Funding

HBCU med school put CARES Act money into students’ pockets

Blake Farmer
By Blake Farmer
Jan. 15, 2022

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

“We’ll gift each of you $10,000 in cash,” he said, looking at the camera. “You heard me right.”

They were told to expect a direct deposit the next day or pick up a check in person. Hildreth, an expert in infectious diseases who helped lead Nashville’s pandemic response, explained that this gift with no strings attached was money from the CARES Act, a major covid-19 relief law passed by Congress in 2020. He asked only that they be “good stewards” of the windfall.

Courtesy of Meharry Medical College
Dental students at Meharry Medical College work with a patient.

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

Meharry’s students had already been heavily involved in the pandemic response, staffing Nashville’s mass covid testing and vaccination sites. But the money isn’t so much surprise compensation for volunteer efforts as it is an investment in a future career — and an assist in overcoming financial hurdles Black students especially face to become medical professionals.

While Black Americans make up roughly 13% of the population, the Association of American Medical Colleges finds Black doctors account for just 5% of the nation’s working physicians — a figure that has grown slowly over more than a century. And studies have found that Black patients often want to be cared for by someone whom they consider culturally competent in acknowledging their heritage, beliefs and values during treatment.

Meharry graduates more Black physicians than almost any other U.S. school. And half of its M.D.s enter the high-demand but lower-paying specialty of primary care.

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

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

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

Courtesy of Meharry Medical College
Meharry Medical College's Simulation and Clinical Skills Center is equipped for students to practice operations, examinations, and deliveries of babies.

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

But the money in his pocket eases his top concern of making rent each month. Nelson said it feels as though he’s being treated like an adult, allowing him to decide what his greatest needs are in getting through school.

“It’s motivating,” Nelson said. “Because that means they have trust in us to do with this money whatever the cause may be — whether it be student debt, investing or just personal enjoyment.”

Across the board, students at HBCUs rely more on student loans than students at historically white institutions. Roughly 80% take out student loans, according to an analysis by UNCF, formerly known as the United Negro College Fund, and they borrow considerably 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, and so have its students.

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

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

Virtually all colleges and universities received allotments under the CARES Act, but HBCUs have been much more aggressive about funneling substantial amounts directly to students, who tend to have greater need. More than 20 HBCUs have erased outstanding tuition balances. Some have canceled student fees.

But Meharry, one of the few stand-alone HBCU 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 rising 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 who look like them have less.”

During the pandemic, major philanthropists have taken new interest in supporting the few HBCU medical schools. Michael Bloomberg committed $100 million to four institutions, including Meharry, to help educate more Black doctors.

Students at Meharry can now apply for $100,000 scholarships. The $34 million from Bloomberg Philanthropies is also going toward other kinds of financial support.

The school is now offering, for no additional fee, expensive test-prep services through a Boston-based company, MedSchoolCoach. The service, which entails paying a doctor by the hour to help with studying, can cost thousands of dollars.

While the price is often out of reach for students tight on cash, acing the benchmark exams toward board licensure is key to landing coveted fellowships, qualifying for lucrative specialties or just finishing on time. And Meharry’s four-year completion rate of roughly 70% is below most schools. The most up-to-date national average is around 82%.

For some, Murray said, a $10,000 windfall may make all the difference in whether they cross the finish line and become a doctor who can afford all their medical school debt.

“Many of those students are borrowing a lot of money to complete their dream, and to become relatively high earners in the future,” Murray said. “The fact that these students are largely coming from lower socioeconomic backgrounds means that the funds that Meharry turned around and gave to the students are particularly impactful.”

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

Subscribe to KHN's free Morning Briefing.

Enjoy reading ASBMB Today?

Become a member to receive the print edition monthly and the digital edition weekly.

Learn more
Blake Farmer
Blake Farmer

Blake Farmer is Nashville Public Radio's senior health care reporter. In a partnership with Kaiser Health News and NPR, Blake covers health in Tennessee and the health care industry in the Nashville area for local and national audiences.

Get the latest from ASBMB Today

Enter your email address, and we’ll send you a weekly email with recent articles, interviews and more.

Latest in Policy

Policy highlights or most popular articles

ASBMB endorses bill on student mental health
Blotter

ASBMB endorses bill on student mental health

Jan. 19, 2022

The legislation would create a commission tasked with studying disabilities, accommodations and services in higher ed.

The War on Cancer at 50
Feature

The War on Cancer at 50

Jan. 16, 2022

The origin story begins with a socialite citizen–lobbyist.

2022 science policy priorities
Society News

2022 science policy priorities

Jan. 12, 2022

Topping the list are support for sustainable funding, grad students and early-career scientists, international collaborations, and diversity and inclusion in STEM.

The advocacy town hall is more than a free lunch
Annual Meeting

The advocacy town hall is more than a free lunch

Jan. 6, 2022

The ASBMB public affairs department works with government officials to improve the research environment for our members.

Tabak takes over temporarily at NIH
Member News

Tabak takes over temporarily at NIH

Jan. 3, 2022

The longtime ASBMB member takes the reins from Francis Collins, who stepped down recently.

Top 10 most-read original stories
Editor's Note

Top 10 most-read original stories

Dec. 28, 2021

It's the end of the year, and you know what that means: It's time for newspapers, magazines and other publications to share their most-read lists. And we're no different.