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Published: Friday, 3/30/2001

Tuition, fee hikes pinch med students

BY LUKE SHOCKMAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Sepanta Jalali has a phone call to make to her parents. The good news is medical school is going great. The bad news is it's getting more expensive.

The Youngstown native is a second-year medical student at the Medical College of Ohio and she and 580 of her peers will pay 9 percent more for tuition next school year. The increase, which also affects graduate students but not nursing or allied health students, is MCO's largest in at least seven years.

Fees, which cover things like the student fitness center, student activities, and use of health services, will increase 5 percent next year. Last year, tuition at MCO increased 5 percent, with no fee hike. “Oh no, not again,” said Ms. Jalali, 23, when told of the increases. In addition to asking her parents for more financial assistance, “This just means we'll have to take out extra loans.”

Dr. Frank McCullough, MCO president, said students aren't “picketing my office yet,” but he's expecting some grumbling.

“But I don't think we have any choice,” Dr. McCullough said. “It's clear that public higher education in this state is taking a back seat and is the stepchild in terms of priorities.”

MCO, and most other medical schools, are being pinched in several ways, he said. State taxpayer support has declined over the years, or not kept pace with inflation. A shortage of health-care workers has meant MCO and other teaching hospitals have had to pay higher salaries for nurses and other staff. And the federal government has cut back on how much it funds medical education.

Garrison Walters with the Ohio Board of Regents said medical schools got more than 70 percent of their support from the federal and state government at their peak in the 1970s. Nationwide, that number has declined to less than 40 percent.

Mr. Walters, vice chancellor for the board of regents, said the regents have formed a task force to look at ways to help out the state's medical schools. But he suspects the conclusion will come down to one overriding fact: Without more federal help, there's not much the state can do.

“The state is strapped itself and it really seems unlikely in the long run that the state will be able to step up,” he said.

Medical school deans have worried for years that students leave school with a debt load that is becoming too high. Some national experts in medical education worry that students with massive loans will avoid taking lower-paying doctor openings in inner cities and rural areas. Medical students, who often have undergraduate loans, still typically have four years of residency after graduation, during which they can expect yearly salaries under $30,000.

Tim Achor, a third-year medical student at MCO, said he'll probably graduate with $100,000 in loans to repay, a figure Dr. McCullough said is typical. Mr. Achor, 24, shrugged when told of the increase.

“It just means more money in the long run we owe. There's nothing I can do about it,” the Perrsyburg native said.

Mark Notestine, assistant dean at Ohio State University's College of Medicine, said rising tuition hasn't affected the quality of incoming students, a statement echoed by Dr. McCollough.

But Mr. Notestine and Dr. McCollough said they don't expect any let-up in the increases.

“I hope it's not this high consistently,” said Mr. Notestine, noting that OSU is expected to raise medical school tuition 9 or 10 percent next year. “But it's not inconceivable.”

“I sure don't see any light at the end of the tunnel,” added Dr. McCullough.



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