The Cost of Medical School Dropouts

May 29, 2014 Kristen Hicks

College attrition is an issue at every level. Students who drop out of college before graduating are often saddled with student loans they still have to pay off even without a degree to show for it. Colleges themselves lose tuition dollars and take a hit in their reputation if the number of dropouts is too high.

It’s in everyone’s best interest for students to make it through to graduation. What’s true for higher education in general takes on extra importance in medical school. The stakes for medical students are higher: they’ve worked hard in their undergrad years and in preparing for their MCATs. If they fail before completing medical school, they lose a larger investment than your typical victim of higher ed attrition.

The cost of medical school dropouts can’t simply be measured in money, and it goes beyond those immediately involved in the decision.

The Costs to the Student

  • The average cost of an undergraduate education (before adding in the loan interest most students grapple with) is close to $20,000 a year. If a medical student finished in 4 years, that would make the total around $80,000.
  • The cost of taking the MCAT is $275.
  • The cost of medical school applications ranges from $25-$100.
  • Textbooks cost about $1,200 a year on average. That would mean nearly $5,000 in undergrad, and over $1,000 for each year of medical school.

While none of these numbers can give an exact snapshot for particular students, they give a general idea of the necessary costs. Add to that harder to predict costs like housing, food, and personal expenses and the cost of getting partially through medical school is very high. The University of Southern California predicts a yearly average of about $80,000.

The Costs to Society

This is harder to calculate in dollars, but still noteworthy. Society needs doctors. Hospitals that are understaffed and communities that are underserved suffer from a lack of care.

Long wait times for seeing a doctor about time sensitive illnesses, understaffed emergency rooms, and people being forced to travel for the care they need are all scenarios with costs and consequences that go much deeper than financial concerns.

The United States already faces a doctor shortage. Every medical student that doesn’t become a working doctor threatens to make the problem worse.

The Cost to the School

The loss of a student’s tuition is the most obvious cost to the medical school. For public schools that amounts to about $15,000 a year; for private it jumps to around $30,000.

Additionally, if the number of dropouts gets too high, medical schools risk losing their accreditation. Without a good reputation, medical schools can’t attract worthy applicants. The costs of high attrition rates can stay with the school in years to come.

What Medical Schools Can Do About It

Schools can be proactive about helping students get through all four years and pass their licensing exams; they just need the right tools. The detailed, personalized feedback that comes from embedded assessment can empower students to take more control over their efficiency and eventual success in medical school. It can also give faculty the information they need to step in and help students before they fall too behind and start to lose hope.

If that sounds like a tall order for some simple computer-based testing software, consider this: it helped Touro University reduce their dropout rate from 8% to 2%. In addition to all the non-monetary costs discussed here, it saved the school over $2 million a year.

For the sake of the students, the school, and society at large, it’s worth taking any effort to help promising students succeed as doctors. With the amount at stake, the value of embedded assessment is hard to overestimate.


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