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.

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by Sydney Clark

Published September 9, 2022

Reviewed by Angelique Geehan

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Medical School Attrition Rates within Marginalized Communities
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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

Academic Pressure

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.

Financial Hardship

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.

Poor Health

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.

Resources for Minority Students Attending Medical School

The MSPA exists to affirm and support LGBTQ+ students in their schooling. Recently founded in 2018 at Stanford University, the alliance collaborates with the AAMC and has a nationwide network. The VA is available to support all veterans, including those who choose to continue their education. Resources on GI Bills®, support groups, and other possible needs are available at local VAs across the country. AMMSA's mission is to support Muslim students pursuing careers as physicians. Though founded recently in 2020, they are already nationally based and have events that focus on community, service, and spirituality. Dedicated to serving students of color, SNMA was founded to help Black medical students succeed. Now, the organization has over 6,000 members, operates nationally, and boasts a large calendar of events focused on student success. MSDCI uses advocacy, mentorship, and community building to promote the success of medical students who are disabled. There are currently 15 chapters across the United States, with more opportunities for growth to come. APAMSA creates spaces for students of Asian descent to celebrate their culture while pursuing a medical career. Cultural sensitivity is a key aspect of their moral philosophy, and they work to spread awareness of it in the medical field. FLGIMed provides financial information and resources for first-generation and low-income medical students. Focused on community, empowerment, and advocacy, the organization is committed to providing better outcomes for all students headed to medical school. Created to serve current and future physicians, the LMSA advocates for the health of the Latina/o community and the empowerment of Latina/o medical students. They focus on success through service and mentorship. A cornerstone of the AAIP is to keep Indigenous students on the path to the medical field. They offer scholarships, internships, and fellowships to medical students of Native American descent. AAIP hosts a national conference among other events to support students. The AMSA is the foremost resource for students in medical school. The organization pledges to "see a better way forward" for American health outcomes and is devoted to supporting medical students as a prerequisite to that goal.