According to the AAMC's latest figures, about 2,000 of the 17,600 students admitted in 2002 to the nation's 126 medical schools - 11 percent - were underrepresented minorities. That category includes mostly African Americans, along with mainland Puerto Ricans, Mexican Americans and American Indians.
The AAMC missed its goal of "3,000 by 2000" - 3,000 new underrepresented minorities that year. At the current pace, critics say, it'll be more like "3,000 by 3000."
The situation has caused a frenzy of recruiting, mentoring and enrichment programs designed to entice minority children as early as seventh grade into science or medical careers. Activity is especially intense for promising minority high school and college students to enroll in weeks-long programs during the school year or summer.
Medical school recruiters cite stubborn obstacles to finding more qualified black and Hispanic students.
One is money. About 80 percent of medical students need financial help, but for minorities the picture is often worse. A year of medical school can cost more than $50,000. Post-graduate training can take years more.
The average debt for medical school graduates is now more than $100,000.
Poor academic preparation is another factor. "A lot of these students have a very hard time competing with students who went to academies or schools that were well-equipped," said Luz Ortiz, assistant dean in the Office of Diversity and Minority Affairs at Jefferson Medical College.
African Americans and Hispanics generally have lower grade point averages and scores on standardized tests, including the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), traditionally key components in medical school admissions. But many medical schools say scores are not the only way to predict performance. Other factors they consider include persistence, maturity, people skills, leadership, compassion, commitment to community, and work ethic.
Roger Clegg, general counsel for the Center for Equal Opportunity, a nonprofit think tank that promotes "colorblind equal opportunity," doesn't buy such a "holistic approach" to minority admissions. He thinks that "admitting students with lower MCATs and grades boils down to discrimination based on race" and produces students who don't do as well on medical exams and board certification tests.
"I think it's probably a mistake to weigh the academic qualifications a lot less simply because they don't yield a politically correct racial and ethnic mix," he said. "It lowers admission standards and means that the doctors these schools will be graduating won't be as good."
Others disagree. "Just going on grade point average and the MCAT doesn't give you the person who would be the best physician," Morrison said. "You need to find people who can deal with sick people, who have interpersonal skills. You really do need them."
All parties agree that improving schools from the early grades is critical.
"There is no magic bullet here," the AAMC's Cohen said, "but it is absolutely unconscionable that we have not provided the kind of educational opportunities and other supports that students need to fulfill their potential."
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