HBCU medical school put CARES Act money in students’ pockets

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Just before Meharry Medical College students were to go home for Thanksgiving, Dr. James Hildreth, the school’s president, sent them a video message that he acknowledged sounds hard to believe. Or at least they had to give it a second listen.

“We’ll give you each $10,000 in cash,” he said, looking into the camera. “You heard me correctly.”

They were told to expect a direct deposit the next day or pick up a check in person. Hildreth, an infectious disease expert who helped lead Nashville’s pandemic response, explained that the unconditional gift was money from the CARES Act, a major covid-19 relief law passed by the Congress in 2020. He only asked that they be “good.” stewards” of the manna.

Courtesy of Meharry Medical College

Meharry Medical College dental students work with a patient.

After careful consideration, Meharry’s administration decided to give about a third of its CARES Act funding — $10 million — directly to its future doctors, dentists and public health researchers. A total of 956 students received payments.

Meharry students had already been heavily involved in the pandemic response, staffing Nashville’s mass screening and vaccination sites. But the money is not so much surprise compensation for the efforts of volunteers as an investment in a future career – and help in overcoming the financial barriers that black students particularly face in becoming healthcare professionals.

While black Americans make up about 13% of the population, the Association of American Medical Colleges finds that black doctors make up just 5% of the country’s practicing physicians — a figure that has been slowly increasing over more than a year. century. And studies have shown that black patients often want to be cared for by someone they consider culturally competent to acknowledge their heritage, beliefs and values ​​during treatment.

Meharry trains more black doctors than almost any other American school. And half of its doctors go into the high-demand but lower-paying specialty of primary care.

“We felt there was no better way to start distributing these funds than by giving to our students who will soon be giving so much to our world,” Hildreth said.

Cheers erupted in the library as students clicked on the video link.

Andreas Nelson was silent, he later recalled. He went to his banking app and stared in disbelief. “$10,000 was just in my bank account. It was amazing,” he said. “I was literally at a loss for words.”

Courtesy of Meharry Medical College

Meharry Medical College’s Simulation and Clinical Skills Center is equipped for students to practice operations, exams, and baby deliveries.

The Chicago native is completing a master’s degree in health and science at Meharry in hopes of getting into its dental school. The average student loan debt in the program totals more than $280,000. So undoubtedly 10,000,000 won’t do much in debt.

But the money he has in his pocket alleviates his main concern of making rent each month. Nelson said he felt like he was treated like an adult, which allowed him to decide what his greatest needs were to complete his education.

“It’s motivating,” Nelson said. “Because it means they trust us to use that money for whatever cause, whether it’s student debt, investment, or just personal enjoyment.”

Overall, students at HBCUs rely more on student loans than students at historically white institutions. According to an analysis by UNCF, formerly known as the United Negro College Fund, about 80% take out student loans and borrow significantly more.

Meharry was founded a decade after the Civil War to help those who had been enslaved. But the 145-year-old institution has always struggled financially, as have its students.

The reasons are rooted in the country’s racist past, which has left institutions with less money potentially available for scholarships than other universities. And students’ families typically have less wealth to tap into since black households across the country average a net worth of around $17,000, about one-tenth the average for white families.

Meharry’s average student debt is far higher than that of other medical schools in the Vanderbilt University and University of Tennessee area, representing both private and public institutions.

Virtually all colleges and universities have received stipends under the CARES Act, but HBCUs have been far more aggressive in funneling substantial amounts directly to students, who tend to need them most. More than 20 HBCUs have cleared outstanding tuition balances. Some have waived tuition.

But Meharry, one of HBCU’s few stand-alone graduate schools, is a rare case in cutting checks for students.

Courtesy of Meharry Medical College

The Stanley S. Kresge Learning Resource Center houses the Meharry Medical College Library.

“These young people are going up to medical school against all odds,” said Lodriguez Murray, who leads public policy and government affairs at UNCF. “Of course they have to borrow more because people like them have less.”

During the pandemic, major philanthropists have shown new interest in supporting HBCU’s few medical schools. Michael Bloomberg has committed $100 million to four institutions, including Meharry, to help train more black doctors.

Meharry students can now apply for $100,000 scholarships. The $34 million from Bloomberg Philanthropies is also earmarked for other types of financial support.

The school now offers expensive test prep services at no additional cost through a Boston-based company, MedSchoolCoach. The service, which involves paying a doctor by the hour to help her study, can cost thousands of dollars.

Although the price is often out of reach for cash-strapped students, passing benchmark licensure exams is key to landing coveted scholarships, qualifying for lucrative specialties or just finish on time. And Meharry’s four-year completion rate of about 70 percent is lower than most schools. The most recent national average is around 82%.

For some, Murray said, a windfall of $10,000 can make all the difference in crossing the finish line and becoming a doctor who can pay off all their medical school debts.

“A lot of these students borrow a lot of money to fulfill their dream and become relatively high earners in the future,” Murray said. “The fact that these students come largely from lower socio-economic backgrounds means that the funds Meharry has handed out and donated to students have a particularly big impact.”

This story comes from a partnership that includes Nashville Public Radio and KHN.

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