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State study says it will cost $125,000 a year to educate WSU medical students

UPDATED: Fri., Aug. 25, 2017, 7:31 a.m.

FILE – Kimberly Huynh, center claps as she listens to speeches during the Inaugural White Coat Ceremony of Washington State University's Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine at The Fox Theater on Friday, August 18, 2017. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
FILE – Kimberly Huynh, center claps as she listens to speeches during the Inaugural White Coat Ceremony of Washington State University's Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine at The Fox Theater on Friday, August 18, 2017. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – Lawmakers who have tried for several years to compare the cost of education at Washington’s two medical schools now have an answer. Sort of.

Educating a medical student cost about $90,600 a year at the University of Washington’s established program in 2015, a new state study estimates. It will cost about $125,000 a year at Washington State University when that new program is at full strength in 2023.

But those two figures aren’t really comparable, the state auditor’s office said. One looks at actual costs, the other looks at projected costs and makes assumptions about inflation.

“Differences between programs – including the number of students, the length of time the school has been operational and other considerations – all affect the cost of medical education,” auditors said.

Even so, UW officials argue the figures for its costs are high because they don’t account for revenue the school receives from clinics where the students work, or gifts the university receives.

The auditor’s office was asked to look at the cost of medical education at the two schools last year, after the Legislature had given the green light to WSU to open its own medical school. At that time, UW was the only public university in the state with a medical school, and had a program that included students from Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho, which don’t have a medical school.

The two public universities disagreed on how much it cost for a student at the existing school, and whether the new school would be significantly more expensive. Lawmakers also wanted to know if Washington was subsidizing the costs of students in the multi-state program, known as WWAMI for the first letter of the five states involved.

Answering those questions isn’t simple, auditors said in the report released Thursday. Each university previously commissioned a study, auditors said, but “there is little information to support how the estimates were calculated and what they include.”

The auditor’s office looked at the total cost to educate a medical student at UW 2015, which includes instruction, overhead, costs related to the multi-state program, maintenance, utilities, administration and community service. That total was divided by the 762 medical students that year, and concluded the average cost was $90,640 for that year. On average, students paid $39,250 in tuition.

The money from the partner states in WWAMI didn’t quite cover all those average costs, so Washington state funds picked up $450 per student, auditors said.

UW officials said those calculations are off because WWAMI students generate an average of $4,770 in revenue and gifts. The average cost for those students should have been reduced by that amount, showing that money from the partner states and student tuition more than cover the cost.

Auditors weren’t convinced, saying the data they had didn’t demonstrate how that revenue and gifts were spent.

“We have no way to verify the university’s assertion that it allocates patient clinical revenue and gift funds to the cost of educating students,” State Auditor Pat McCarthy wrote in a follow-up letter attached to the report.

Auditors couldn’t make a straight comparison to WSU’s Elson Floyd College of Medicine, which just welcomed its first class of students last week. Instead they had to look at planned revenue and expenses for 2023, when the school reaches its projected enrollment of 320 students per year and is staffed to handle them.

At that point, educating a medical student at WSU will cost an estimated $125,960, auditors said, with tuition projected to be $36,650.

In the years before that, there will be fewer students to spread the start-up costs over at WSU. That makes it hard to make direct comparisons with UW, which started its medical school in 1946, and has operated WWAMI for 40 years.