Health care is the future. Driven by an aging population and the resultant demand for health care services, employment in health care occupations is projected to grow more than in any other occupational group and much faster than the average for all occupations—16 percent from 2020 to 2030—adding about 2.6 million new jobs in that time, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
At Penn State, the result is a dramatic increase in the number of students aiming to join the next generation of medical professionals. And no matter their campus, college, or major, at one point or another in their journey toward medical school they are bound to enter the halls of the Eberly College of Science.
“Any student at Penn State can apply to med school,” said Eberly’s associate dean for undergraduate students, Chris Palma. “You don’t have to be a premed major, but you do have to complete a core set of prerequisite courses, and most of those are in our college.”
Even more importantly, Eberly is home to Penn State Prehealth and Health Professions Advising—a group dedicated to helping prepare students who are aspiring toward medical school to be the best candidates possible. And, Palma noted, this is a service the college provides for all of Penn State.
“Students in other colleges have just as much access to this opportunity as students in our majors,” he said.
Paths to Success
According to Eberly’s director of Premedicine and Science majors, Ron Markle, who works closely with Prehealth and Health Professions Advising, about 40 percent of the University’s prehealth students are from other Penn State colleges. And, he emphasized, Penn State’s prehealth advisers will work with any student, regardless of academic performance.
“If a student has fantastic metrics, great; we’ll help them with their application to really make it shine,” he said. “If they have less-than-competitive numbers, we’ll help them improve those scores and try to find the best fit for them. We don't turn away anyone.”
There are any number of paths the University’s undergraduates can take to medical school, including through Eberly’s Premedicine and Science majors. Among the careers they pursue—doctor, dentist, optometrist, podiatrist, etc.—physician assistant, Markle pointed out, is becoming increasingly popular.
The Premedicine major, he said, offers good opportunities that are “a very good springboard.” And, he explained, the Science major has an option—Biological Sciences and Health Professions—that was designed specially for students interested in becoming physician assistants. To boot, Prehealth and Health Professions Advising offers group advising sessions specifically for the physician assistant career track.
“Given the increasing emphasis on primary care and getting more health care providers active in the field,” he noted, “physician assistant is a growing career choice. And it'll only, I think, get stronger.”
Students interested in an accelerated path through medical school—and who are prepared to apply as high school seniors—can earn both a bachelor of science and a doctor of medicine degree in just seven years through the Premedical-Medical program, a 58-year partnership with the Sydney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University.
As he looks toward retirement, Markle said he is particularly proud of having well-established early admission opportunities with the Penn State College of Medicine, Rutgers School of Dental Medicine, and the Pennsylvania College of Optometry at Salus University, and scholarship opportunities through the United States Army, Navy, and Air Force Health Professions Scholarship Programs.
“We've got all of the major health professions covered,” he said.
Over his 15-plus years as director of the Science and Premedicine majors, Markle has also established personal connections with successful alumni who sponsor internships, job shadowing, and other career development opportunities for Penn State’s prehealth students, at places such as Cedars Sinai Medical Center and City of Hope National Medical Center, both in Greater Los Angeles.
“One of the best things that our alumni can do,” he said, “is if they have an opportunity in their professional life, to take on a student—even if it's just for a couple weekends a month—to let them see what it is they do, so they can make a more informed decision about whether it's the right career path for them.”
Markle said students have been taking more time to make those decisions, often spanning a gap year or even two, before applying to medical school. Of all the applicants he works with, he estimated about a quarter of them are alumni. And, he said, his counterpart at the Sydney Kimmel Medical College shared with him that over the past five years, more than half of their incoming class are not coming directly out of a bachelor’s degree program.
“This has happened all across the country,” Markle explained. “People who are going into health care professions, a lot of them are doing something else relevant to their career track for one or two years before they start. And I think it’s important for students to know that one or two gap years does not disadvantage their application at all—as long as they’ve been doing something worthwhile, not binge-watching Grey's Anatomy reruns.”
The landscape is highly competitive, and increasingly so, as Markle pointed out: over the past year, medical schools nationwide saw a 20 percent increase in applications. But, he said, Penn State’s prehealth students are also highly successful; on average, about half of Penn State’s applicants matriculate to medical school, and Eberly’s students are typically accepted at even higher rates than their peers from other colleges at University Park.
That, added prehealth adviser Marc Counterman, places Penn State’s prehealth students “well above the national average in matriculation rates to medical schools.”
On Their Side
A significant factor in these students’ success is the support provided by Penn State’s dedicated prehealth and health professions advisers. Over the past decade, explained Eberly’s Academic Advising Center director, Carolyn Jensen, the group has steadily shifted their focus from acting traditionally as “gatekeepers for the medical schools” toward progressively better supporting students’ development, “helping them be the best applicants they can.”
