Medical School Attrition Rates within Marginalized Communities
Students from marginalized communities faced different challenges during medical school. Read to learn about the factors that put them at higher risk of dropping out.
Published September 9, 2022
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- People with marginalized identities confront socioeconomic challenges at medical school.
- Attrition and graduation rates indicate the disparities between white and non-white students.
- Resources can help support marginalized students in their medical school journey.
Socioeconomic disparities are visibly present at every level of education in the United States, but especially at the graduate level. Medical schools are no exception to this trend. Marginalized communities — like those consisting of people who are minoritized because of their race and gender, neurodivergence, veteran status, and lower economic status — often struggle to keep up.
Residual knowledge gaps, unfamiliarity with the financial aid process, and other factors are all at play regarding the success of people from underrepresented communities in these educational settings. Attrition rates, or the rate at which individuals move out and are not replaced in a group, trend lower because of socioeconomic disparities.
However, to overcome these factors, they must first be understood. Exploring the realities of marginalized folks attending medical school can help us understand what support these students need.
Acceptance, Attrition, and Graduation Rates in Medical School
Acceptance, enrollment, attrition, and graduation rates all paint a picture of how student retention plays out at an institution. Acceptance rates, the rate at which students are admitted into a college or university, and enrollment rates, the rate at which students enroll into an institution's courses, help piece together some of the puzzle.
These first two rates help students understand a school's commitment to diversity. The next two rates, attrition and graduation, help students understand if an institution is working to support that diversity. Graduation rates, or the rate at which students complete coursework at an institution in the designated time it takes to finish, are especially revealing.
For potential medical students, it's important to note that acceptance rates for non-white students compared to white students — the most common and widely available measure of diversity at an institution — was nearly 50-50 in 2019, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). However, graduation rates tell a different story.
AAMC reports that the disparity in graduation rates for non-white students was about five percent lower than for their white counterparts in 2019. Attrition rates for non-white students are even starker, with these students dropping out of medical school at nearly twice the rate of white students.
Reasons Students Leave Medical School
For all students, the increased academic capacity required for medical school can be shocking. Medical schools often expect their students to spend 60-80 hours a week studying and attending classes. The pressure from this level of rigor and focus drives some students to leave or flunk out of their programs.
Medical school comes with a hefty price tag. According to the AAMC, the average cost of tuition, fees, and health insurance for one year at a public, in-state medical school was nearly $40,000 in 2021-2022. During the same period, one year of school at private and out-of-state public schools was over $60,000.
The expectations of medical school can take a toll on students' health, sometimes with students leaving because of chronic and unexpected illnesses. Students' mental health is also at risk. Medical schools have notoriously high rates of suicide and suicidal ideation among learners — three times higher than the general population.
Changes in Familial Life
With increasing demands on mental energy and time management skills, medical school creates numerous obstacles for students' personal lives. For example, those who are caretakers to family members, who have children or become pregnant, or have other large time commitments tend to struggle to keep up with coursework.
No Longer Interested in Medicine
Finally, some students realize they no longer want to become physicians. Drive is a key factor in making it through medical school — without it, students may struggle to jump through all the hoops required to complete their education. Whether they lack personal inspiration or never started med school for the right reasons, some students leave because of a lack of interest.