, earned income and student loans.
With that said, programs advertised as tuition-free are certainly among the least-expensive medical schools in the country and should result in their students borrowing less on average.
Average is plenty expensive: Class of 2018 medical school graduates left campus for their residencies with a mean education debt of $196,520, according to the AAMC.
Keep in mind that medical school tuition-free pledges aren’t always permanent either: Each of the scholarship programs above are made possible by endowments that, without new funding, are vulnerable to attrition. In other cases, schools such as Kaiser’s offer tuition-free medical school for a limited time.
How to access financial aid for medical schools (tuition-free or not)
Free med school is currently benefiting a lucky few, rather than becoming a widespread trend, at least according to AAMC’s Fresne.
“It would be difficult for most medical schools to go tuition-free right now, particularly without an extraordinarily large gift like Columbia and NYU received,” she said. “However, there are many medical schools launching efforts to reduce their graduates’ debt. These include campaigns for targeted gifts for financial aid.”
How to get scholarships for medical school
Just like those pursuing an undergraduate or graduate degree, professional degree-seekers can and should apply for gift aid that, unlike loans, typically don’t need to be repaid. Given the challenge of paying for medical school, scholarships and grants can go a long way.
Your school wouldn’t be the only source of such assistance — you can also find medical school scholarships and grants from:
Local government: Check in with your local higher education agency about its slate of state grants. Nonprofit foundations: Organizations like the American Medical Association Foundation, with its Physicians of Tomorrow Awards, list medical school merit scholarships. You could also discover medical school scholarships especially for minorities, such as the United Health Foundation’s diversity program. Private companies: Don’t forget about medical-related corporations like Johnson & Johnson, which dispenses $10,000 awards as part of its Tylenol Future Care Scholarship program. Professional associations: Even if you’re still on campus and far from joining the medical workforce, you could snare medical school scholarships from AAMC. Employers: Perhaps your human resources department provides tuition assistance. You could also earn aid via your service if you take part in the National Health Service Corps or pursue medical school via the armed forces.
As for how to win awards, from full scholarships to partial aid, Fresne said to focus on what you can control in the classroom: “Aspiring medical school students should, of course, focus on their grades and doing well on the MCAT (exam).”
Paying for medical school with student loans
If some combination of attending a tuition-free school and racking up scholarships isn’t enough to afford your cost of attendance, your least desirable option is left — borrowing.
Federal and private student loans can help pay for medical school, if you’re willing to take on the obligation of debt. It’s generally best to prioritize federal loans, as their repayment protections beat those of private loans.
Fortunately, the Department of Education allows students paying for medical school to borrow up to the full cost of their attendance, thanks to the direct PLUS loan program, so you’re less likely to need those private loans.
Remember that it’s wise to borrow only what you absolutely need for your degree. Before shopping around for a federal or private loan, double-check that you’ve exhausted all other options. Also, have a look at our guide for how to pay for medical school without going broke.