Key to that, she noted, is the group’s diverse expertise, encompassing scientific research, the humanities, student affairs, science education, and—crucially—medical school admissions.
“We’ve always maintained a balance between advisers with science and nonscience backgrounds,” she said, “between the scientific point of view and the student development point of view. It's really about understanding the curriculum and being concerned about the students. We’re here to help them develop and become self-actualized.”
Toward that end, explained prehealth adviser Kimberly Johnson, the group has focused on reaching students earlier and more frequently, and creating more-consistent check-ins.
“We realized that if we waited until they were in their application cycle, we’d waited too long,” she said. “We started looking for ways to reach them earlier on—so they were less in the dark about what this process looks like from beginning to end, and so they felt more on track and prepared to apply when the time arrived.”
The group has overhauled its communications, retooled existing resources, and developed new ones, explained prehealth adviser John Moses, to better target students’ specific needs at key points throughout their academic journey.
"That’s enabled us to help them in a much more efficient and effective way,” he said, “presenting the information at the time when it’s best for them to receive it.”
That increased efficiency has allowed the advisers to check in with students more frequently, Johnson added, leading to fewer surprises along the way as the students build their portfolios and craft personal narratives, participate in comprehensive interviews, and take mock entrance exams.
These changes, said prehealth adviser Melissa Krajcovic, have led collectively to a shift in students’ perception of the advisers: “We’re no longer gatekeepers. Now we're on their side, fighting their battle with them.” And that, she explained, has led in turn to students feeling more empowered, and taking more responsibility and initiative—which consequently has improved the quality of their medical school applications.
Students are also benefiting from better peer support and networking, she said, as the group strengthens its connections with health care–focused student organizations on campus; and that network is something students will take with them through medical school and into their careers as health care professionals. Krajcovic also noted that the group is working with the college’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion to further extend its reach to underrepresented groups and to educate majority groups about the diversity of needs in health care.
“All of this,” Counterman said, “allows us to better serve the students, and it’s been really effective.”
The Face of Health Care
Toward increasing critical student financial support, Associate Dean Chris Palma and Eberly’s senior director of development and alumni relations, Kim Neely, are raising funds for scholarships that will benefit students in the Science major—also one of the college’s most diverse—and others that will support more students regardless of major.
“We graduate some of the highest percentages of underrepresented students in the college from the Science major, and we have no scholarship support specifically for that major,” Palma said. “A lot of times students who start out in biology or premed switch to science; and if they had a scholarship in their original major, they lose it.”
Most of the college’s scholarships, he explained, are restricted to students in specific majors. And as today’s students are much more likely to change their focus and major than previous generations, this is a significant obstacle for students who rely on the college’s financial support.
Neely said she believes a solution is to fund more scholarships that are portable, “so that students feel like they can switch majors and they don’t put their parents’ or their own financial security at risk, and they’re not locked in a major because they’re challenged financially.”
Also working with Neely, Eberly’s associate dean for diversity and inclusion, Kristin Finch, is preparing to launch a new six-week summer bridge program in 2022 to better support incoming prehealth students from underrepresented communities.
Free of charge, the program will also award a modest scholarship to each participant upon successful completion, Finch explained, and students will get access to class support and academic advising, co-curricular programming, and opportunities for networking, while also completing a summerlong project focused on health care disparities.
“There’s going to be a lot of community building, too, over the summer,” she said. “We want students to be able to start off the fall semester already knowing people, peers from similar backgrounds, who have struggled, celebrated, and overcome together.”
Students in the program will live in the University’s First-Year in Science and Engineering (FISE) Living Learning Community, a diverse and inclusive STEM-focused residence designed to support first-year students in their transition to college, Finch explained, where they will continue to reside through their first year at Penn State.
Creating that sense of community, she noted, is essential in retaining historically underrepresented students.
“There is a body of research showing that these kinds of programs increase retention,” she said, “and so much data showing that health outcomes improve with increased diversity among health care workers. We want to diversify health care so that all communities can get the support they need to see their health outcomes change for the better.”
It’s a ripple effect, starting small with initiatives like these and spreading outward—across the University and then on into the world beyond Happy Valley.
“The most aspirational thing,” Finch said, “is to ultimately see our students go on to become doctors and dentists and others who will change the face of health care.”
The Eberly College of Science’s scholarships, advising, and diversity initiatives can all benefit from your contributions. To make a positive difference in the lives of our students, please contact Kim Neely (email@example.com or 814-863-1247) in the Office of Development and Alumni Relations.