March 5, 2019

Kaiser Permanente Medical School Offers Free Tuition for its First 5 Medical School Classes

Pretend you’re the dean of a brand new medical school. You’ve got a lot to build: a campus, a faculty, and a team to help you run the school. You’ve got to get accredited, raise money from donors, and recruit people to join you on this mission.

Oh, and you’ll need an incoming class of talented students who will build the reputation of the school as they go into residency and their careers.

Doesn’t free tuition, then, seem worth a shot? What better way to attract an incoming class?

Similar to NYU’s recent decision, Kaiser Permanente Medical School will be waiving tuition for the first five classes at its new medical school.

Unlike NYU, though, Kaiser Permanente is a California-based health system that is preparing to open one of the few American medical schools not connected to a university. The school will start accepting applications in June 2019 and open in Pasadena in the summer of 2020 with a class size of 48.

Though Kaiser has stated that its main goal in making tuition free is to keep students out of debt debt, we think there’s a more likely explanation. They get to be Oprah (you get free med school! And you get free med school!). And in return, they will get an outstanding first-year class.

As with our past article on NYU, we want to commend Kaiser, but we also want to take a closer look at the motivations behind the decision and how it matters to you as a potential candidate. Let’s go through some important questions.


Kaiser is using a portion of its revenue that it spends on community benefits, something all nonprofit hospitals must provide to remain tax-exempt. The company spent $2.3 billion on community benefits in 2017, including charity care for the uninsured and other community health resources.

So, technically, the process of creating more future doctors is being grouped under “community benefits.” We can get behind that idea.

We wondered whether the source of the money might explain why Kaiser is keeping its class sizes to 48 students. If you multiply 48 x 5 classes x 4 years x ~$58,000, you’re looking at something like $55 million dollars.

Kaiser is spending $55 million

48 Students * 5 Classes * 4 Years * ~$58,000

= ~$55 million

That doesn’t seem like that much over a five-year span if Kaiser is already allocating $2.3 billion to community benefits each year.

Granted, the other allocations under community benefits are likely important, and Kaiser’s offer still means that ~250 students are getting free training, so let’s not be too greedy!


Since we’re talking about money, let’s examine the reasoning behind Kaiser’s decision. It claims that it wants to remove the financial burden for those seeking specialties like family medicine.

According to the available data, a family physician at Kaiser Permanente earns an average of $241,153, ranging from $201,617 at the 25th percentile to $273,929 at the 75th percentile.

If this seems high, let’s bring it down to size by noting that the national average salary for family practitioners is $180,000.

Even at the lower $180,000 mark, a student could conceivably pay back the loans and interest in a reasonable amount of time (average debt for medical school graduates is $191,000, along with costs beyond tuition). There are many family physicians who successfully navigate this process in their careers.


Average salary for family practitioners


Average debt for medical school graduates

So, what other motivations might Kaiser have?

Well, for one, starting a medical school is hard. There are many moving pieces to put on the right track. This could be especially challenging for a school like Kaiser that has only received preliminary accreditation and has no university affiliation to give it academic cred.

With this in mind, it’s certainly in Kaiser’s best interest to attract stellar students in its early years. Free tuition is likely to sway strong candidates who might not otherwise apply to a new school without an established reputation. In general, this decision is going to give Kaiser a much larger pool of candidates to select from.

Recent history indicates that Kaiser’s status as a new school won’t be a detriment to the quality of its matriculant pool. Cal Northstate, another new California school whose inaugural class graduates this year, was able to boast an average MCAT score of 32.2 (512 by today’s measure) for its first matriculants. Not too shabby.        

Beyond recruiting talented applicants, the free tuition is excellent PR for a new school, especially one that’s potentially looking to feed its own healthcare system with new doctors. But even so, it’s still a win-win situation for both the students and the school.

What does Kaiser Permanente Medical School’s tuition waiver mean for you as a candidate?

Kaiser has expressed a desire to serve the California population, even though there are four new medical schools in California overall.

So if you’re a California resident who hopes to enter a primary care or family medicine specialty, it seems like the perfect fit for you, especially if you feel like other California schools are a long-shot.

If financing your education is a major concern, regardless of whether you’re in-state or not, then it makes sense to apply. One more application fee is worth the chance for free tuition, and Kaiser is likely to favor disadvantaged and/or self-funded students.

Make sure to monitor the progress of Kaiser’s accreditation. Thus far, it has received preliminary accreditation from the Liaison Committee on Medical Education, a different process than usual since it is not already a degree-granting institution.

Also, be aware of what attending a new school could mean for your future. It does come with a certain risk, in the sense that residency programs will have a harder time interpreting you as an applicant. They will have no precedent for judging Kaiser’s graduates and might give your app less weight as a result. But this doesn’t seem like a good enough reason not to apply!

So, what do you think? Are you stoked? Will you apply? What questions do you have? Let us know in the comments below, and we’ll respond personally with our two cents!

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