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U.S. Med Schools Report Lowest Minority Application Rate in Seven Years

by Black Issues

U.S. Med Schools Report Lowest Minority Application Rate in Seven Years

WASHINGTON — The percentage of underrepresented people of color applying to medical school has fallen to its lowest level in seven years, according to a report released last month by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC).
At their annual meeting here on Oct. 26, AAMC officials reported that applications from Black, Latino, and Native American students fell almost 7 percent to 4,176. Applications by African American males are at a particularly low level, having dipped by 15 percent.
Meanwhile, the number of Black males entering medical schools this year also dropped by almost 16 percent. The 383 Black males entering medical school is the lowest number in a decade.
“The drop in male underrepresented minority applicants and matriculants is most disheartening,” says Jordan Cohen, M.D., president of the AAMC. “Despite the medical community’s efforts to encourage minorities to pursue careers in medicine and the growing need for a diverse physician workforce, the numbers continue to decline.”
The dearth of minority applicants has occurred amid an overall decline in applications to medical schools, a trend that has persisted for the past three years, AAMC officials say. The overall applicant pool for U.S. medical schools declined to 38,534, constituting a drop of 6 percent.
Despite the fluctuations in the number of applicants, AAMC data shows that the number of matriculating first-year medical students has remained roughly the same over the past 20 years. In 1999, 16,221 students entered medical schools.
“It is important to keep in mind that even though the applicant pool has declined somewhat from its all-time high in 1996 [of 47,000 applicants], medical schools still receive almost two and a half times the number of applicants for the available openings,” Cohen says.
While the scarcity of Black male applicants is disturbing, it is accompanied by a drop in the number of males of all races applying to medical school.
The number of applications filed by males in general dropped 9.1 percent, to 21,098, the AAMC reports. Among these, applications by White males (13,476) dropped by 9.2 percent. Applications by other men of color also declined.
The matriculation rate by underrepresented men of color as a whole (705 in 1999) also declined 15.2 percent, representing the lowest level in a decade.
The AAMC’s report came as no surprise to those in the trenches of medical education, yet it is a trend that people like E. Nigel Harris, M.D., dean and senior vice president of academic affairs at the Morehouse School of Medicine, find extremely frustrating.
“I can tell you that in Georgia, we’ve had even larger declines,” he says, noting that among Black applicants from Georgia who’ve applied to Morehouse since the 1995-96 academic year, there has been roughly a 20 percent decline. The school’s overall African American application rate was relatively unchanged.
Harris says Morehouse and medical institutions are increasingly focused on pipeline programs that begin preparing Black students for medical careers as early as the middle school years. “I don’t know what else to do except to look long term, to try to get larger numbers of students into the pool.”
As essential as pipeline programs are, however, Meharry Medical College President John E. Maupin, M.D. says only with systemic commitment from medical institutions and their various public and private sector partners can the problems concerning minority enrollment and graduation be properly remedied.
“I’m not surprised by these results. I think that in the aftermath of some of the issues around affirmative action we’ve seen shifts in resources. Those [medical] institutions that have a fundamental commitment didn’t have a shift,” he says noting that Meharry’s African American application rate was up last year. “Those that treated this as a special project, are going to have problems.”
Harris and Maupin also say that there is an urgent need for more research to help institutions understand the reasons Black students, and Black males in particular, are showing a declining interest in medicine.
AAMC officials site several factors as contributors to the decline in medical school applicants. These include: the strong economy and the increasing variety of exciting and intellectually challenging professional opportunities outside of “traditional” career choices; the natural ebb and flow of interest in professional schools in general; the perceived loss of physician autonomy because of recent changes in the health care marketplace; concerns over the high levels of educational debt required to complete medical training; and the continued damaging effect of anti-affirmative action efforts.  
Despite these challenges, however, Cohen agrees with Maupin and Harris that the AAMC member institutions must “redouble their efforts to curtail this downward spiral” in minority representation.
Despite the overall decline in applications, women have emerged as the majority among first-year students at 40 of the nation’s 125 medical schools. In 1990, only 10 medical schools reported classes in which women students either equaled or outnumbered their male classmates.
The application rate among women was less daunting than that of men. Applications from Black women dropped by 2 percent (to 1,965), but were represented among first-year medical students at nearly the same rate as last year (739), showing a modest decline of 0.9 percent. In contrast, the decline among White women applicants was 3 percent (10,001), but White women first-year entrants experienced a 2.2 percent (4,414) increase.
Mexican American women were among those groups experiencing increases on both fronts, with Chicana applicants experiencing a 4.9 percent increase (367), and a 2.3 percent entrant increase (180). Overall, applications filed by women were down 2 percent (17,436). Still, female entrants increased 3.5 percent (to 7,412).
In 1999, the number of women entering medical school increased 3.5 percent to 7,412. These women represent 46 percent of the first-year medical students nationwide. Women are accepted into medical school at a rate of 46 percent, slightly higher than the acceptance rate of men (45 percent). The AAMC reports that women also enter medical school at a rate (43 percent) that slightly exceeds that of men (42 percent).
Julia Simmons, director of minority recruitment and prematriculation programs at Wayne State University School of Medicine finds it ironic that the successes achieved in integrating women into the medical profession are coming to fruition at the same time when there is an affirmative action backlash against underrepresented people of color.
“We are applauding the success we’ve had in closing the gender gap,” she says. “I think it is wonderful. But did affirmative action play a role in that?”
Simmons adds that even despite the challenges facing medical institutions amid an anti-affirmative action political environment, institutions like hers have little choice but to go back and, as Cohen says, “redouble their efforts” by recommitting to the recruitment and retention strategies that have worked in the past.
“We have good reasons to continue our aggressive action as we attempt to maintain and increase the enrollment of our minority students,” Simmons says.                 

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